When my husband and I decided to travel around Australia for a year with our two children, I suggested that we each make three wishes for our trip.
My three wishes were to ride on a camel in Broome (changed my mind when I saw the camels); jump out of a plane (changed my mind when I realised that would mean I would have to jump out of a plane); and sit with Aboriginal women in the desert.
I had no idea how to arrange this last one.
Fast forward to our trip, and we arrived in Darwin at the time of the annual Aboriginal Art Fair. It was such an incredible space: Aboriginal artists from many different regions selling their work, leading workshops and sharing their dreamtimes.
There was something about being an African woman among these Aboriginal women. In many ways our experiences were very different, but in enough ways they were the same.
At one of the stalls, I was drawn to a painting at the bottom of a stack; I recognised the symbols of women gathering and being together. I turned it over, and it was titled ‘women’s dreaming’, a beautiful piece by Warlpiri Elder, Biddy Timms, I connected with it straight away.
I spoke to the gallery manager, Louisa, about the community Biddy came from, Lajamanu, in the Tanami desert. She spoke about her work, and I spoke about mine, and then she said it.
“I think you should come out to the desert and sit with the women; I think you will learn from them, and them from you”.
I told her that this had been one of my wishes for our trip.
One month later, I found myself settling into the bedroom for visitors at the Warnayaka Art Centre in Lajamanu, 600km south of Katherine.
It smelt of paint and dust and stories.
The floor of the Centre was a painting in itself, covered in paint spills and half-finished canvases, the occasional brush strewn here and there, and glass jars filled with water now tinted in various colours.
I was introduced to the artists – Rosie, Sonja, Kitty, Molly, and Agnes, who reminded me of my mother.
Instantly I was welcomed. There was something about being an African woman among these Aboriginal women. In many ways our experiences were very different, but in enough ways they were the same. We had all walked in black skin all our lives, and that in itself was enough to bond us.
I sat with them for five days. I listened to stories – some painful, and some so hilarious that I cried laughing.
I sat with them for five days. I listened to stories – some painful, and some so hilarious that I cried laughing. I helped them to mix paints and move their huge canvases around when they needed to paint from a different angle.
There was the day the Police Commissioner came, and wanted to speak to the women, the upholders of the community. Agnes explained to the other women, why they needed to go and meet him: “We are going to find out why so many of our boys are in jail”. I remember thinking, we already know why. It is why my mother sent my teenage brother back to Nigeria to finish schooling. He left England disempowered from being black in the UK education system; he came back after three years in Nigeria wanting to be a lawyer.
Writing this brings tears to my eyes.
During my time at Warnayaka I learned many things. I learned that cooked blue tongue lizard is very good for you if you have a cold (I am glad I didn’t have a cold), that I was surrounded by Slim Dusty-Bob Marley lovers like myself, and that art is a way of being. Art for these women is not about making attractive pictures: it is an expression of grief, joy, pain, faith, honour and responsibility..
Never once did I feel like I was doing anyone “a favour” by being there. I only felt the privilege: a unique and humbling experience that allowed me to sit with women from the oldest surviving culture in the world.
Kemi is a life-coach, speaker and the author of Raw Beauty – The 7 principles to nourish your body, transform your mind and create the life you want.