Jarra’s heritage is Boon Wurrung and Wemba Wemba, as well as English and Scottish. She has spent over 15 years traveling on and off around the world, visiting art and design cultural hubs. In 2016, she spent a year in Paris, France on a cultural exchange where she spent her time building her skills and gathering inspiration from her travels. For the last few years, she has been doing creative, cultural consultation and RAP (Reconciliation Action Plan) artworks on many projects in and around the Melbourne CBD including taking over the Metro Tunnel hoardings in City Square and her recent project created during isolation entitled Yirramboi Resilience in Isolation 2020.
Maria Argyrides (Campaign Manager, ACMI) sat down with Jarra to talk about her story, what inspires her work and crafting her NAIDOC Week piece entitled Tjanabi, meaning to celebrate.
Maria Argyrides: Could you tell us a little bit about your artistic journey and what sparked your passion for multi-disciplinary art?
Jarra Karalinar Steel: My artistic journey has been a long and winding road with a lot of side paths, dead ends and some hacking away to create my own path. For a long time I followed paths that were still creative, like fashion design but they were paths that others wanted me to take.
Although I’ve always been making art, it wasn’t till after my year abroad 4 years ago where I was clear about the only thing I ever wanted to be which was an artist.
I’ve always had a passion for the arts from a young age. I was one of those gallery kids that run around annoying everyone with along with my twin brother and cousins. I grew up around the Melbourne First Peoples art scene of the late 80s/early 90s and mum would bring us to the events. But my true love of art has to come from family friend and ground-breaking artist the late Ellen José. Going to her house in Richmond was some of my fondest memories as a child. Her studio was like magic, when ever I smell paint I think of her.
The reason for Multi-disciplinary art, is I have a varied set of skills and I love learning new skills. I like the freedom of not being restricted by one medium. And truth be told, I get bored easily.
MA: A lot of your work incorporates nature and your First Peoples heritage, could you tell me a little more about what inspires you?
JKS: Nature has always been something that inspires me, my twin brother and I were a mix between country and city kids. A lot of my childhood was spent in the bush, visiting mum’s family, learning from them about hunting and fishing and respecting our lands and people. We had road trips up and down the east coast of Australia.
There are some personal connections I have to particular plants and animals. Wattle for example is my namesake. Jarra Karalinar means "wattle tree woman" which mainly has origins from my Wemba Wemba heritage. Wattle is also a symbol of when the old people die in our culture. We could never have it inside. I personally have been working over the last few years to change its narrative a little as I see it as Life and death.
What inspires my work could fill a library. But the main ones are: nature, identity, belonging, memories, folklore from my cultural history, bright colours, travel, videogames and my dead art heroes. Lately I’ve been looking into Indigenous Futurism.
At times I have battled doing works that draw from heritage; I’m not one for boxes or labels and in art institutions you are never just an artist and usually are grouped as “the other” in an art gallery. Many times I’ve been asked to do “traditional art” just because of my heritage, every time I refuse.
I’m also passionate about advocating for Self-Representation of Victorian First Peoples Art and Culture.
MA: The piece you’ve created for us for NAIDOC Week is absolutely beautiful and truly represents your artform. Could you dissect the piece for us and explain what all the elements mean?
JKS: Thank you, that’s sweet of you to say, I’ve really enjoyed making this work. The background is a digital trace of a lino cut I made for this project, influenced by Kulin design but done free style. The colours I use are colours that attract the eye. I’m inspired by the history of dayglo colours in clothing and making the invisible, visible. Sometimes it feels like that Australia doesn’t want us to be truly visible or to see our truths. Magenta holds a particular fascination for me as an impossible colour, that the visual cortex of the brain constructs. I see magenta as a representation of the imagination.
The flora motifs are:
Kangaroo Flower: a native fruiting plant that has medicinal properties and is connected to the women.
Pigface: Also can be bush food, the magenta colour of pigface flowers draws me in. I’ve also been fascinated by the stories of fields of magenta around Melbourne that use to bloom every spring.
The Walert Murrup (possum spirits) are from my first exploration of creating future folklore using digital 3D work intended for Augmented reality.
The bust is a representation of the importance of the Matriarchs in my family. The strong, intelligent and beautiful woman who inspire me everyday with their lifetime of work done for community.
MA: The piece combines so many facets of mix media art, from the 3D renders to illustration. Could you tell us the process of creating this specific piece?
JKS: When I was asked to do this work for ACMI, a rolodex of ideas ran through my mind’s eye. And apart from some basic elements of wanting a pattern background and the NAIDOC statement, and it had to be bright and colourful.
I typically will create a work in my head and sit with it for a little while. It wasn’t till I sat at the computer, played a little and got frustrated a little, I reflected on the work I had created this year. Work that really got me through this year. I wanted to celebrate those and bring in my personal iconography.
Because I’m new to working in the digital 3D realm and because I’m self-taught, there were limitations to what I could do with this work and it was a lot of trial and error, but sometimes that’s half the fun. Problem solving work arounds. I think also the best part of creating something on the computer is that you can easily try things and play around with no mess or fuss.
I’m inspired by the history of dayglo colours in clothing and making the invisible, visible. Sometimes it feels like that Australia doesn’t want us to be truly visible or to see our truths.
MA: The NAIDOC Week theme this year is "Always was, Always will be", a very strong and impactful message about First People culture and history. What does this statement mean to you?
JKS: When I hear “Always was, Always will be” I can hear the chant so clearly in my head and I’m transported back to my childhood, attending land rights marches and the NAIDOC Week march. I can’t help myself but end the statement with “Aboriginal land!”. What it means to me is a reminder that there still is a lot of work to do.
MA: As a young, female First Peoples artist, do you have any advice for young creatives trying to break into the Melbourne art scene?
- Firstly be kind, kind to others and kind to yourself
- Always use PPE when required for your work
- Make your physical and mental health a priority
- Remember you are on your own journey; don’t waste your energy comparing yourself to others. Other artists are not your competition; sometimes those artists can be your biggest supporters
- Don’t live in a bubble
- Learn things that are outside your comfort zone
- Travel overseas whenever possible (when we can again)
- Find a balance for life and work.
MA: Do you have anything coming up on the horizon for us to watch out for?
JKS: I have RMIT’s virtual grad show coming up this month, I’m not as involved as I like due to work commitments but I’m looking forward to seeing and celebrating my fellow Masters grads works.
I am going to be looking in to upskilling my digital 3D skills and look in to doing more Augmented reality projects. Possibly some collaborations next year.
Truth be told, after the whirlwind of this year, I really am hoping for some down time. It won’t last, but I will try.