Nestled deep in Bundjalung Country stands a studio in Bangalow, NSW that hangs on its walls the stories unravelling the journey of Kate Constantine.
A fair-skinned Koori woman, Ms Constantine has opened her art show Blak Enough? that speaks to her cultural identity and her journey of wearing her Aboriginality proudly.
“I wasn’t brought up in a regional or remote community, I wasn’t brought up as an urban blackfulla. I had my identity very loosely hidden and held in secrecy,” Ms Constantine said.
“In a lot of ways that is the success of ‘assimilation’ … I didn’t know some of my ancestry and I couldn’t understand why I felt certain ways about things that others, who I am supposedly like, didn’t feel.” For Ms Constantine, this disconnect from culture hit hardest during her first pregnancy.
“I always had this really broken psyche on the inside about land and Country and those beautiful values that you instil in children. When I had my first child … I broke in half, it was an emotional time,” Ms Constantine said. To heal, she turned to painting. Having grown up painting and studying architecture at university, Ms Constantine had a strong connection with the arts but found it faded into the background during her busy life.
“It was a huge calling at that time, and my grandparents had passed on my father’s side which is my Indigenous side of [my] heritage. It all became clear and apparent, there was a lot of sadness and a lot of waking up to myself,” she said.
“It started to come out in my work and it pours out now. I can’t help it. I dream about it, I think about it, I talk about it with my children, I illustrated books for my kids that are all around the stories that I missed out on.” Living and working on Bundjalung Country, Ms Constantine has built a strong relationship with local mob. “I’ve been co-adopted by the beautiful people up here … they have taken me in. They’ve taught me all the things I wish I had learnt in my teenage years, when I was wild and reckless. When I didn’t know who I was and was wondering why.”
“Things like sitting with the women and weaving. The idea of being still in someone’s presence. You don’t learn that in Western culture, it’s always to be entertained and to fill every space.”
Blak Enough? is an intimate insight into Ms Constantine’s personal identity. It’s an insight that examines her life as a fair-skinned Aboriginal woman and her journey walking in two worlds.
“It’s a precarious place to be between both worlds and both cultures, you participate in both and you are a part of both, but you aren’t part enough of either, that’s my take on it,” she said.
“I feel like I’m not quite right for either world, I’m in this weird grey space between them, where I can reflect and participate in both but I don’t belong in either.”
“How do I show the ignorant people who don’t mean it what it’s like? The words are powerful, comments like, ‘Wow you look so fair,’ or, ‘Are you a real blackfulla?’ I get that from white people and my kin.” “It is about that participation in that middle landscape, I feel like … if we empower those people … to be proud, and to not feel like they’re in no man’s land, perhaps all society can change for the better.”
Motivated by the pursuit to make sure her children have a strong sense of cultural identity; Ms Constantine spends time teaching her children stories and connecting them with mob. “I want them to feel so solid and connected to kin,” Ms Constantine said.
“My son has light dusty hair and tanned skin, he is really cheeky. He is four and a half and I draw stories that are all about being brown on the inside. He knows that he identifies with his Sri Lankan friend at school, because they are brown together, even though he is physically fair-skinned.”
“My kids grab it with both hands, they don’t see the difference.”
Ms Constantine will continue to tell her story through her work, unravelling parts of herself in the process.
“That is what I’m trying to do with my artwork … words aren’t enough because I think words have been used against us culturally, and language has been used as a powerful tool of denigration. Words aren’t enough,” she said.
“Painting, it grounds me and gets me back to who I feel like I am in my heart and soul.”
By Rachael Knowles