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River Child

River Child by Kat Bell, created for Renmark Paringa District Hospital, SA, 2019.

So one of the things I've realised about being an artist are the ups and downs, the many emotions that come with creating a piece and then having to let it go. I've done a lot of artworks in my time, believe me (storage is a massive problem). Letting go of them, doesn't get any easier, no matter how many you do. The one consolation is knowing that they are going somewhere to be enjoyed by others. They don't get to just sit packed away, back to back in my studio or garden shed.

The last few days have been spent creating a rather large piece for a local hospital in my region. The piece was gruelling work, long hours and a true labour of love. Not just because I'm slightly chuffed with the end result, but because it has a real purpose and significance behind it. Pieces like this mean a lot to me because I get to represent my people, my culture, my heritage and my loved ones and their stories. The depth of pride and joy that goes with this opportunity is beyond words. I will however try to articulate to some extent, it's importance.

When someone asks you to create a piece, not just as an artist, but as an Aboriginal artist, there is a great deal of responsibility that comes with that. Questions abound as to whether I am the right person to do this work in this place (if it is not on my ancestral land). Will I do justice to my people and to the traditional people of this land? Will the piece appropriately represent my people and the traditional people of this land? How do I ensure I pay respect to the traditional people of this land? There are so many questions.

I have often had to say no to similar requests for Aboriginal artworks and suggest other Aboriginal artists that are of this land, to do the work in my place. I have passed on so many opportunities in fear of offending the traditional people of this land. It is not easy. However, as I ponder these questions, with age and maturity and a sterner eye on what I have to bring to this community, my home and my forever place, I am more at ease with affording myself the opportunity to create these pieces for my community.

I love the Riverland, my home, my forever place. Its beauty and tranquillity is plentiful. I often take time out to enjoy the river or bush and its native animals and flora. I don't take it for granted. It is my home, my community and I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute as an Aboriginal person. I am a strong proponent and advocate for the betterment of the lives, health, well-being and education of Aboriginal people. And with this in mind I accepted this opportunity to create a piece that incorporates Aboriginal themes and designs and is bright, colourful and welcoming for Aboriginal people. The piece titled "River Child", is similar to my piece "We are all welcome here", that was created for a local mental health service. Both organisations sought to have a piece that would give a greater sense of being welcome and safe in their "clinical" spaces. Hence the similar design and approach was taken. I hope that my pieces have achieved their goals and vision for their spaces. But more importantly, I hope that Aboriginal people visiting these spaces do feel more welcome and that my pieces in part have contributed to this feeling. Obviously, it is up to the service providers to truly make their spaces welcoming and safe for the clients/consumers of their services. My contribution is only a very small part of that goal.

In undertaking this project, I worked tirelessly to meet a very short time-frame and I have to say that I think that working under pressure (although painful) does throw up some interesting challenges and results. I knew that although the client had requested a painting similar to the previous painting, I wanted to ensure it had it's own uniqueness and story to share. Fortunately the hospital has a beautiful quilt artwork on display that I could draw inspiration from and give homage to that piece and the community that the hospital is in. This allowed me to focus on the river and my favourite locals to paint (pelicans), while still bringing into play the beautiful, vibrant, colourful Aboriginal designs that I am so fond of creating. Most importantly I got to create another beautiful bright smiley face of an Aboriginal child - and in my books nothing can top that. The smiling faces of my people are a true joy for me and being able to bring these beautiful smiles into these spaces (especially clinical spaces) is an absolute pleasure. But, with all that said, I will miss this big boy and his big smile.

A poem to accompany my piece:

Whenever I do any artwork I like to either write a story or a poem to compliment the piece or to give context to the piece. So here's my poem for the River Child. Please note, poetry is not my strong point - I just really like telling stories in different ways.

River Child – Wuru Bibunbay (pron. Woo-roo Bib-un-bye)

River child playing; the wind throws a coowee through the air.

With no time to waste, a bound, a leap, for opportunities are few; not spare.

A dip in the river, he looks beyond the reeds, towards the future.

On the river he plays, his smile like the sun that shines down on our people; the teachers tutor.

In this place, his cheerful embrace castes a warm glow across the room.

In his eyes there is a bounty of hope; not a moment too soon.

The light dances through the swell of colours; off his sun glistened strands.

For it is our young, our children, those that come after; whose dreams are grand.

On the river, he reaches for his elders, takes a deep breath, walks gently and free.

You have his love, his joy, his smile and embrace; thus it shall be.

River child, these are his stories to share, his arms to extend; running with the pelicans by the river.

You are his mother, father, brother, sister, uncle, aunty, grandmother, grandfather, cousin; his people forever.

I'd love to hear your thoughts:

  • If you are an Aboriginal artist working in a community that is not on your ancestral/traditional lands, what difficulties have or do you face?

  • How do you overcome those difficulties?

  • For any artist, how do you feel about letting go of your favourite pieces?

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