Boorloo/Perth artist Jade Dolman was barely out of high school when she realised her passion for First Nations art education. Through her consultancy J.D. Penangke she has run school workshops to get children excited about Aboriginal art and culture. Now Jade is working full time in large scale mural projects. Here she talks about her own Indigenous background and what she would love to see in classrooms across Australia. (NB This interview was conducted in 2016. You can read an update on Jade's career in the article Stories Of Country, Stories of Connection, published in 2022)
Where did you grow up and when did art start to become important?
I am from a Whadjuk, Ballardong Noongar/Bibulmun (Whadjuk Noongar can mean man. Ballardong is another Bibulmun nation. Bibulmun and is one preferred term as it refers to place.) Eastern Arrernte background. I’ve always lived in Perth and grew up in suburbs like Bassendean and Beechboro. I was constantly going to Mandurah because my family have always been based around there.
In terms of art, I’ve always been a really creative person. From when I was really young I was constantly working on a project. Although at school it was always sport over art. Once I finished school and thought about, “What do I want to do?” I realised I really loved creating things.
One day, I grabbed a paintbrush and started to paint. I thought, “This is really fun.” I was better at it than I thought I’d be.
That was when I started getting into art, so I’m still relatively fresh to it. It was about two years ago that I did my first painting that was a cultural expression. The more I’ve painted about my cultural and family connection, the more I’ve realised how amazing it is. It’s unique, totally different to other styles of painting. It’s so emotional, and you put your soul into it. I find that I use my art to express a lot of my emotions, it’s sort of a therapy I guess.
Have you had guides? Do you know other Indigenous artists?
I've always been surrounded by First Nation creatives. My paths have crossed theirs a lot more recently. The contact with them has been really empowering. I love knowing there are other people doing the same thing. My grandfather on my mother's side, Cedric Jacobs, created message sticks throughout his life. There are also artists on my father's side who are based in the Northern Territory.
What do you like to paint?
I like to paint a lot about water, rivers and the ocean. I feel a strong connection to water.
What are you currently painting right now?
Because I’m studying I don’t have much time to paint. Painting is something I do when my mind is free of all stresses. Then I can really put myself into a painting. Otherwise, if it’s rushed, I feel like I can’t paint to my full potential. So I tend not to paint when I’m really busy. Even just with work, it’s quite busy at the moment so I haven’t been able to do any paintings just for myself. It’s just purely commissions.
Who are the artists who have most influenced you?
I do love all the artists from the Possum family. I love the artwork. Whenever I see any of those pieces I’m like, “Wow, I’m just speechless.” I can look at it for hours on end. I went to an art gallery in Cairns and I spent two hours looking. “Wow.” I just could not believe it, I just wanted to spend the whole night there. It was so amazing. Every piece was awesome.
How has the cultural background of your parents influenced your art and your life?
Whenever I go back to Mparntwe/Alice Spring I’m always learning a lot about my culture, and learning about language. Noongar culture is alive and culturally practiced. I’m constantly doing research and trying to learn as much as I can. I am always asking my aunties and my pop, and everyone just to teach me everything that they know.
What did you learn about Indigenous culture at school?
We didn’t learn much. It was a passing topic, something that had to be mentioned. There wasn’t much about the cultural aspect, it was just about the European history and selected facts about colonisation. We touched on the stolen generation, we learnt about that in Year 8, for like, less than a week. It was just part of the curriculum. There wasn’t enough information I believe. Even today, there still isn’t enough, but it’s slowly getting better. There needs to be a lot more education in schools about the real history of First Nation people.
What are you studying at university and what’s that experience like for you?
I’m in my 3rd year and last year of Indigenous Studies and Fine Arts at the University of Western Australia. I’m absolutely loving it, they’re both things that I’m passionate about. I’m learning about my own culture and other Aboriginal cultures in Australia. I’m so interested to see the similarities across all of them, it’s quite amazing. Even with the Creation stories, there’s so many similarities. One exists on one side of the country and a similar story is way over on the other side. Over all that distance there’s still so much connection between them, it’s quite amazing. So I’m loving learning about that. Then the fine arts is also really great because it’s just teaching myself the art skills that I’ll need for the rest of my life. It’s not just based on one type of art, it’s painting, woodwork, video arts, so quite a big variety of things.
You’ve set up a business to create educational experiences that focus on Indigenous culture, how did that come about?
After I started painting, I used to just give all my paintings to my family as presents because I didn’t think I could actually sell them. Someone who I knew through friends, asked me to teach a class at Walyalup Cultural Centre in Fremantle. That was my very first time. I was so nervous, I just felt so ineligible to be teaching people about art. Once I started, after the first couple of sessions, I realised this is actually really fun. I’m not just doing it for myself, I’m doing it for my culture. It’s a great feeling.
I remember going home after the second session and thinking, “I think I want to do this for the rest of my life. I think this is something I would really, really like to do.” Then just through word of mouth, I’ve been asked to come in and teach some classes and run different workshops. Eventually it just grew, because the demand was so big that it just became a business. It happened quite naturally, and it’s still happening naturally. I haven’t had to go out of my way to promote myself at all because the opportunities have come to me which I am thankful for. It’s such a blessing. I am really privileged and appreciate it very much.
What sort of things have you learnt from the experience of being in those classrooms and doing those workshops?
I’ve learnt that the kids – all of the kids, not just Indigenous – love learning about Indigenous culture. They love it and so do the teachers. So far, there isn’t much that they learn within the classroom through the curriculum. It’s quite sad, because as soon as you give them any bit of knowledge about our Indigenous culture they just love it. The kids seem to crave it. They go home and tell their parents everything that they’ve learned. It’s really beautiful seeing them embrace the culture so much, it’s really lovely.
Really why shouldn’t they? It’s such a beautiful culture. It’s so unfortunate that the things children see about Aboriginal culture on TV don’t show Indigenous people in a positive light. There is a lot of negativity. I think slowly introducing Indigenous culture into education will make a massive difference.
Many teachers won’t have access to Indigenous artworkers like you, so what do you want those teachers to understand when they approach the topic of Indigenous art. If you could speak to them individually and give them some guidance, what would you say?
I don't think it is fair to ask non-Indigenous teachers to deliver cultural content. What is ok is to study Aboriginal artists and to understand the stories they choose to share.