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‘A celebration of blackness by queer black artists’

Boomalli’s 2024 Mardi Gras exhibition, My Sovereign Black Body, explores First Nations identity “stripped back to the basics”. Curated by Wamba Wamba man Steven Lindsay Ross, the show is “a reclamation of our skin and bones and essence, of the beauty defined by our own eyes and by Country, kinship connection, song, culture and dance – it is a celebration of blackness by queer black artists”.

Exhibiting artists include Jeffrey Samuels, Jasmine Sarin, Ella Noah Bancroft, Hayley Pigram, Peta-Joy Williams, Kyra Kum-Sing, Kirilly Dawn, Dennis Golding, Jessica Johnson, Nioka Lowe-Brennan, Nola Taylor, Graeme Walker, Nathan Frank, Peter Waples-Crowe and Nebbi Boii.

Nioka Lowe-Brennan is the daughter of a Dunghutti-Birripi woman and artist, and a Gomeroi man who was both a poet and musician. She grew up on Gadigal, Wiradjuri and Dharawal land. “Culture and creative practice were the strongest elements of my life while growing up,” she says.

Nioka’s painting, “Barrier Breakthrough”, is a stunning acrylic on canvas. There’s a drama to it – the blues, the sea, the fish, two dancing figures, fabric and patterns …

“When I started the piece, my thoughts were to create something that was acknowledging Gadigal people and country,” the artist explains. “I moved away from Sydney at a young age, then came back and everything fell into place. I wanted to honour a sense of community. It wasn’t a conscious thing, it just kind of happened that way.

“My whole family had been coming to Redfern for generations, like so many displaced First Nations people. I did the same thing.

“When I was living in Wollongong, I’d come up to Redfern for dancing. That was with Aunty Rayma Johnson, a Wiradjuri woman, and the Budja Budja Dancers – contemporary and traditional dance, which I loved.

“The story of the painting is about recognising traditional people in modern times. I included the harbour as a way of saying the traditional custodians are still here, there’s still a community here and it’s thriving.”

The mood of the painting is uplifting, defiant.

“At the time I painted it, I was listening to ‘Treaty’ by Yothu Yindi as a way to find strength during the referendum. The song informed the painting somehow and is part of the reason it was important to me as an Aboriginal person, sensitive to being a visitor on Gadigal land.

“I’ve always been really into art. It was very normal for us to be painting at the kitchen table. My mum became a member at Boomalli and that really inspired me. I knew I wanted to work in the arts, so after completing a TAFE course, I had opportunity to become a gallery assistant at Boomalli. That gave me a lot of inspiration, just being around art all day, getting so much encouragement and love from the group.

“I was 18 then, I’m 22 now and my love for painting has grown (I also used to do photography and sculpture). I’ve started seeing myself as an artist, and art as a means of storytelling.

“I usually paint at home, after work, or whenever the inspiration comes. I try to do it as much as possible.”

This is the artist’s third show with Lindsay Ross. “It’s been a formative experience,” she says. “I sort of had this moment [during the first show], realising that mob have always been a part of Mardi Gras. I felt their strength.”

Nioka will curate next year’s show. “Boomalli supports me so much,” she says. “I’m so excited. It means a lot.”

My Sovereign Black Body
at Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-op, 55-59 Flood Street, Leichhardt, until April 13.

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