Dylan Sarra is Taribelang artist from the Bundaberg region and currently lives in Brisbane, Australia. With a main focus on exploring identity and place, Sarra uses a range of disciplines such as print, digital works and sculpture to gently persuade an audience into humanising the Indigenous experience prior to colonisation. It is his aim that all people can not only be intrigued by Indigenous culture, but they can also start to question the real history around the events of colonisation and the impact it has had, down to this day.
Do you remember when you first became interested in creating art?
Creating art started for me when I was quite young. I loved creative activities of any kind. I was always building and making things or drawing and painting. When I think back it was always my constant as a form of communicating and expression. A way of making sense of lived experiences.
Was there anyone in your life who inspired you to become an artist?
Many people have influenced me in different ways, but none more than my own family. My grandmother was very creative. Sometimes out of necessity other times out of the love of just making. When we visited over the holidays there was always something new to explore. I remember her going through a pottery phase and as kids we were not discouraged from trying it. I couldn’t manage the pottery wheel but making little sculptures for her to keep next to her works made me feel quite accomplished. My mother and my nan were also very savvy with textile. It probably didn’t resonate as much as it did now, but when I think about the way they worked with the sewing machine or smocking or knitting, I cant help but think that contributed to my creative work ethic. I grew up watching them through a process to reach a satisfying result. Even through school I had teachers who were very supportive of my creativity and saw my potential before I really embraced it myself.
Where do you draw inspiration from and what does your creative process look like?
Inspiration is all around us. It’s from the small moments that are fleeting but also from the grand moments that stay with us for longer. The trick is to capture it. An example of this was at a young age I remember walking through the bush and my father showing me the colours in a deteriorating gum leaf. The leaf wasn’t green, it was different types of greens and yellows and reds. That small moment stuck with me and I decided to paint it. I use that now as an observational activity when I do workshops with kids, in the hope I’ve inspired them in the small moment just like me. From the grand perspective I think about the moments I’ve had with loved ones. Sunsets at different times of the year are special to me as a reminder of this. Sitting on the bank of the river fishing with dad or grandma when she came to visit, there would always be this moment when as the sun was setting that it was the time to be quiet and just watch the colours of the sky and landscape slowly drift to sleep. Again I probably didn’t appreciate it as much as I do now.
These experiences link into my approach to my work. I have to feel something. A strong emotion that connects me to a subject, then create it in a way that it makes the viewer feel that emotion as well.
Do you have a favourite medium to work with?
I don’t really have a favourite medium because of my approach to the work. The art becomes the vehicle to the story I want to tell. In saying that I do tend to lean more towards print because of its diverse nature and sculpture due to it being so hands on with making. I try to leave myself open to new experiences and art practices so I can become a better story teller.
Are there any mediums that you haven’t explored yet, but would like to?
There’s a few I’d like to try, but the one that I’d love to try more of is working with video and cinematography. I’m inspired by guys like Warwick Thornton and his son Dylan River. The power of visual storytelling through moving picture is such an incredible force. I love the way it can inspire a person to change their own perception of our cultural history and question what they previously knew, by tapping into our humanity. This is definitely a space I’d like to learn more about.
Do you feel your cultural background impacts your work? If so, can you tell us more about this?
Most definitely. I came from a multicultural family but with an Indigenous grandmother and how we were raised is what I identify with the most. Again this comes from lived experience and a fond connection to the landscape I was born to. I consider my family to be incredibly fortunate as it doesn’t link back to stolen generation or the trauma associated with it. I am one of few that can say I am a descendant of the place I belong to and was born there like my ancestors before me. I am a descendent of the survivors that escaped the massacres of many Indigenous people in the Bundaberg region. Therefore I am obligated to share my cultural history and feel it is a privilege to do so.
What do you hope people take away from your work?
I hope people feel engaged in the stories I want to share. It’s not my stories, it’s ours. I live by the principal of treating others the way I want to be treated. This comes with a gentle persuasion of truth telling about the real history of our country and dispelling the myths or lies that were taught. Instead of creating works that are quite strong in its message I try to create works that inspire an audience to say “I understand” and if they don’t, it encourages them to dig deeper into doing their own research.
Can you tell us what you are currently working on?
I’m on the home stretch to my graduation show in October at Griffith University. For this I’m talking about my country in the Bundaberg region. It has such a diverse range of cultural interactions that are yet to be talked about. Some of these histories are lying dormant for various reasons but I feel that the time is right to start bringing them out into the light. For example, I recently was nominated as a NATSIAA finalist for a work called ‘Let Me Speak’. The work centred around the Burnett River rock petroglyphs that were spread over 3 square km of sandstone. In 1967 the government put in place a protection act that allowed these rocks to be split up and moved to various institutions. There has been discussions about repatriation for a long time, but the process seems to get drawn out by the politics of it all. What is interesting though is the location of the rocks originally was in a hotspot of cultural activity. So at the moment I am recording oral accounts and documenting various landmarks close by, to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together. The result will be an amazing and culturally rich body of work that will keep growing. So stay tuned.
Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?
Be true to you.
Understand who you are and become strong in your identity.
Know your place and the stories attached to it.
Listen to the old people and their experiences, allow it to mold you.
Research the art practice that ties your origins to you.
Stop using social media to influence your practice and style. You don’t need to be dependent on its validation to measure your self worth.
You are important and your story matters, so keep going.
Boy and Dingo (2020)
Mixed media on canvas
“In the past we have heard negative press about the dingoes on Fraser Island and how human interaction is heavily discouraged. Once upon a time they were part of Butchulla culture and had a close connection with the Indigenous people of K’gari. This work is a reflection of that relationship as it depicts the bond between boy and pup. Both growing and interacting within their environment, they forge a friendship that is relatable even today with our own domesticated animal friends.”
Sculpture with natural material
“This fish sculpture measuring at 2.4m long, is a piece that ties my love of the sea and fishing with traditional net making practice and how a culture can continue to survive and revive around ones identity. To accomplish this I had to learn something new by research and practice. By tying this together in a way that honours the cultural significance of the Bundaberg area, Gurul represents the marine life in the beautiful waters that is known as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef.”
Let Me Speak (2020)
Wood Intaglio on Rives BFK
“This work refers to some of Queensland’s largest petroglyphs that were removed from an extensive Aboriginal art site at the Burnett River in 1972. Engraved motifs at the site include animal tracks, human feet and geometrical designs executed in a variety of techniques and styles. The 92 sandstone blocks that were removed were scattered throughout southeast Queensland. Talks of repatriation have been ongoing and inconclusive. Sarra aims to use his work as a call to action and encourage a discussion with a wider community to uncover the Indigenous history of the Burnett region.”
For information about buying Dylan’s works, please contact him directly through his website or instagram.