An Interview with Artist Jasmine Coe
When did you begin painting and why?
I’ve always been interested in Art. I went to Art school completing a Fine Art Degree at Bath Spa where I specialised in Portraiture. I’ve always had an interest in people and the human figure. For my Degree show I painted a group of my friends and decided to include a self-portrait at the last minute. This was the first self-portrait that I had painted and I struggled with it. It happened that all my friends I had chosen to paint were all of Caucasian heritage. This was one of the first times where I had to consciously recognise my darker skin by using a darker pallet. I had to be honest with myself and not try to deny or hide my heritage, something that I felt made me different to everyone else.
I grew up in London with my Mother and a white British family, moving to Dorset in my mid teens. As my father was absent, I didn’t have the input of my Aboriginal heritage or culture. Race and self-identity is something I have always struggled with. There are deeper meanings within that self-portrait that at the time of painting, I wasn’t ready to face or share. I was in total denial about who I was, choosing to look outwards at others, instead of looking inwards and discovering a Wiradjuri woman and a British woman. It is now my personal healing to internally harmonise both these heritages. This is why I paint today, to connect to and understand who I really am.
How has your style changed?
My style now is hugely inspired and influenced by my heritage and Aboriginal art. It is a way that I can make sense of things and learn. I also find it of therapeutic value. I cry a lot when I paint, for different and very personal reasons. By connecting to the natural world and representing it through my art, I find healing. Painting for me is physical emotion, one that I’ve suppressed for many years. Everyone holds pain of some kind and everyone deals with it in different ways. I am choosing to look to the earth for my healing.
When did you start to explore your heritage through your work?
Since coming back from Australia in early 2017. This was the first time I decided that I wanted to paint to connect. I wanted to use what I had, to understand who I am. That trip was the first time I’d been to Australia and was the first time I’d seen my father for about 20 years. I also met my 7 siblings who, apart from my three older siblings, I’d never met before. This trip changed my life. It’ll probably be the biggest thing I will have to do this lifetime. It’s been unbelievably painful and hugely uncomfortable, yet at the same time has been the biggest blessing I could ever receive.
Given the history of suffering that arose when English and Aboriginal cultures met, do you feel a conflict within your dual heritage?
Yes, this is something I have always struggled with and feel very deeply. The more I connect and understand the history of both cultures I find it hard not to feel like two people clashing within one existence. I’m sure a lot of people who have mixed heritage due to colonisation may find this relatable.
Britain built its Empire on the Colonisation of a large proportion of the world and having grown up here it’s difficult to come to an understanding of your own personal history within that. It is painful, uncomfortable and confusing to learn about a place you call home that’s had such a destructive history towards your other heritage. Of course it makes you question who you are.
However, painting is a way that I am able to attempt to heal these internal conflicts of my two ancestral lines. Connecting to the earth, a place where we have all come from and have a bigger responsibility to is at the core of Aboriginal culture - caring for country.
Did meeting your father and family in Australia begin to help you understand parts of your aboriginal heritage?
Yes. Aboriginal culture is one of the strongest and most resilient cultures in the world. Having suffered unspeakable loss, genocide, since the first fleet arrived and still facing inexcusable acts of racism today. Racism that is now so deeply embedded in a country it is systemic.
Aboriginal people were not officially recognised as the traditional land-owners of their own country, because the imposed system believed in, practiced and taught under the Terra Nullius terms. These state that when the first fleet arrived, Australia was an uninhabited land. Denying the existence of a whole nation of people, a people who have been there since time immemorial. Still today, Australia is the only country that does not have a treaty recognising its Indigenous people as the first people and traditional land-owners.
Aboriginal people were not even considered citizens of the country until 1967 and were instead categorised alongside the Flora and Fauna Act, in other words, considered non-human. For 18 years of my Father’s life, he lived under a law that excluded him as a citizen, a law that refused to recognise him and his people as human beings.
In Australia I come from a family that is hugely politically vocal and it is my belief that as British citizens, whose history is responsible for over half of the world’s colonisation, it is our responsibility to understand the effects of what colonisation has done and how it is still effecting Indigenous people across the world today.
Your heritage is Wiradjuri, what have you discovered of your people and your history?
The Wiradjuri are the biggest language group in New South Wales. My family are fresh water people so the river that runs through Cowra, the Kalare, is very important. I was able to go back to Cowra with my sisters and spend time on this river. Like the land, the river holds a deep history - it has given us life. Connecting to the river, where my father holds a lot of memories, allowed me to connect to my identity and my ancestors that have gone before me. The rivers that run through country are like veins that flow through the body. The river is the carrier of life.
The Kalare, otherwise known as the Lachlan, is one of three main Rivers that run through Wiradjuri country along with the Murrumbidgee and the Macquarie. The Kalare and the Murrumbidgee branch off the Murray River, which borders Wiradjuri country and all three source back to the Murray-Darling basin. This basin is roughly 2,000 miles long and runs through Queensland, NSW, ACT, Victoria and South Australia. It is an enormous, sacred, precious ecosystem. Due to climate change and over extraction of the Murray Darling, it has almost stopped flowing. This is having direct, devastating consequences on the land, animals and communities that heavily rely on this life source.
As the river faces continuous extraction from corporate Cotton farms it means that the stagnant water that is left has had a dramatic rise in temperature. To be able to keep cool, water has to flow. This remaining stagnant water has become deoxygenated killing over a million fish. There are towns such as Walgett that reach over 40 degrees that no longer have access to fresh running water because of Corporate greed that is speeding up the process of Climate change.
One thing I have learnt is that from what you take, you must give back. Greed does not exist when everything lives in balance. Nothing is wasted and everything has a purpose. This is a sacred way of living in harmony with the land. A way of living that has survived and thrived for over 60,000 years.
You are a member of the Boomalli Aboriginal Artist co-operative in Sydney, when did you start working with them and how have they helped you and your work?
I became a member of the Boomalli Aboriginal Artist co-operative about a year ago. They are an organisation that is Aborginal owned and run, supporting and showcasing Indigenous artists work.
I have sent over some prints which will take part in their April - June exhibition, ‘Warriors for the Environment’. A 10% donation of each print will be given to a Honeybee conservation charity and also an Ocean Marine Charity.
Have you got plans to return to Australia?
Yes, I’ve just received my Australian citizenship so I definitely have plans to return.