Treaty, Truth and Healing: We interview NAIDOC artist Holly Sanders

Holly Sanders is a contemporary artist, a proud Bundjalung saltwater woman who now resides on Yuin Country NSW. This year we invited Holly to collaborate with us on our NAIDOC Range using the theme 'Voice Treaty Truth'.

Listen in as we discuss inspirations, the need for Treaty, and hope for the future.

Tell us about your earliest memory of painting

I have always loved painting, I was sick a lot during my childhood and I would always paint and sketch in hospital and at home in bed...I think it helped with my healing. Today, I feel painting keeps my culture strong, it is good for my health and well-being and I think it takes me back spiritually and historically to who I am. From a young age I watched my mother paint and now I paint and think of her. I’m hoping to pass this love of painting onto my children.

When did you realise you wanted to be an artist?

I started painting and sketching from a young age but became more interested in painting when I graduated high school and started to realise and understand how important painting is for my cultural identity.

The link between painting and cultural identity is something that’s very prominent in Indigenous art. What has been your biggest inspiration when you paint?

My biggest inspiration for my art is definitely my Country. I always look to Country- the land, sky and the sea- and use these images and memories to paint. The colours and patterns of Saltwater Country at different times of the day and year influence heavily in my art. I use my art to tell the story of my Country and ancestors because I want to be able to share and celebrate my culture in a contemporary way with everyone.

Who is your favourite artist of all time?

This is such a hard question! I am inspired by so many traditional and contemporary Aboriginal artists and it is hard to choose just one favourite! I do love the vibrant artworks by the artists from Yuendumu, in particular, artist Mary Anne Nampijinpa Michaels. The way she captures the colours and patterns of her desert Country is amazing! All of the artists you have worked with this year for Bundarra’s NAIDOC campaign are also so talented and amazing.

Let’s jump over to your NAIDOC painting. Can you tell us a bit about your painting, and the story behind it?

The name of my painting is ‘Ngullaboo’ which means ‘All of us’ in Bundjalung language. The main focus of my painting is all of us working together- working together for a brighter future with acknowledgment, reconciliation and genuine healing. The centre meeting circle and travel lines represents our journey to a Treaty.

The overall theme ‘Ngullaboo’ is all of us coming together to acknowledge our history, but also taking pride in and respecting the cultures that have cared for this land for thousands of years. We are a strong and resilient people and we are still here- the world’s oldest continuous living cultures. This should be acknowledged and celebrated.

‘Coming together’ is an idea many Australians work towards, and suggests a more unified approach regarding our future. Do you as an Indigenous person feel your voice is heard in modern Australia?

Australia is the only Commonwealth nation that doesn’t have a Treaty with its Indigenous people. The talk of a Treaty goes back many years and this absence I think highlights our lack of voice and also denial.

Our voices are definitely not heard enough. I always feel frustrated and saddened when non-Aboriginal people publicly voice their opinion on Aboriginal issues without taking the very basic step of talking to Aboriginal people- this happens often. I want a future where our voices are heard…and respected.

Having a Treaty has always been at the forefront for Indigenous Australians. What do you think a Treaty would accomplish & how will it benefit Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people in the future?

Firstly, I think a Treaty could be the first step in our healing process. There has been so much pain and trauma, including inter-generational trauma, caused by past policies and disadvantage. It could be the first step in bringing our people together, and making our future for our next generation a lot brighter than what our past generations have had to deal with.

A Treaty could give us a lot more self-determination and voice- I think a lot of issues we face could be managed a lot better by our mob because we have the power to change that instead of parliament or the government.

A Treaty would also mean Australia could acknowledge, value and respect us as the First Peoples of Australia- people with rich languages, traditions, cultures and history. It could help with the relationship and communication between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people and to be able to put our people on the same level as non-Aboriginal Australians.

Having the truth told is an integral part of the healing process and paving the way towards reform. How do you think suppression of the truth has impacted Indigenous people? 

I think all of us must come face to face with our dark and traumatic history. An important part of the Treaty process is not only agreement-making but also truth-telling. As an artist and a teacher, I feel responsible to educate all my students about our true history and to celebrate our culture. This is our shared history and we need to acknowledge the impact that colonisation, policies and disadvantage has had and which continues to affect our people today.

As a unified country we need to own our past and truth so we can move forward together. How do you think we can work together to create a shared future for all Australians?

The first step to creating a shared future for all is by acknowledging and honouring Australia’s histories, cultures and languages…and to also not fear change, recognition and truth but to be open and embrace them as important steps towards a better future together.

Thank you Holly for your time and insight! We can see the need for a Treaty and the importance of acknowledging the past are two key issues that you are very passionate about. Indeed, to progress towards a better future, we must look back on our past. This respect for cultural tradition, ancestors and Country is expressed in Holly's artwork, and remains an integral part of her identity as an artist and Bundjalung woman. 

To see more of Holly's amazing artwork, be sure to check out her Instagram