The art of being family

Discovering his Aboriginal roots and relation to prominent South Australian elder Major Sumner has taken Adelaide artist Damien Shen to more than just one country

Words Michael McGuire
Photographer Matt Turner

In a popular, but unobtrusive, Chinese restaurant off one of Adelaide’s busiest arterial roads artist Damien Shen is talking about his remarkable uncle Major Sumner. The man who inspired Shen to revive a long dormant artistic dream. As the lunchtime crowd drifts in, Shen and Sumner, whom everyone calls “Uncle Moogy’’, swap stories, memories, laugh and talk about the growing artistic career of the younger man and his hopes that through his art he can tell the stories of indigenous Australia as well as his own unusual cultural heritage.

“Most people know who Moogy is,’’ Shen says. “They know of him, or they have seen him, there is a certain aura there that very few people have.’’ Shen pauses for effect: “You can send the cheque in the mail later’’. “It’s on its way,’’ Sumner assures him.

Meeting Sumner, who has been the subject for much of Shen’s art, for the first time, it’s easy to see what his nephew means. There is a hard-won bearing and dignity to the Aboriginal elder. Something about that great grey/black beard, his nation’s colours woven through his brown beanie, his no-nonsense, but simultaneously welcoming air, speak of a man confident and content in his own world.TheArtofFamily_1

“To some degree it makes my job really easy,’’ Shen says. “I am not just the one that is creating his presence, or some sort of vibe, through this piece of art. The vibe is already there, it just multiplies.’’

Shen came late to art. He graduated from the University of South Australia in 2000 with a Bachelor of Visual Communications, concentrating on illustration. But he spent most of his working life in a graphic design company, although there was a stint as a mortgage broker in there as well. Somewhere, though, around four years ago he decided he’d had enough of the “rat race’’ and that he needed a different life. “I questioned what I was doing to actually feed my soul, and I couldn’t really answer that at the time,’’ he says.

He reaches back to his youth to explain himself better. “When you are in school, you get school friends, or you look at other students, and go ‘they have the potential to be this’, or ‘they have the potential to be that’. And then I asked myself what was the thing that I always had the potential to be.’’

The answer — an artist. This is also where the importance and relevance of Shen’s cultural background comes through. The 40-year-old was born to an Aboriginal mother (Major Sumner’s sister) and a Chinese father. His parents broke up when he was only one and his Chinese grandparents moved to Australia to help raise him with his father. “Basically my Chinese grandparents had a big role in raising me for 13 years,’’ he says.

Which is not to say his indigenous heritage was ignored. Sumner, like his nephew, is a Ngarrindjeri man, the indigenous nation based around the lower reaches of the River Murray, the Coorong and the Fleurieu Peninsula.

Shen has fond memories of life as a little kid, running around with his cousins at Uncle Moogy’s house at Findon in Adelaide’s western suburbs. It’s funny the things that stay with you from childhood. One of Shen’s strongest recollections is standing in front of his uncle’s TV, as a six or seven-year-old, with his cousins waiting for Michael Jackson’s Thriller film clip to premiere.

Then there were the visits with the cousins to the local deli for mixed lollies and to play video games. Not that it was a free-for-all. “There were rules you abided by,’’ says Sumner. “It wasn’t just come and go as you please.’’

And if you didn’t behave?

For some reason that is just not me. The way I look at it is, that art is my dance. That is how I talk about culture and that is how I represent and I take people on a journey through that and talk about Ngarrindjeri history and the significant issues around the theft of remains that were happening back in the day

“I remember there was a level of strictness there and there needed to be given there was so many kids in the house,’’ Shen remembers. “We all knew where the strap hung in the bathroom. He only needed to mention it.’’

It was the years of sitting around the kitchen table talking with his uncle, listening to his stories, and those of the rest of the clan, that inspired Shen when he returned to art. Shen was captivated by the stories his uncle told of life at the Raukkan mission (formerly Point McLeay) on the shores of Lake Alexandria. Then there was his uncle’s commitment to bringing back the remains of indigenous people whose bodies had been sold overseas to places like museums a century and more ago.

Sumner is well known to South Australians through his tireless work in repatriating these remains, as the founder of the Talkindjeri Dance group and his work with the Aboriginal Sobriety Group. He has danced all over the world, performed smoking ceremonies in cities such as Edinburgh in Scotland and London in England, marking the return of the stolen bodies.

Shen says his art is a contribution to spreading the story to a wider audience. “I can’t imagine myself being the guy who gets painted up and does the dancing,’’ he says. “For some reason that is just not me. The way I look at it is, that art is my dance. That is how I talk about culture and that is how I represent and I take people on a journey through that and talk about Ngarrindjeri history and the significant issues around the theft of remains that were happening back in the day.’’

Shen started by interviewing relatives. Hearing their life stories, Recording them not just for a wider audience but for his family as well. He wanted to create an “archive’’ for his family. “My initial starting point was to revisit their memories,’’ he says. “What was it like to grow up in a mission. Not everyone can ask their parents that and their family members.’’

His first exhibition was Drawing on the Heroes Who Shape Us, which saw him awarded South Australian artist of the year in the 2014 NAIDOC awards. But Shen doesn’t limit himself to one form. Another body of work called On the Fabric of the Ngarrindjeri Body – Volume II consisted of 12 “vintage style’’ black and white portraits of his Uncle Moogy. It was exhibited in Melbourne’s MARS Gallery and subsequently bought by the National Gallery of Australia.

It’s been a whirlwind few years for Shen. There have been 35 exhibitions, two major awards and a residency in Charlottesville in the US at the Kluge-Ruhe museum. But there are no regrets he didn’t take art more seriously at a younger age.

As Uncle Moogy says, he wasn’t ready any earlier. “You couldn’t have started any sooner,’’ his uncle tells him. “ Otherwise you would have never put so much effort into it because you had other things that were of interest at the time.’’

Shen describes his work as a “mission to educate and to share’’. He talks of his awe at Uncle Moogy’s “endurance” and hopes to match it. He is heading to China in May as part of an art exchange, the first time he has visited the country, including to Shanghai, the city of his grandparents, an experience he says will be “interesting’’.

As for the rest, Uncle Moogy sees something of himself in his nephew and the path that lies ahead for him. “When I first started dancing I went to places, and I am still doing it, I have been to places I never dreamed I would ever see. That people would invite me to make me welcome. These things are open to him.”