When I sat down with artist John Graham it was ostensibly just to have a chat about a major coup in his career: the commissioning of an important and imposing Indigenous artwork at the entrance to the old Carrara Stadium – now the Gold Coast Sports and Leisure Centre – in the lead up to the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Instead we jumped straight into discussing Australian identity and reconciliation.
“The Games is a great opportunity to define and redefine everyone,” says John.
“It starts locally which is a reflection on the whole country. Who are we as Australians? It’s a complicated question. Who are Australians in relation to Aboriginal Australia?”
John believes these are questions that need to be asked, and answered definitively.
“Even if it hurts, it’s very important. We’ve all got to grow up in this country, it has to be meaningfully resolved, not just resolved and rolled over.
A shared narrative is a healthy narrative.
Speaking of narratives, the impressive stadium installation tells the tragic story of Yimbun and Muyum, a tale shared by the Yugambeh people and passed down through John’s family. In it, young lovers are separated by a jealous Bunyip who turns the beautiful young Muyum into a water lily in a lagoon and her mourning lover Yimbun into a bulrush beside it, so they can be close forever but never touch. The story is quite a sad one, and I’m curious as to how John came to the decision to tell it through his art.
“I was actually going to go with another story and right at the last minute I decided that story on my way there,” he explains.
“It’s an appropriate story. It’s a ‘sometimes you win and sometimes you lose’ story, people learn that early in life, and it’s on a parallel with sports. I thought ‘I’m going to throw this love story up in front of the stadium, it’s the only one that goes with it.’
“And this country we love our sport so much it’s like a love affair anyway,” he laughs.
John was selected from a group of approximately 15 – 20 Indigenous artists, who all submitted their artistic proposals and an explanation of why they felt they should be the one to fulfil the brief. John believes his connection to the area was a strong deciding factor in the process.
“I’m a TO [traditional owner] so my blackfella blood trickles back into this very land here. My family is an extended family, they all have connections here. If a TO didn’t get it, what would that have looked like and how many unhappy people would there have been?
“Look we’re all involved, my fellow artists are all supportive of me and if it had have been the other way around I would have been supportive of whoever it went to.
“For the Gold Coast council to come to the party with our mob and throw this huge traditional story up, all Gold Coasters should not only feel proud but feel a sense that the sacred is in good hands, and not just Aboriginal hands, but in good hands. It is important that all people feel that they have a hand in holding a piece of the sacred in this country.”
John collaborated with Cairns-based mentor Brian Robinson, and consulted heavily with his family during his artistic process. The responsibility of telling such a culturally significant story to such a massive worldwide audience was certainly not lost on him.
“I have felt the stress sometimes, just a bit, and I’ve held onto the rails, literally.
A bite sized piece at a time, that’s my little Jedi trick, just relax.
From the first pen-and-ink sketch to the final artwork delivery was about two months. John recalls the period.
“Drawing and re-drawing and drawing again! Scrub that, whittle it down and throw that one away. Coming back to it coming back to it, returning back to it.
“A eureka moment was when I came up with the default Dreaming design, it’s a freestyle kind of drawing that I do that fills the background to all the panels behind the main characters. And I only came up with that at the very last minute.”
John’s artwork was then blown up and vectorised, and printed onto 30 large panels which were placed over ten pylons, three per pylon.
“I call them tri prisms,” says John.
“Pylons sounds like we’re drinking down at the wharf!”
It’s both an ambitious and important project, undertaken with careful planning and a great deal of heart. John gets quite emotional discussing the end result and his wishes for the piece.
“It’s amazing. It’s like a Dreaming landscape has been transferred to a contemporary landscape and nothing is lost. Everything is gained, everyone is coming to the party. Traditional families of the Gold Coast, City of Gold Coast and hopefully the public in general. Everyone who passes here, who lives here, will take it to heart after a while and own it.
“My hopes are that people – all kinds of people – will take to heart some of the sacredness of this country here, this Yugambeh land, and that they are allowed to come to the dancing circle and dance with us just like my cousins and brothers. Just people. Again, a shared narrative is a healthy narrative. That’s my mantra at the moment.”
IMAGE (c) Lamp Photography