Penny Evans: YiiY – A Method to Decolonise

The Yuraygir is the longest stretch of national park on the east coast of Australia and a known yet transcendent place for artist Penny Evans. Like generations of Indigenous peoples living off country Evans has experienced a sense of dislocation, and so her practice is a process of searching for connection on Ancestral land. The totemic relationships and interdependencies she notices in the environment, such as the bursting varieties of banksia and yellow tail cockatoos that cut through the sky are cues to the ‘metaphysical traces’ of her Ancestors.

The title of her new exhibition ‘YiiY – A Method to Decolonise’ affirms this with the artist adding, ‘I see and believe every being in the landscape to be sentient and treat these spirits accordingly. This body of work begins to explore my journey in the landscape, the intensity and the regenerative, cleansing and decolonising nature of immersion in him/her.’ The works on view at Grafton Regional Gallery were created with the support of the Clarence Valley Indigenous Art Award (CVIAA) 2015, also in March 2018 Evans will show another body of work at the Lismore Regional Gallery confronting the ‘domestic front’ of colonisation.

Penny Evans, In the Beginning – 12 Diamond Egg Encasements with nectar, 2017, clay, sgrafitto, cadmium glaze, handmade string, each 16 x 13 x 11cm. Courtesy the artist

Speaking to Evans before the show at Grafton we heard about her methods and motivation, which are intuitive and interactive with the artist taking photographs, recording sound, and placing objects in nature. She shared, ‘the images that I put out there are signals and they attract things, they guide my life. For me, what is real is in the landscape, truth is embedded in and from an Indigenous point of view, we are not separate from it and do not dominate it.’ Her documentation of the land has brought her particularly close to ‘her friends’ the banksia and in this show there will be at least 72 portraits of the plant in various states of composition and decomposition. Evans said ‘I visit the same banksia often and talk with them, they all beckon me and want there photos taken.’ The experience has grounded her feeling that, ‘as everything else transmutes, I am no different. As I negotiate the landscape physically and spiritually, I am changed.’

How does your practice enact a ‘decolonisation’ of the landscape?
It’s all about deep connection to country and familiarity with a particular landscape. Engaging in these processes regularly and continuously and making the work, seems to bring about synergies in my life where coincidences have been occurring. I’ve been hearing incredible stories, particularly from descendants of convicts and colonisers and people whose great-great-grandfathers were on the frontiers like mine, some engaged in massacres, some witness to them, and many related to victims of them. It is like time dissolves and we’re all near each other. We carry the trauma of our relatives and Ancestors. Engagement in the landscape can guide our healing. I embody my Ancestor’s stories, both black and white. I’m living it and I’m witness to the healing and the incredible synchronicity that can happen when one is present to Indigenous knowledge beyond the veil of western colonisation.

Penny Evans, Blue Banksia, 2017, clay, slip, copper carbonate, sgrafitto, 18 x 13 x 6cm. Courtesy the artist

Some of your titles suggest that there are cultural and perhaps personal narratives being told, can you tell us about these?
I am constantly learning about my Gomeroi cultural heritage, and have been starting to learn more of the language so this informs the work. Everything is a totem and everything has a song from an Indigenous worldview. Everything is equally as important to the whole as everything else. We are all in the dreaming.

‘Blood bowls’ are large carved fruits, which have been cracked open to show an intense syrupy glaze. This colour, and my latest hybrid pieces using pooling glazes, refers to the sweet honey laden nature of the Australian bush and also a rough hard and burnt exterior belying the fact of the life force within, until it’s cracked open – a metaphor for how our cultures were viewed from early colonisation, not understanding our rich cultural and deeply spiritual life. Now people are awakening to it more.

You’ve said that your practice is about healing. What in particular have you moved through as a result of this work?
I’m at a stage in my practice where I now feel freer than I ever have to abandon myself to it and what it means to me. I’m not trying to engage in ‘art speak’ or to be overtly political. I’m immersed in my process driven practice, which is diametrically opposed to conceptually-based practices and I don’t feel inferior because of this anymore. I came out of Sydney College of the Arts in the 1980s, where very patriarchal, male driven, theory orientated practices were dominant and encouraged to the detriment of other ways of seeing and practicing.

It has taken a while to recover from this emphasis on the intellect over spiritual and emotional intelligence. A lot of the information, which gets fed in to my brain and psyche, is transmuted through my creative process into my pieces that arrive as visual metaphors of the process. Ceramics, as a medium is very much about process. A lot happens in the process intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, physically, alchemically. All healing.

Grafton Regional Gallery
Until 9 December, 2017
New South Wales