I was born on the border of my country – that’s Wiradjuri Country (in Central NSW) in Sydney. When I was three my parents followed my maternal grandparents up to the Sunshine Coast. My grandfather, when he was coming back from WWII spotted the Glasshouse Mountains and Noosa and fell in love. He hitched a lift with the army, it was a training base for the army around there. That’s how I ended up there.
It wasn’t my country but I had a strong connection with this Kabi Kabi country because I was there from the age of three till 17. I was couch-surfing from about 12, and I was on the streets for a long time after that.
The energies of that country and the ancestors of that country actually kept me alive as a young fella because it was pretty dangerous at home for me. There were firearms, and both my parents were relentlessly abusive – it was safer for me not to be there which was easier in summer but in winter it got dark early, and cold. It was then that I could feel and see the energies of country and ancestors of country and it was terrifying.
However, I realized – though it never really stopped being terrifying – but I began to get the understanding that they were actually looking after me.
My art career really didn’t start till 2011 – though I won an art competition at Buderim Primary School (Sunshine Coast) in Grade One in 1969. I was presented first prize by the artist Sam Fullbrook (a former Archibald Prize winner), but then I was brutally rewarded for it. My parents wondered “where did you get that”. They thought I stole it so I was treated accordingly.
I’m a Wiradjuri man, my country is around the Bathurst area. The connection to our country is everything to us. It all comes back to country – it makes me healthy, it educates me, my ancestors help me.
It’s hard to explain the process that happens to us when we’re in the country preparing our cultural works. Because art to us is not about decorations on the wall, it’s about stories, they’re all stories.
I hadn’t been to Wiradjuri country till about 2011 or 2012, I’d just driven through it. I didn’t know the stories, the geography, the people. And I started painting these pictures which were later confirmed by my elders to be the stories of colonisation around Bathurst, of massacres between 1823 and 1827. That’s when they declared martial law on the Wiradyuri people, that was 1824.
The European idea of how we work with our ancestors is that our ancestors are different from us. But that’s not right, it’s not so much that we’re a conduit for our ancestors, it’s that our ancestors are actually within us, their stories, they’re in us all the time, the stories come out of us but we don’t know how they got there.
Nowadays I’m incredibly blessed – I get to go out on my country with my elders and have the honour to produce work. With Covid, travel was restricted, but now I travel there maybe six times a year. The sky’s different, everything’s different, it’s just home. I get properly homesick in the city (Birrunga lives in Brisbane) – like a lot of blackfellas.
I carry a man-bag, this is how I cope with homesickness. I’ve got containers of ochre from on country and a particular stone given to me by an elder – I’ve always got this bag with me everywhere.
There are particular areas of the country that mean most to me because there are song lines there. Like Wahluu, our mountain – which has a racetrack going round it called Mt Panorama (the site of car race, Bathurst 1000). It’s our sacred mountain – it’s where the boys whose law it was to become elite warriors, that’s where their mothers took the boys along a path around the front of the mountain and handed them over to the warriors.
Those song lines are so powerful, I’m hyper-aware when I’m there, you talk about 3-D, well, here everything is 4-D.
I’ve been overseas a bit but there’s only one country we feel our connection to, and that’s here. I spoke to (iconic Aboriginal musician) Archie Roach about it because he’s been everywhere – and he said ‘I take a small stone from the country and I put it in my pocket and I just roll it round and round if I’m homesick. I do the same.
This article originally appeared on Escape and do not necessarily represent the views of australiaexploring.com