Stuart Leal Gallery at the Village Shopping Centre in Lane Cove never fails to brighten my day. The enormous windows of the gallery allow the intense blast of colour from the aboriginal artwork to work their magic. For me, it’s the paintings of medicine leaves that have a therapeutic effect on a recent fog that’s descended on me. Some call it COVID apathy. I believe the source of this malady goes back well before the pandemic.

If you’re living a “normal” life these days, you’re probably like Mr Anderson, portrayed by Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. I was. I had a 9-5 job, a boss who told me what to do, the commute, traffic, people huddled together in public transport to and from work and this feeling of being cut-off and lonely amidst all of these people around me. Like Mr Anderson, I got to a point where I could no longer ignore that call to return to nature. As a woman, I was lucky to give birth to my first child in December of 2016 so I could step away from the highly regimented work that many will continue to perform until retirement or redundancy.

Stepping away from to-do lists and KPIs and agendas and meetings and people to impress, a whole new world opened up for me. It was a painful experience at first because I didn’t like giving up what I thought was control over my life to build a relationship with a baby who didn’t seem to understand my compulsion to get things done.  Surrendering to the flow and accepting that I can’t predict what will happen in my day to day life meant accepting the creative gift that’s brought me here, typing these words. All of us, as living beings, are creative. That same creative flow is now leading me to understand the ways of the traditional custodians of the land who were here before office spaces, shopping centres, retirement villages, blocks of units and houses, news media, agendas, to-do lists and KPIs started to fill up our landscape and days.

Utopian Dreams

Coming back to Stuart’s gallery, many of the artwork comes from a place called Utopia in the Northern Territory. The artists work out of an art studio space guarded by an extraordinarily large man who keeps intruders, mainly intoxicated relatives after money, away and maintains the artists’ sense of security so they can bring their dreams to life on their canvases. From what I understand of aboriginal mythology, the world we experience through our mind is like the illusional world of The Matrix. We exist in a dream. What we accept as the reality and the way we conduct our lives currently was the collective dream of industrialists who responded to human needs for shelter, clothing and food in a time of colonialist expansion. This dream now appears to have gone beyond its usefulness and is turning into a nightmare. Many people are feeling dissatisfied with their jobs, seeking meaning in their lives, wanting to reconnect with nature, reconcile differences and live in harmony with themselves, other human beings, animals and plants.

What about the aboriginal artwork in Stuart’s gallery?

What are the dreams and indeed prayers painted on those? The medicine leaves point to a need to heal wounds.  Humans on earth today, almost all of us are walking wounded no matter what our race. One need look no further than Donald Trump’s need to win an argument at all cost and suppress the true nature within, the fearful child. Here’s a man who may never feel the joy of being human and many of us must be in the same boat to manifest him as one of our leaders.

The aboriginal artist Gloria Petyarre was one of the prolific painters of medicine leaves before her recent retirement. Her works are well represented in Stuart’s collection. In fact, there are many women artists represented in Stuart’s gallery, some of them third-generation artists. One of them, Jeannie Mills Pwerle is a ngangker, a traditional healer.

Evidence around me suggests that those who have accepted their creative gifts are feeling, and beginning to respond to, the pain of the indigenous people.  Frozen 2 Disney signed an agreement with leaders of the indigenous Sami tribe to represent their culture with their blessing, instead of ripping it off as they did in the first film. Maybe the medicine leaves are working and the healing process is beginning, across the world, transforming it to a vision that’s more inclusive and utopia-like.

A Plum Job

Another theme that Stuart told me about was around bush tucker, particularly something called a Bush Plum, also known as a Kakadu Plum. The Bush Plum grows all across the western and central deserts of Australia on a shrub and is berry-sized. It starts out green and as it ripens grows deep purple. In Utopia, the harvest season runs from March until late May.

In the Dreamtime myth, winds blew from all directions carrying the seed to the artists’ ancestral lands. The first Bush Plum of the Dreaming grew and bore fruit and dropped more seeds. Many winds blew the seeds all over the Dreaming lands.

To ensure the continued fruiting of this plant each season, the Aboriginal people pay homage to the spirit of the fruit by painting and recreating it in their ceremonies through song and dance. The patterns in the paintings represent the fruit of the plant, its leaves and flowers. Bodypaint worn during ceremonies is also evocative of this plant which is central to the Aboriginal culture in the deserts.

The vision of honouring the spirit of the fruit, manifesting in art and ceremony to bring about its abundance suggests to me the awareness of the close relationship between the spiritual and the material world, the tenuous line between dreams and reality, clouds and rain, thoughts and the actions that eventuate.

The Northern Australia Aboriginal Kakadu Plum Alliance is evidence of the aboriginal communities responding and adapting to the “modern world” of C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me). It is a consortium of Aboriginal enterprises ethically harvesting, processing and selling Kakadu Plum,  high in Vitamin C and now marketed as a superfood.

So how did Stuart find himself in a plum job engrossed in the art and mythology of people living so far away? It all started with a disruption. He’d built up a very busy photo studio shooting weddings on the weekends and employing other photographers to do studio work. A separation seven years ago meant that he needed to drop the weekend work, and reorganise his life to be present for his two girls now 12 and 19. Serendipity can be trusted and one day a friend showed up with an aboriginal canvas. Stuart liked it so much that he decided to buy a few pieces to display for sale in his studio. Before long he had a gallery full of aboriginal works.

As many of us are facing the unknown, let’s do it with open eyes, open minds and open hearts and maybe with a few Kakadu Plums for our health.

Over to you…

What changes are you experiencing in your life that’s requiring you to be more flexible and creative?

Is it the loss of a job, changing work arrangements, a troubled relationship, health problems, moving to a new house or a community?

Journal about it for fifteen minutes and see what emerges.