26/07/2017 - 15:42

Artist in residence with Sharyn Egan

26/07/2017 - 15:42


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Sharyn Egan didn’t fully embrace her lifelong dream to be an artist until her 38th year.

Sharyn Egan’s installation on display at PICA alludes to the contradictory use of ‘Terra Nullius’ when early settlers arrived in Australia. Photo: Alessandro Bianchetti

Sharyn Egan didn’t fully embrace her lifelong dream to be an artist until her 38th year.

The indigenous painter, sculptor and collector, who has an installation featured in the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts’ latest exhibition ‘When the Sky Fell: Legacies of the 1967 Referendum’, says she was always fascinated by drawing but had been discouraged to entertain her passion from an early age.

Ms Egan was taken from her family in the early 1960s, aged three. Her new home was the New Norcia Mission where, despite not having access to drawing materials, she would draw in the sand with sticks and on concrete with the crumbled remains of bricks, or anything she could find to make a mark.

If she chanced upon a pen left behind by one of the mission’s nuns or monks, Ms Egan would draw on herself, decorating her skin with the patterns and creations of her imagination.

“We had to make our own tools, we were always getting in trouble,” Ms Egan told Business News.

“I wanted to get into arts since I was young, but I didn’t have the opportunities or guidance.

“I was (part of the) Stolen Generation and lived with people who didn’t think art was a very good way to go.

“Even a student counsellor told me ‘you can’t get a job doing that’.”

Ms Egan developed an interest in attending art school when she was 17, but was told to enrol in a graphic design course instead. However, after failing in her second year, she left study to work in a factory, and then took on various other jobs for the next 20 years.

Only then did she revisit her childhood passion for creating art.

In 1994, Ms Egan enrolled in a diploma at the Claremont School of Art, which led to completing an art degree at Curtin University in the early 2000s.

Since then, Ms Egan has experimented with oils, earth pigments and acrylics on canvas, as well as fashioning natural fibres into woven sculptures, with most of her work inspired by her own and broader Aboriginal history.

The Nullians, Ms Egan’s installation currently showing at PICA, offers a collection of Balga tree (the Nyoongar name for grasstree) sculptures of different sizes Ms Egan has collected.

Ms Egan said the sculptures, many from the 1960s-1970s, were a metaphor for Terra nullius, the Latin term meaning ‘nobody’s land’.

“I saw a piece of beautiful wood in an op shop in Narrogin, I noticed a skin quality to it; little spots like goose bumps or pores,” Ms Egan told Business News.

“I started noticing more in op shops and collecting them.

“Their dark shapes against a white background... it was like when the early settlers thought the grasstrees were Aboriginal people silhouetted on the hills with their spears, they called them ‘black boys’.

“So there’s this Terra nullius, nobody lives here, yet they are naming things ‘black boys’, something that doesn’t exist; it’s a bit of an oxymoron.”

Ms Egan hopes her installation, collected over 18 months from op shops across Nyoongar country including Albany, Denmark and Kojonup, will challenge people’s attitudes towards Aboriginal people, and represent a group who are all different and individual.

It’s a fitting piece for the PICA exhibition, presented in partnership with the Aboriginal Art Centre Hub WA, which features a range of artistic responses to the historical and ongoing impact of the 1967 Referendum that removed two discriminatory references against Aboriginal people in the Constitution.

‘When the Sky Fell’ is at PICA until August 20.


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