Art is at the heart of Aboriginal storytelling and culture, but for many people like Michael Connolly it was discouraged as they lived in fear of retribution.
“When I was very young, I used to draw but we weren’t allowed to draw as part of what they call the assimilation — the removal of Aboriginal people into white society. Mum would say, ‘don’t do that because people might say something’,” Michael says.
At that time , government policy sought to dissuade Aboriginal people from celebrating their culture, and to enforce a uniform white culture. However, in time, Michael's uncles shared with him what they knew and his father showed him how to make didgeridoos.
“Then I started to paint and create my own style, then did some research on the Kullilli nation and Muruwari and found out some totemic stories to complete my artwork,” Michael recalls.
Anthropologists and geologists who had travelled through his family’s country had recorded some of the stories they heard, and Michael’s relatives told him where to find them — the origins. “I went on country and I sat in the bush, looked at country, read those stories to myself and said OK, I know what the story is,” he says.
For non-indigenous people, Aboriginal art can appear to be just a bright collection of dots and lines, but each piece tells a story of country and ancestors and an ancient cultural breath buried in each paint stroke. “It’s about knowing your country, knowing your culture, knowing your stories, knowing your land and then you can paint from there,” Michael says.
“I want to promote the Muruwari and Kullilli people — my people which are connected to all that western desert area. I need to show you my story.”
He’s been painting his stories for more than 25 years and it’s had a profound impact on his life. “It’s been a wonderful journey. I was very hot-headed and there was a lot of abuse going around for indigenous peoples. I thought how do we tell a story, how do we get people to see us as human?,” Michael says.
He uses his art to advocate for his people and to support communities that need a path to better standards of health, education and living.
Dreamtime Kullilla-Art, Michael’s Clontarf-based business, sells authentic Aboriginal art across Australia and the world, sending money back to the communities he works with. “We support all the communities in Australia with their products, from handbags, candles to rugs, to table cloths, kitchenware. We sell everything. Even now, we’re getting in the native bush tucker — the herbs, spices,” Michael says.
He stresses the importance of buying authentic indigenous art, saying it’s crucial to keeping the culture alive.