Sonya Edney is an Yingarrda-Wadjarri artist from the Gascoyne region of Western Australia. She launched her first sell-out exhibition at Japingka in 2019 and this was repeated in 2021. Sonya's powerful work gained more widespread acclaim when featured in a major multi-media presentation, Seven Sisters, at the Western Australian Museum Boola Bardipin 2020. In 2023, Sonya's work again captured public attention at another high-profile event. Her art was featured in a spectacular drone show, First Lights — Nyinggulu at the drone show at Cardabia Station, as part of the Dark Sky Festival in Exmouth during the time of the Total Solar Eclipse. In this interview, Sonya discusses the Exmouth experience and her upcoming fourth solo exhibition at Japingka Gallery.
First Lights — Nyinggulu
Can you describe the April Exmouth Solar Eclipse event, First Lights — Nyinggulu presentation? For someone who wasn't there, what was that first drone show like at Cardabia Station? What were your feelings as you watched your work presented in that way?
It was amazing. The drone show began with just the sound of boomerangs tapping together. Then up came the lights of the drones in waves, which formed into the spirit. This is the story about the spirit world and the creation of the universe and how in the beginning, there were no birds and there was just silence.
The narrator went on to tell the story about the Jirndarl and Willarda, the sun and the moon and what the world was like before the first eclipse happened. She was telling it like a love story. How these two came together and made love, and that is how the stars came to be born.
At that point, the drones formed a circle and came together. The narrator was telling the story and singing in traditional language. The lights of the stars coming together and moving apart. Telling the story of how she was pregnant and then all the stars were born. Those stars formed the shape of a huge whale shark in the night sky.
And then they talked about the whale shark, about the universe, that it belonged to him. And she, Jirndarl, was the mother. It was just about this Dreamtime and Dreaming in the spirit world. That's the whole story about the Dreaming.
Is there any aspect of the event that took you by surprise?
The drone images were just like how I painted on the canvas. I paint about the stars, about the Dreamings and seeing my artwork being taken up to the next level, going up with the drones into the night sky, it was just unreal. It was just mind-blowing. I felt overwhelmed that I'd achieved so much in my life as an artist, as a visual artist, by just drawing.
I didn't expect that the presentation would happen like that with the story. There were lights reflecting on the hill. It was out in the station, but it was when the drones were on top of the hill, there were caves and things like that, and light was shining on the rocks. It was similar to how I do my paintings. I was amazed by it. It is something I will never forget.
When these high-profile events feature your art, how does it affect you and your work?
It inspires me more. As soon as I got back from Coral Bay, Cardabia, and Exmouth, the first painting I did was about that solar eclipse painting. That's what I created. It was the feeling of being out there, seeing the drone show and seeing the eclipse.
You started painting at home in the Burringurrah community, and now your work is featured in high-profile events like the WA Museum and First Lights - Nyinggulu. How has life changed for you, and what has stayed the same?
It changed a lot as I got older. I painted all my life in all different mediums, just working with other artists, living up there up in the Pilbara and Mid West, and just doing paintings at home. Sometimes you're painting just to get by. 'Cause I never had much money then. And then just to help my family. And I said, "Well, I'll do a painting, and we'll get some food." So I did things like that, and so I just said, "Oh, wait there, I'll come back." And then I came back, and we went shopping.
But now, just in these five years, Japingka has opened the doorway. They taken me from living out in the bush to where I am today. A lot of people want me to do projects here and there. There's got to be one person in the family that's going to achieve all these things. And I've achieved a lot in my life. I've been through so much, and you don't expect this to happen. It's like a dream, like a dream come true. I'm still believing in myself, and I'm looking forward to doing more.
This video is republished with permission from Fremantle Biennale. Production co-presented with the Baiyungu Aboriginal Corporation as part of the Jamba Nyinayi Festival and Tourism WA as a part of the Dark Sky Festival.
Exhibition – Yingarrda Waterholes and Wildflowers - 26 May - 5 July 2023
How do you describe this next exhibition to your friends and family?
I tell them it's about the waterholes, the waterways, the flooding and when the wildflowers are out with all the blooms. Growing up out in the bush, you see all that. You swim in the little creeks and the waters. It's just living out there and growing up out there that those places stay with you. Now that I think back, I feel I was supposed to be out there and experience all that to become the artist I am today. To have everybody looking at my work and seeing those places through my eyes and feeling the emotions of my journey.
What can you tell me about the significance of these waterways? Do they have traditional stories attached to them?
Yes, along the Lyons River, there's a big snake or serpent that lives in there. You have to chuck the sand in to respect the waters, the place where you're going to swim and where you're going to fish. When you throw sand or call out to the ancestors, you are letting them know that you will respect them and catch some fish there.
I learnt to do this as a kid, and I still do it to this day whenever I am near a body of water. It's very spiritual out there. It always has been. You can really feel it when you're there.
In 2020, I went out on to country during the making of the Peter Salmon documentary. There were about 65 of us all went out there. We went to Edithana Pool, and as I was standing beside the river, I could see that it was bubbling. You could see little bubbles all along the river. It was that one, the spirit. It was him, and he was moving, 'cause strangers going there. So I chucked my sand in and old Peter Salmon, he's sang out and called out to the ancestors, welcoming, that we're going to respect, just visiting.
Then the big wind came, the wind just blew out of nowhere, it just blew. This was on a day of 45-degree heat up there. Then the water became calm all of a sudden. It was a powerful thing to experience. But I always throw my sand into any rivers that I go to as a sign of respect to the ancestors from that place.
Can you describe the feeling when you finished a painting and you feel happy with it? Can you tell me about that?
It's like I'm doing the painting, and I'm thinking about what I'm painting, and then I paint with my feelings. Sometimes I'm painting when I had family losses and things like that. I start painting, and then I start to feel good, and I stop and stand back. When I finish it, I just have this feeling. It's like a rush feeling, like a happy feeling inside me that it's completed, the painting is completed, don't do any more to it. But if there's something I don't feel right about, like the last painting I've done of the solar eclipse, I finished everything, but there was something that wasn't right. So I went back and did it. And there it was, this good feeling. Spiritual.
What do you hope people get from your work?
I'd like them to feel a positive energy from my art and what I put into it. Perhaps the feeling from my art draws them to a particular painting. It reminds them of something that happened to them. It moves them. There's an emotional or spiritual connection between us.
This new exhibition is your fourth at Japingka Gallery. What is it like to see your paintings displayed together like this?
When I first see the exhibition on the wall, every time, I'm surprised that this is what I painted. It gives me a different perspective, and I get tears of happiness in my eyes that I actually did all this.
Is there anything else that you'd like to say to people who are looking at your exhibition?
I like to inspire all the younger generation. My little nieces and nephews are very proud of me. I am a role model for them. I tell them, when you believe in something you want to achieve in your life, just keep doing it. Just keep going and going forward, no matter what your struggles are in life, you just keep believing. 'Cause that's what I did.
Top Featured Image: Sonya Edney | Goolingurru Springs | Jap 019643