When Melbourne plummeted into lockdown earlier this year, Gudanji and Wakaja woman Ryhia Dank was visiting family in the Northern Territory, far from her home in the city.
She couldn’t return home to Victoria, so she began to paint. Four months later and now on the Sunshine Coast, Dank is opening a colourful and modern portal into First Nations cultures.
Named Nardurna, meaning ‘woman’ in Gudanji language, the project features bold and bright visual stories that Dank calls her “storywork”, following in the footsteps of her Gudanji and Wakaja ancestors.
Dank’s storywork explores the meeting place of traditional and modern, which she said is a reflection of her upbringing. Dank grew up in “two worlds”, spending half of her time with her father’s family at the Sunshine Coast and the rest on Country in Borroloola, Northern Territory.
“It shaped me to become the person who I am today. I feel I can live in both worlds: there’s city life and bush life, traditional life. I can very easily slip into both. I can change skin,” she said.
Having grown up on a cattle station with no electricity or hot water, Dank said her upbringing exposed her to a different outlook on life.
“It’s just about knowing not to take things for granted and to accept where you’re from and to put that into society,” she said of her childhood.
Dank has always been an artist—but she sought permission from her grandmother, an Elder, before diving into painting Indigenous symbols at the beginning of the May.
“Within my family group, only certain people can paint. So, I went to my grandmother and said, ‘Is this okay?’ She said, ‘Yep, go for it.’, because I’ve been through ceremonies and lived on my land. I grew up with it. Every day of my life I am Aboriginal,” Dank said.
“It’s crazy. I did this painting for a friend and then decided to start an Instagram account, and all of a sudden all of these opportunities have come to me.”
“I was approached by [Top Teacher] to design NAIDOC alphabet cards, so that was pretty cool. I am also working in collaboration with a haircare company and am in talks with some massive retailer chains, which I can’t say much more on just yet.”
Despite these achievements, Dank feels most rewarded by the way her artwork is sparking interest and understanding of First Nations cultures and people.
Having amassed over 5,000 followers on Instagram, Dank said she’s had a lot of support from non-Indigenous people wanting to learn.
“When there are issues going around, for instance the flag, I get these messages asking, ‘Can I have your opinion? What’s happening?’, like they aren’t fully aware of what’s going on. I’m giving them a small bit of education and they’re willing to listen and learn,” she said.
She also believes it has a lot to do with the way her artwork lingers between modern and traditional.
Dabbling in digital art has been a huge learning curve for Dank, who feels the medium offers a unique opportunity for people to relate to and understand First Nations cultures.
“People see digital art as cool and different, so by putting Indigenous art into the new technology, people can understand it more. I feel like they’re more open to learning about my culture through digital art because it’s not in your face,” she said.
“If I can slowly incorporate the ‘pretty side’ of Indigenous culture, they might be willing to learn the real side of it.”
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Back on Country, Dank’s family is in awe of what she has achieved.
“I showed my work to my grandmother who said I could paint—she can’t believe it. She thinks it is amazing. But she’s very traditional and speaks very little English, so even getting her to understand the level of opportunity I’ve received is difficult,” she said.
To view Dank’s work, visit her on Instagram at @nardurna.
By Imogen Kars