Q&A with Peta-Joy Williams

Wiradjuri artist, Peta-Joy Williams at Boomalli in Sydney. Image courtesy the artist.

Aboriginal artist Peta Joy Williams is a Wiradjuri woman, born in Sydney. PJ has been involved with the Arts since her young school years.

After high school PJ then went onto  complete a Cert IV in Aboriginal Art and Cultural practices and a Diploma in Fine Arts. PJ currently teaches Wiradjuri at Eora College and is the sole operator of Wiradjuri Wave, custom Aboriginal artworks on sports paraphernalia and fashion.

As part of the Create NSW NAIDOC celebrations, PJ guided staff through a weaving workshop and taught staff some basic Wiradjuri language words.

This is what we learnt about PJ:

Can you tell us a little about yourself…(your mob, growing up, inspiration etc.)?

Okay. So I’ll start off with my family. My great, great grandmother was born on the banks of the Macquarie River in Dubbo and she grew up in a small town called Trangie, which is out past Dubbo. There was a reserve out there, so that was where they were relocated to. When I was learning my language at the college in Dubbo, there’s this dancers’ circle, and it’s got the sand from the Macquarie River, and I always had to put my feet in it. I always had this strong connection, and then when I finally got to go to the river, and I put my feet in the river, that connection was even stronger for me. I was talking to one of my cousins about it recently, and he told me that’s where Gran was born – so the connection I was feeling made a lot of sense.

My grandmother basically didn’t tell anyone she married a white man –beautiful man – and he was a butcher, a local butcher, in Matraville. But they married in Orange – which is again Wiradjuri country. My mum was born on Wiradjuri country – but whenever she would take the kids into town, she would tell my mum, because she was the second-eldest, ‘Don’t call me mum when we’re in town. If anyone asks, tell them I work for the family.’ So my mum grew up thinking Grandma was ashamed of her. It wasn’t until later on that she realised that that was for protection, because my grandma had the darker skin. And then when they moved to Matraville, which is near La Perouse, a Community elder said ‘Nah, Eileen, you can’t deny who you are. It’s okay now – you can say who you are.’

So I was lucky I was born after that time, I grew up knowing my identity, whereas Mum found out when she was young. I was born and bred in Sydney, always had a strong connection to going home, back to country, more so as I’ve gotten older. I had a period of time where I went through a lot of depression and was just an angry person. I think finding my culture and reconnecting with my language was the turning point where I was like well, no, the world doesn’t owe me anything. I’ve always been a hard worker, but it was sort of like okay, well, I’ve got my culture and explained why I feel the way I feel about certain things that I couldn’t understand.

So I think that’s a really important thing for me to have, and that’s what I’m trying to instil in my son as well. So with the language, and having culture and reconnecting with that through art and through weaving and things, I’m getting to know myself better.

How has your culture informed and inspired your work/career?

 I’m very grassroots. I believe it’s so important for all people to learn about our culture, because we have such a rich, beautiful, diverse culture, and that’s why I teach non-Aboriginal people language. At the moment, in my Certificate I class, there’s more non-Aboriginal students than Aboriginal students in that class, and I think that’s such a great balance, because they’re learning from the Koori fellas, but they’re also learning more about themselves, and they’re there because they want to learn the language. They’re not there because they feel they have to learn the language.

I had to go and learn my language, you know. I didn’t grow up with it. My great, great grandmother was the last language speaker, and when she died, it died with her, in our family. And so myself and my son are the only language speakers in our family, and we’re trying to get everyone else to learn it.

And that’s the thing. I think culture is such an important part of life, like my son, he dances, and I think that’s what’s kept him from getting into trouble, because he’s dancing with a real good mob. I think that keeps his head level.

How did you first become interested in arts and culture?

I started very, very young, in 1988 when the bicentenary happened. I started asking questions. I always knew about my heritage, but I didn’t know about why…so I went home and started talking to my grandmother about it. And so that was sort of the turning point of when I realised how special I was to be here. And then I had my great gran, who passed away when I was 20, I had a beautiful relationship with her. She always had boomerangs on the wall, I’d lay on her bed and talk to her and copy the pictures. At school we did an activity where you could draw on this special paper and they would print it onto a plate. I drew Aboriginal art on mine including lizards, goannas and snakes.

When I was in high school, we did some cultural camps, and we made artefacts and I would just sit and paint on the top of them – it’s just a skill I’ve always had. My grandmother really pushed for me to go to art school, so when I left high school, I went in to do a Certificate of Aboriginal Art and Cultural Practices at Eora, so I just kept going on that journey, got my diploma and then I worked in a gallery for a little while, and yeah, so arts is where I’m meant to be. Then I was working at Koori Radio for a while. I’m one of those people that soon as you tell me something, I’m already picturing it in my head. The picture already starts to just process in my mind. So I think it’s just something I was born with – I can’t see the actual turning point of where arts was a part of my life; it’s always just been there.

Also, when I first left high school I was approached by the Australian Womens Hockey team to paint gifts for the world cup. I painted mini hockey sticks for them and then each team they played, presented the team with one of the sticks. The Australian team ended up winning the world cup so I like to say it was my black majik that made that happen.

We’re celebrating NAIDOC at the moment, what are you doing for NAIDOC Week?

NAIDOC for me isn’t a week – it’s a month, because there’s so much to do! I’d like to go to the NAIDOC in the City event at Hyde Park. Also Koori Radio are putting Klub Koori on again; that’s with Casey Donovan so I’m looking forward to checking that out too.

Staff participated in a weaving workshop with you as part of the Create NSW NAIDOC celebrations, can you tell us about your weaving and the processes behind it?

It becomes a safe place, and your hands are moving and you don’t even realise your hands are moving. You’re just having these amazing conversations whilst weaving, so I think it’s about that magic of those conversations and people getting to know each other on a different level, and also having a look back on their cultures and things.

So by myself sharing my culture and my language, that gets everyone thinking about, you know, their roots and where they come from and things like that, and I think it’s also – it’s about, when you have knowledge, it’s important to share that, because if you keep it and you hold onto it and you don’t share it with anyone else, it dies when you die, and I think it’s really important that we keep sharing our stories and our culture and things. We’ve already lost out, so it’s about making sure that by speaking, that I’m still going to be here when I’m gone, if that makes sense.

What are you watching, listening to or have seen recently that really excited you?

In 2014 I led an Aboriginal Leadership Study Tour to the Spokane Falls Community College in America. There’s an Indian reserve there, and we got to make friends with a lot of the local Native American people. Last month I went back, and I reconnected with some of those people. My friend Barry that I stayed with, has a beautiful headdress and costume that he would wear if he was performing. The headdress belonged to his great grandfather and he inherited it and he had to go through ceremony for it to be given to him. The ceremony took three days, so that was kind of a highlight of my journey just recently, and then of course, I went to a Foo Fighters concert, so that was pretty great too.

I think just travelling around as a person and sharing language, sharing culture, which is exactly what Barry does. He’s basically the Indian version of me – he’s preserving the Kalispell language; teaching that. He’s also a cultural mentor and does cultural awareness training, like I do. So yeah, that was really cool. And at the end of last year, I had my first solo show at Boomalli.

Do you have any advice for emerging or mid-career Aboriginal artists who are considering a career as a visual artist? 

Keep on. Keep on doing it, and, you know, look at where you come from, don’t copy things or don’t idealise what you think art should be, especially Aboriginal art. My issue with Aboriginal art is the misconception that we all paint dots, because we don’t all paint dots, and I try and steer people away from painting dots unless they are from the desert. So it’s about learning where you come from, and re-embracing that and it’s all good to be contemporary, but you know, do it in your way; get away from that stereotype.

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