Fiona Omeenyo is a respected artist from the Umpila language group at Lockhart River which is on the Cape York region of northern Queensland. She a member of the Lockhart River Art Gang and works as a painter and printmaker. In this interview, she talks about the stories behind her art and the spiritual meaning that painting has for her.
How did you first start painting?
I started painting back in 1994.
How did you get involved?
Fran and Jeff Barker got me involved with the art. They were the first art coordinators at Rock Flat River Culture Centre.
What do you think about as you paint?
I think about family. They are very important to me. I grew up around my family and they really are cultural and spiritual people. As I paint, I like to think about them, my story, my country, the landscapes and the power of the country.
I grew up surrounded by the elders in the community. They taught us a lot about our country and our sacred areas. We’d all go fishing and camping. That’s where I get all my ideas from. My family still do a lot of camping.
Two of your paintings are called One Mob and Close Family. What do they show about the life where you live?
They show a lot about me and how I grew up with my elders. You’re surrounded by a sense of closeness. The important thing is keeping our family together and being strong for each other. That is why the family is very important to me.
I enjoy teaching my children through my artwork. I like sharing what it really means. I like showing people all my paintings and showing this side of my life. What I express in my paintings is all about me and what is important to me – how I live. I like to show people that. The painting One Mob is about one big family and community. I like to give my paintings titles that represent our community lifestyle. They show what it is like growing up in community and being around family.
What can you tell us about your painting We Are Sand Beach People?
That painting represents the East Coast and Rock Flat River before they started building the community. Everybody grew up on the beach. We live right next to the coastline, so we are basically people of the beach.
How do you feel when you’re at the beach?
I feel relaxed. I feel calm. I feel like my spirit is going into a place where I have never been before. That’s why when I come home I do painting. I can revisit that place.
I’m very spiritual. I’ve been many times back to country. That’s what I paint about. I like to show people that everything has a meaning. What I feel about my country I put it onto my painting so people can feel what I’m feeling.
A lot of people say they get a sense of that. I get a lot of compliments on my painting because I paint about family and every emotion that’s within me. I think about my land, and I think about my country, and I think about my family because now I live in Cairns. When I do a painting I take myself back to the community. I just picture myself sitting on the beach, watching the sunset and that’s when all my energy goes into my painting.
What do your people say when they see your work?
They’re really amazed and they feel the same thing – connection. They feel they’ve been to that place. They feel connected to that place.
My family are very proud. They always tell me “Keep painting. Paint about our country so people can see”. Even though they’re not standing on the land, they can feel that they are through my painting. They can see the landscape and the colours of the land.
What do the birds represent in your paintings?
In my story, Niko is a black-headed python who wants to marry Hinta, the parrot sisters. That’s why you’ll see a lot of birds in my painting because they represent my story – Niko.
How do you decide and put together the colours?
I just close my eyes and think of the beach, the sunset colours, and the landscape colours. I work with dark and light colours. I probably put down a light background with a dark top colour. It all blends with the colours of the landscape of my country.
Do you paint on your own or with other people?
I paint on my own.
Do you paint in silence or do you play music?
I like to paint in silence. Sometimes I just go and sit in the shed where I have a cup of tea. I just watch the blank canvas before I start painting just to get an idea of what paint and what colours that I’ll use. I mainly sit and meditate in quiet. That’s when all my good energy comes to me and then it goes out to my canvas.
You’ve talked about the stories your uncle told you. What are they about and how do you use them?
It’s like a love story. There’s a man, his name is Niko. He wants to marry these two parrot sisters. The parrot sisters’ father didn’t want Niko to marry them so he asks the sea eagle to marry the parrot sisters. Niko was very angry and he flattened the country. He stole the parrot sisters and took them out. This is a very powerful story for me because it’s my country, it’s my totem and whenever I’m alone I always think about my country and my story. I also think about my elders. It’s like I’m surrounded by them when I’m working and it feels like they’re talking to me.
Do you feel their influence over your work?
Yes, I feel them a lot. They’re around me. That’s why sometimes when I paint I don’t realize until the painting is done. It’s like, wow! Did I really do that? Yeah, it’s that perfect. Their presence is all around me. They give me energy – good energy. I could hear the clap sticks. I could hear people sitting around the fire and I could see them. The fire burning. That’s what it’s like for me when I start to paint.
What do you most like about painting?
Everything. It’s alive. So I like doing the painting because I love that my art is out there for people to see. Even though they haven’t met me they meet me through my paintings. It’s a joy in my life. It’s a connection to my land.
In my painting, I show all of me for people to see and feel. They can know who I am and they can see that I’m a very spiritual person. They can see how much I love the culture. How much I love the community and my people.
As an artist what would you like for the future, for yourself?
I would like to see more young Indigenous artists making a life for themselves. Some of the culture is dying now. I would like to show more of my work out there to let them know that anybody in my community can do this. I would even like to own my own gallery.
I do get a lot of young students call me up. They have interviewed me on the phone because they like what I do and I inspire them. A few schools, primary schools, have invited me to talk or do some art classes with the students. They enjoy that.
I was in Brisbane for a show and my youngest son did a drawing. A lady bought his drawing for a few dollars and he was shocked. He is a good artist too. I think runs in the blood.