Nyadbi considers career and country

Gabriel Nodea
Lena Nyadbi was commissioned to create a rooftop installation for the prestigious Quai Branly museum. Picture: Jonathon Kimberley

Last year, Lena Nyadbi was commissioned to design a piece for the roof terrace of the Musee du quai Branly in Paris. Her black-and-white painting, Dayiwul Lirlmim, means Barramundi Scales and was inspired by her mother's homeland. A large-scale reproduction of the piece now fills the Quai Branly museum's 700sqm rooftop terrace.

How did you become an artist?

That old man (Hector Jandany), he told me to come and paint my country.

"You might be good hearted", he said.

I was working at the health clinic at the time and he told me to finish at the clinic and start painting. I believed him and started doing some painting.

So Hector saw something in you, and knew that you would be a special artist, that is why he told you to try painting your country.

That's right. I paint my country from Crocodile Hole to Doon Doon. This is my father's country. I don't paint my mother's country; I don't really know her country. She passed away when I was a good size (maybe 12 or 13), but she did tell me about her father's country and I paint that country, I paint Dayiwul Lirlmim (Barramundi scales).

Growing up and listening to these stories, there must have been a lot of hard times for your family, since gardiya (whitefellas) took over their land? And you would have your own experiences. Can you tell us about them?

The gardiya, they came and picked people up and took them back to the station. The gardiya was rough and taught me the proper way to work - set the table, mop, make the beds and clean up. They would pull me by the ears and make me work. I heard stories about what was happening around Australia, but I didn't take notice of those bad stories.

One of your paintings, Dayiwul Lirlmim (barramundi scales), is on the rooftop of the Musee du quai Branly in Paris. When you went to Paris in 2013, what were you thinking about when you looked down from the top of the Eiffel Tower and saw the work?

It made me sorry for my country, poor bugger. That fish, he is a long way from his country. He is next to a different river, but he is a long way from his country. I was thinking about my mother and my family. It made me sorry but it also made me feel strong and good about my country.

Were you thinking about that old man, Hector?

Yeah, I was thinking about that old man. He was clever.

When you were in Paris you met with the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce. What was that meeting like? How did you feel?

Yeah, I felt special. I wasn't frightened. I felt safe with her.

And finally, what would you like to say to younger artists?

When they finish school, they should learn about their country and learn the painting for their country so that they don't forget their own country.