Shal and I met about a year ago, like all modern day creative connections it seems, on Instagram. We came together over a shared interest in the work we were both doing and mutual friends that popped up along the way. I’ve always loved his artwork. I also love having people up north, so I told him to come visit, with an offer to take him into Arnhem Land. He said: "No way. There's crazy culture and lore out there". We didn’t know each other very well at that point, and Shal, naturally, cares about Country and the connections Aboriginal people have to it and their cultures.
But there’s no place like this place, and the people are more welcoming than you can imagine. So I persisted on my invite, and the peoples and places I could connect him to. A year later, here we are – following an amazing adventure into Arnhem Land and ahead of Shal’s fist solo exhibition in the Northern Territory.
During Shal's trip up north, I spoke to him about working with natural pigments, colour, Country, and creating the works in his show A Part of it All at Laundry Gallery. Find our conversation, below.
When you first got here, the first thing you noticed and started talking about was the colours...
Yeah it’s crazy. The colours are insane. Everything's a contrast.
I love the way that’s how you see the world: in colours. It also resonated with me, as when I write about Darwin or anywhere from home [in the Northern Territory], if you read some of my articles, I always refer to the colours. One of my favourite things about this place is the colours and how much they contrast.
Just knowing that one place can produce a whole stack of contrasting tones; the oranges and everything still feel like they're in the cool part of the colour spectrum. Everything's melted together. It doesn't feel wrong. Something so warm and dark usually doesn’t sit alongside pops of bright colour and look as amazing as this. When we stopped to look at that river on the way to Maningrida, there were purple lotuses next to orange landscapes all glowing in the bright sun.
It’s so true. I've never considered it like that – that the vibrancy stands out and doesn't look out of place. Even the blue sky against the landscape stands out differently here.
It definitely does. More so than almost anywhere I've been. I guess it's usually rolling green hills or yellow sand or whatever else... It's just so intense here.
It's so epic, isn't it? Also it's crazy because you can see it around Darwin, but then as soon as we get out bush…
It’s amplified even more. And also everything's back burnt. You're adding black. It's crazy.
It’s wild. And if you come in the wet season, the colours change again. There's an even crazier green spectrum that gets added to it all. A whole other level of vibrancy.
Are people even looking at that stuff though when they're looking at landscapes or when they go somewhere?
I think creative people do. But to be honest I've never sat down with someone who, the first thing they notice and express is the colours as you have. I mean, I've noticed them, I've grown up here, but I've never been with somebody who just looks and goes, "Wow, look at the colour". You see in colour.
How could you not? I think it's something we all noticed on that trip with how much we were photographing everything when we went out into Arnhem Land and around Darwin.
So how has being here changed how you use colour?
Being here makes me want to be a bit more bold with colour choices. I don't think I would ever make these colour choices prior... These are probably a bit more bold.
Well, these colours are amazing. I can see the sunset, and I can see the red dirt and greens of the bush.
Even this [the fabric being dyed] is something I would've overthought. But I just trusted this one. And look, they both went quite reddy-toned. I diluted the hell out of the yellow dye and tried to bring it back to yellow, but it just didn't want to go back. This one was orange. It was pretty dark and then it just went red.
The root that you collected was so yellow...
So yellow. Even when I was soaking it, the water was yellow.
And how did you like getting the natural dyes with the ladies?
What an adventure! Their knowledge is insane. That's stuff you only know when you've been here for generations. I usually work with leaves at home – and the colours vary depending on the mordants I use. But this knowledge and these colours... I can’t wait to learn more.
The master weavers and their knowledge, and the natural dye process has always been an obsession of mine since I was young. Rose taught me about the different yellows this time. I didn’t know there were two trees that have yellow root. The one I have always known makes yellow and red, but the one she taught us about is solely bright yellow. Crazy.
And driving and the ladies go: "Stop! It’s over there". It's mad. How do they even spot that? I can't even spot it when it's in front of me.
They can see the one shrub that is indistinguishable in a sea of plants from a mile away. It’s an inherent and incredible knowledge system.
It's an inherent knowledge for sure. I'm just scratching the surface of it all.
It was evident when we were hanging out with Eli last week. He is eight years old and he was pointing out things he could see from mile away because he's spent his whole life on Country with his elders.
Even his dad was pointing out that he and his little brother are especially culturally strong. They absorb it all. All those kids out there [in Manmoyi – a remote homeland of West Arnhem Land] have that foundation.
Anything else that has stood out to you beyond the colours, in terms of process?
I definitely want to start shifting patterns. Big time. It’s got me thinking. The rocks, the details in them, the veins. They are completely different here too.
For me, when I step out of my own home, which I know so well and stare at every day, if I step into something else, I can then appreciate what I have at home and I notice it more.
Agree. And I feel like I'm always trying to reference home. But everywhere we went and all the people we met were so inviting; they let me know that this is for us as well. The ladies showing me how to dye and being like, "you can dig this up". I would never do that by myself – I wouldn't even come here without being invited.
Of course. And I knew they would be like that with you. But that's Aboriginal people right? So generous. The beautiful people and my family, that I've worked with right across the Territory and everywhere, really – they're always sharing. It's always about sharing.
You respect everything and you respect each other. You respect the land and then you share it.
And it's also the way you go about learning that knowledge from someone else.
I asked. I didn’t just do it. It’s their knowledge. I will always respect that.
A Part of It opens at Laundry Gallery on on Larrakia Land in Darwin on Friday, September 29.