Carving memories

Renowned elder and Aboriginal artist Bonny Sampi has one wish this Australia Day: to see locals ditch commercial flags, cheap merchandise and bright tattoos, and bring a visionary custom back to life.

His vision is to see Aboriginals, young and old, marching through the town in celebration, adorned in war paint and traditional dress with a spear and boomerang in hand.

“That’s Australia…that’s history,” he smiles.

It’s clear the 78-year-old is nostalgic about the old days. It shows in the expressions of his face and the blue in his eyes as he tells me about life onboard a pearl lugger, and on the Kimberley plains as a stockman. It’s also manifested in his art.

For more than five decades, Sampi has been carving intricate scenes of cattle, horsemen, luggers and other images on boab nuts.

What started out as a way to get a little pocket money from tourists, has become a lifelong passion for Sampi and an artistic intrigue for visitors to the town.

The intricate engravings, made by a sharp pocket knife, depict nostalgic scenes from Sampi’s life and an insight to Broome in the early years.

There is undoubtedly a brilliance to Sampi’s work like no other. Delicate lines, swirls and curves are starkly embedded and contrasted with the deep mocha surface of the boab nut.

His sources of inspiration, it seems, are like his memories: limitless. Sampi carves birds, animals, horses, cattle, luggers and other captivating images. And, like his memories, he says he has carved countless boab nuts in his lifetime.

Life, he says, has been good to him over the years.

“I like old Broome, not the new Broome.” It’s not hard to imagine why.

Having grown up in Lombadina, Sampi left his home and came to Broome after the second World War.

He fondly recalls working on the luggers as a deckhand, learning from his Chinese, Malay and Japanese workmates.

Even after all these years, Sampi has not forgotten life, work or even languages he picked up along the way.

As we talk, Sampi utters Chinese and Japanese phrases to prove his point, much to my amazement.

Sampi also worked as a skilful stockman spending time mustering cattle from WA to Queensland.

These days, he’s taking life at a steadier pace. But as sure as one will always find a boab tree in Broome, there will always be a nut ready to carve, and another memory ready to engrave by the talented Bonny Sampi.