Fiona Omeenyo: Wombs & Ghosts - Art Collector

Issue 40, April - June 2007

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Fiona Omeenyo is the latest to emerge of a group of young female artists who, from their isolated home on Cape York, have been rocking the aboriginal art scene. The group has been dubbed the Lockhart River Art Gang. Story by Ashley Crawford.

Wombs and ghosts, impenetrable forests and blazing sunsets, ritual and rebirth; Fiona Omeenyo’s paintings embrace a world that we who suffer the cities can only vaguely imagine. It is a world where family ties – including those of generations past – remain a touchstone of reality. It is a world where the dead converse with the living every day.

Omeenyo is a part of what has been dubbed the Lockhart River Art Gang, a group of young female artists who have been rocking the Aboriginal art scene for some years now. Their ranks include such rapidly emerging artists as Samantha Hobson, Silas Hobson, Adrian King and Rosella Namok.

The Lockhart River Art Gang hail from the remote east coast of Cape York in Far North Queensland, but from this isolated locale their impact is being felt around the continent. One of the things that make this group stand out is their age. Fiona Omeenyo, for all of her technical dexterity and bravura execution is only 25. Despite her youth there is a confidence in her handling of acrylic that would put many older artists to shame.

A major part of this is Omeenyo’s remarkable sense of line and space. She has also worked on screen prints, etchings and lino prints and dabbled in sculpture, but whatever she touches is infused with the gently undulating, sensuous line that has become almost a trademark.

She certainly isn’t wasting time. Since 2001 she has held 10 successful solo exhibitions at such galleries as Niagara Galleries in Melbourne, Andrew Baker Art Dealer in Brisbane, Hogarth Galleries in Sydney and Short Street Gallery in Broome and she has participated in numerous group exhibitions including three in the United States and one in Berlin.

What sets Omeenyo apart from the plethora of contemporary Aboriginal art out there is her natural sense of innovation. Every now and again a fresh gamut of creativity bursts out of remote areas such as the Jirrawan artists like Freddie Timms and Paddy Bedford and, of course, the late, great Rover Thomas and Emily Kame Kngwarreye. But these were somewhat older, senior artists – Omeenyo is a youngster.

While Omeenyo’s work looks radically different from what we may have come to expect from Australian indigenous art she remains a ‘traditionalist’ in terms of the core themes of her work. Like many other indigenous artists from remote pockets of the continent, Omeenyo’s work concentrates on such themes as family and the land and its stories. Where she differs is in her total lack of fear when it comes to experimentation. The paintings are built up and scraped back creating multitudinous layers and a remarkable sense of depth.

Omeenyo’s response to the stories passed on to her find a balance between the highly personal and the more universal mythology of her people: “My recent works are about country and stories passed on to me by my family,” she says in a statement on the Lockhart River Art Centre web site. “I like to paint about those stories … good to understand … so I can tell my kids about those story places and why they are important to our family.

Omeenyo visited Pathaco for a land claim meeting with the other Umpila tribespeople. Her daughter Franziska was only four months old when she took her along. Her Uncle Blade told her to make Franziska swim in the river at Pathaco. “He also told me that she won’t ever get sickness from other people. That swim in the river made her strong.”

When Omeenyo left school and returned to Lockhart she says she was like all the other mothers in Lockhart – “stay home … no job … get bored …” One day she was asked to work at the art room at the school. “From there my life started getting better. I thought to myself … what the hell … I’m not going to waste my life sitting at home all the time … I’m going to get out and make a name for my family.”

In 2000 when Omeenyo was invited for inclusion in the Art of Place Awards in Canberra, she asked Uncle Blade for a story about Pathaco. He complied with a story about the sea snake Miiku, which has become a cornerstone narrative of her practice. The story was recorded and transcribed at Lockhart River Arts Centre in 2001.

“A very long time ago this man named Miiku lived and roamed all his life at a place called Pathaco – Chester River Region. One night this man Pama … carried a message stick uku and gave it to Miiku … this message was carved on the uku. Miiku carefully read the message ... it was an invitation from the chief of the Parrot tribe Tinta … an invitation for Miiku to attend the wedding ceremony for the chief’s twin daughters to marry the son of the Sea Eagle Kuchuutu … the wedding will take place in two days time ... when it’s full moon. Anyway this man Miiku … think to himself … ‘The chief promise them girls for me.’ Then he became very, very angry... so he got up and started to dance corroboree mulkarri. He dance and dance until it began to rain … it rained so heavily that the tide came up and started to flood. The chief of the Tinta tribe knows that Miiku is doing this … so he called everyone to move to higher ground so that the wedding will carry on.”

Before the night of the wedding Miiku paddled in his canoe to the wedding ground. But when he got there it was deserted. The he realised they had moved to higher ground.

“As he came near the place he could hear the sound of clapping sticks. While everyone was busy … he called out to the parrot sisters … and they came towards him … he stole the two parrot sisters and took them back to Pathaco. When he got there … his humpy was washed away. He then took his canoe and paddled to the island called Me-chuthii … Hay Island. He made a grass hut there and hid the twin sisters. Whenever you go to Me-chuthii you can see that grass mound where he hid the chief’s daughters. If you poke the mound … see Miiku come out. From that day ... till today you can see the Sea Eagle … Kuchuutu … hovering from coast to coast searching for the parrot twins … Tinta twins. This is a true story … this thing really happened … at Pathaco … before time.”

In telling these stories Omeenyo’s paintings leap from sinuous line-work to dense finishes, creating an operatic sonata that soars from dark meditations on mortality through to enriching spiritual contemplation. Death haunts these paintings, but it is far from the bleak death of European tradition; it is death as rebirth, a sense of continuity, of the immortality of tradition and family. “Sometimes when I’m bored I do my best paintings,” she has said. “The feeling inside of me … I don’t know how to explain it. I just let that feeling take a hold of my hand … just put the paintbrush on the canvas and start painting away. And when I’m painting I feel happy … just like someone’s standing next to me watching what I’m doing … makes me feel strong.”

Omeenyo’s stories are a morass of adventures and dramas, of disputing tribes, about Miiku the snake, of a corroboree that causes an apocalyptic flood, of full moon weddings and the Sea Eagle Kuchuutu. They exude the myths of the land from which she hails. Her figures carry that power and poignancy with a weird grace. They are part-ET, part ghost, part Mondigliani, otherworldly spirit-figures seem as real as the land they traverse.

Fiona Omeenyo’s next solo exhibitions will be at Hogarth Galleries, Sydney from 15 August to 16 September 2007 and Emerge Gallery, Perth from 19 October to 19 November 2007. She will also be in a Lockhart River group show at Framed Gallery, Darwin from 13 July to 3 August 2007.

Omeenyo’s stories are a morass of adventures and dramas, of disputing tribes, about Miiku the snake, of a corroboree that causes an apocalyptic flood, of full moon weddings and the Sea Eagle Kuchuutu.

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