Damien Shen draws from his Ngarringeri and Chinese heritage making powerful images that reflect the complexities of race and identity in Australia. He’s “interested in the Coorong region, work that relates to the stories my family has about their early memories of growing up on the Raukkan mission in the early 50s”. An accomplished story-teller, he will work with Mt Gambier artists, producing tintypes through a travelling interactive project involving local communities.
Profile image: Brent Leideritz
I grew up in Lane Cove in Sydney in what you could describe as a pretty dysfunctional family. I am the middle kid: my sister is two years older than me and my brother is four years younger than me. Mum abandoned us when I was eight.
Dad brought us up while working in the Commonwealth Bank and when he retired after forty years they gave him a gold-plated watch. Although Mum disappeared from the immediate family circle, by the time I was in my early teens she’d moved nearby into a little rental property in North Sydney, and my sister and I lived with her there on and off. During the early 1980s my sister and I spent a lot of time hanging around Darlinghurst, partying and clubbing going to parties and hanging out, so it was convenient to drop in on her because we were in the area anyway.
During school holidays Dad used to drive us kids down to south west New South Wales to stay with his elderly mother. We called her Nana in Narrandera. It’s in Wiradjuri Country and the mighty Murrumbidgee River runs by it. We’d spend the summer holidays in Nanna’s old house with no modern facilities. It hadn’t changed since the depression era. She had an old wood stove and all their old furniture from when Dad was a boy. original furniture from the 1930s. They were the poorest white people in town and I still remember her fear of “the blacks” although I had no idea what she actually meant by it. Ironically, I was later to discover that that side of my family were also of Gomeroi descent. I can remember us all sitting on the floor in front of the wood stove when we were kids taking it in turns shaving the bunions from her feet.
It was the early 1970s and Narrandera had two pools - a modern chlorinated pool that they built next to the river pool. We used to swim in both pools when we were there, but I noticed that the local Aboriginal kids stuck to the river pool.
In those days people would shut up about being Aboriginal if you could pass for white. My Mum’s Dad - my Pop - used to take us on his boat up the Hawkesbury from Brooklyn to Dangar Island when we were little. I feel a strong connection and longing for that river from those times. His boat was called Bengerang. It took me twenty years to understand certain connections: we found out that the name of the property that Pop’s family settled on near Moree called Bengerang. He didn't talk about his Gomeroi identity – he was just trying to get by – to survive, and all these years later I realised that he’d left all these little clues that pointed to his ownership of and pride in his Kamilaroi heritage. My Dad was also born in Kamilaroi country, at Narrabri. Because Mum had walked out when we were kids, I lost contact with her side.
I wasn't aware of my Aboriginal heritage until I was in my late teens – when we were hanging with people out drinking they’d be talking about their roots – where they came from - and how it mattered to them. That talk was confronting for me… it made me aware that there was a lot about who I was that I didn't understand. In 1985, I went to East Sydney Technical College (which is now called the National Art School) and later Sydney College of the Arts, where I majored in ceramics. This was where, through my arts practice, I really started to connect with my cultural heritage.
The evidence of connection came around the Bicentennial in 1988, when my Mum’s cousin Stan threw with a whole lot of paperwork into our laps. He was, and still is, a mad genealogist. We were Aboriginal, Kamilaroi, through my Mum’s side. After that I began reading everything I could get my hands on to find out as much as I could about the real history of New South Wales. I looked at the Aboriginal language maps which showed tribal names and boundaries. I began to understand our family story in the context of our true history through the journey of my convict great grandfather who, when freed, headed out west to near Mungundi where he married my Gomeroi great-great -grandmother and established Bengerang station.
At art school during the late eighties there was a lot of drug abuse. I was right in the middle of it all, but no matter how wasted I got I always kept working – it was my way of processing ideas, images, fears. Australia was in a state of turmoil at the time – topsy-turvy with the emotions the bicentennial ‘celebrations’ had exhumed, but I kept on drawing at home.
I could probably describe myself as fairly psychotic during this period from self-medicating to cope with the waves of realisations about the brutality of the frontier massacres as the horror of what had happened to our people became crystal clear in my mind.
The insights kept moving closer to the personal when I realised that my great-great grandmother Caroline Carr had survived one of the many massacres. It was as if the inherited trauma of generations of suffering had taken lodging in my own body.
Gudrun Klix who was the head of the Ceramic Department at Sydney College of the Arts helped me through this period by encouraging me to realise that I really was an artist. Even so, I was just getting through by the skin of my teeth mainly as a result of the amount of time I was absent from classes. She could also recognise the reality of Australia at the time and could see the connections between the history, the events and my own behaviour– the fact that two centuries of official denial of the Aboriginal occupation of the land prior to 1770 had forced me into a position as an outsider.
Miraculously, I finally did graduate from art college even though I was suspended for taking too much time off during my final year and had to show just cause to get back into the institution again. No matter whether I was attending the institution or not, I’d kept working on my art. I’d moved around, living in squats and with a range of different groups of people, but I kept on making things in whatever circumstances I moved into. I’d pick up whatever I could and use it. At times I’d collect odd bits and pieces of wood and started carving, a meditative process I greatly enjoy, and a way of working that has continued into the kind of decorative ceramic work I do today.
After College I moved to a studio-workshop/store in Enmore Road with a friend. I worked there for eight years. We were prolific, and the work ethic we developed refined the way I still approach my art practice today. That period was like an apprenticeship on production and design for me. All the design work on the ceramics was carved. Before it all fell apart, Alana Rose and Gavin Flick, two Kamilaroi people from Moree came into the shop and asked whether they could commission a line of ceramics. They ran GAVALA, the first Aboriginal cultural centre at Darling Harbour, an extremely successful enterprise for which we produced the Kamilaroi Ceramics Collection for the Sydney Olympics.
Around the same time (1999) I met a Kamilaroi man who took me on my first trip to country. He taught me cultural protocols and took me to Gil Gil Creek where my great-great grandmother Caroline Carr, my great great grandmother was born in 1846. When we were there we lit a fire and I was encouraged to ‘speak out loud’ to her. I loved being on country. Later in town I had people recognising me and asking if I was stolen generation I had a complete breakdown a while after that time and ended up spending twelve months in The Buttery – a residential drug and alcohol rehab and therapeutic community near Byron Bay. When I got out I headed to Lismore to attend the Gnibi Indigenous College that’s part of Southern Cross University. Before I’d gone to rehab I’d read Trauma Trails by Professor Judy Atkinson, who ran Gnibi. The way her book explained trans and intergenerational trauma helped me to understand my own experience and the way I felt.
I started a Bachelor of Indigenous Studies at the University of the Southern Cross, but left after two years when I became pregnant with my first son Solomon in 2005. My second son Stan was born in 2006. I was very pleased to have given birth to those two boys having had two miscarriages prior to conceiving Solomon. After about five years my relationship with the boys’ father dissolved. At that time I was offered a job teaching ceramics to Aboriginal students at Lismore TAFE (Tertiary and Further Education). This was a very productive and connecting time for me. The boys were settled into good sleeping routines and this was when my art practice began to re-flourish. I was feeling more connected to my own culture and I was blossoming – producing work through stitched imagery on paper, collage on cardboard, and lots of experimental approaches that I constructed into books, many of which are now in our state libraries’ rare books collections. One is titled Proof and another Mapping Genealogy, a variable edition of five books.
During the three years I taught at TAFE I’d managed to buy an old gas kiln from Ballina as the urge to return to ceramics had resurfaced. I also had a big old wooden house in Lismore with plenty of rooms that could be used for studio spaces.
My sister had moved to Moree in 2004 and when I visited her I was able to reconnect to people and country whilst also making many connections with local contact with local Gomeroi people who were living in and around the Northern Rivers. At the time Arts Northern Rivers established various programs with funding, which facilitated connections through a series of workshops and programs.
During that time, I met Burri Jerome – an Aboriginal artist who made a profound impact on my understanding and knowledge of culture, identity and the importance of connecting with and caring for country. When we met, I’d been taking my kids to Hat Head for holidays. Unbeknownst to me this was where Burri had grown up and knew all the Dreaming stories for that country through his Mum. Burri was a deep-thinking philosopher and a phenomenal story teller who described how, as a child, his mob walked the New South Wales coast from Brisbane to Wollongong, staying in various camps and avoiding the mission system. I began producing my Gorrogarah Binjul series of ceramic diffusion ware– designs that grew from Burri’s stories about the waters of that area, and also from my own sense of connection to that place. We were very close until sadly he died at the age of sixty-four in April 2017. He was an Aboriginal philosopher who had a deep understanding of western and other cultures – a Renaissance man whose name is widely respected in this area.
The ceramics design work I have produced has been commercially successful, and regrettably, to some extent I feel that this success may have negative repercussions on how I’m recognised as an artist. I am concerned, therefore, that my production should always be considered as emerging through conceptual and cultural responses, even though it has functional value. My connection to identity evident in my designs connects with history, place, the present and the future. I am a maker – I think through my making. The work I produce is the tangible evidence of this process of connection.
In the last few years the frequency of my trips to country have increased – last year on the Spring Equinox a group of seventy Gomeroi women met at Booberra Lagoon near Bogabilla to connect with each other on that very special site. We learned about bush medicines, painted up, danced together and made connections through our various family lines to place. The environmental degradation as a result of agricultural practices and water theft on our country is distressing – so much of our water has been taken by the cotton farming and Bengerang Station is now a huge cotton farm. We are gathering again this year at Boobera – it’s incredibly important for a sense of connectivity to country and each other and being there transcends all the politics and issues that relate to our identities as decolonising peoples.
I am currently creating a body of work for the Indigenous Ceramic award at Shepparton Art Museum about freshwater mussels that I’m calling, “Because you swallowed it hook, line and sinker”, referring to these damaging agricultural practices that need to stop on our country. Entire ecosystems are in a state of major collapse. The freshwater mussels were one of the main sources of food for our ancestors evidenced by huge middens and also very important food sources for birds and animals. They provide a natural filtration system for Opur rivers and importantly were also used in ceremony.
My boys are now twelve and thirteen and they’ve just been out to our ancestral waterhole for the first-time last year. This waterhole near where Nanna Caroline Carr was born is surrounded by many scar trees. It’s like a time capsule from our past – our ancestor’s camp ground near their bora - is surrounded by carved trees – it’s a tiny time capsule from the past – it’s part of our song line that runs out to Narran Lakes past Walgett which is also very dry now. The impact on our country distresses me on a daily basis. Connection to country, my people and my culture is fundamental to my journey through this life as an artist.
What makes where you live and work different? (to a metropolitan area/to other regions you’ve experienced)
Living in Northern New South Wales is much quieter and easier to negotiate; it allows me plenty of time to work uninterrupted in my studio as there are way less distractions than in the city. I am closer to my homelands so it’s much quicker and easier to get on country – to places like Mungindi, Garah, Boomi, Moree and Bogabilla. I’m also much closer to many national parks where I regularly camp with my children.
What might make it difficult?
Not having easy access to museum and art gallery collections in the major cities. Missing all the city has to offer culturally. When we flood in Lismore it can also be very difficult.
And what kind of benefits are there?
Clean air, space, time. Easier to bring up kids. Simpler lifestyle. Less choice can be good.
Do you think your galleries and the artistic communities around them (the artists, designers, arts workers, volunteers) have shaped the local community? To what extent?
We have a very creative community in the Northern rivers and a fairly diverse demographic for a regional area.
Did you ever envision yourself living and working in a place like this?
I spent the first 35 years of my life in inner city Sydney so did not see myself living in Lismore at all - although I always had a fantasy about going bush and didn’t realise it.
How does it feel now?
I’m settled here now with pretty good studio set up that there’s no way I could afford in Sydney.
Is it cheaper to live in the regions?
Do you think it’s important to ‘get out’ and come back in again?
Not necessarily. With social media I get to see what’s going on in the cities.
How important are region-to-region contact and relationships?
This is very important for Aboriginal people. We migrate regularly back and forth regionally.