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Gavin Wanganeen: Connection to Country

March 22, 2019

By M.J. Bale

Inspirational Indigenous artist, AFL legend and Brownlow Medallist Gavin Wanganeen, talks to M.J. Bale about art, putting memories on canvas and being conscious of the people around him.

MJB: Well, Gavin it is an absolute honour to be here, and especially having this conversation in the shadow of the Gavin Wanganeen stand. Does it ever get tired seeing your name up there?

GW: No, it never gets tired seeing my name up on the stand at the iconic Adelaide Oval, an international oval. It’s a surreal feeling to know that your name’s up there. It’s… I can’t really explain it. It just makes me feel really proud and it’s… words can’t do it any justice when you’re describing what it means to me. But I guess to know that my name is going to be on the Adelaide oval stand forever, it’s an unbelievable achievement in itself and I guess it just recognises the football career that I’ve had. As you get older you reflect more on your journey and what you’ve done in life and it makes me feel really proud that I’ve been able to do ok in my love of football.

MJB: Well, you’ve definitely done okay, and more than that. You’ve won a Brownlow medal, the first indigenous player to do so, been picked in numerous All-Australian sides. Funnily enough, though, you only played one game here at Adelaide oval, correct?

GW: Yep! Only the one game here at the iconic Adelaide oval and that was before AFL teams came in, so I was only 16 years of age. But the Crows and Port Adelaide only started playing football at the Adelaide oval, I think it was about four years ago. And I finished footy 10 years ago. So, I got to miss out to play on this wonderful oval. I just have to come and watch every weekend in the crowd and just be a supporter like anyone else. 

Gavin Wanganeen

MJB: Well, of course you’re now a successful artist in your own right. Tell me about the catalyst for you becoming an artist, because we were speaking before and you mentioned it was something quite serendipitous. You were in your second last season and a few of the indigenous boys and you thought you’d have an art competition. Can you tell me more about it?

GW: Yeah, so we’d finished a meeting with Mark ‘Choco’ Williams and for some reason the other Indigenous boys had hung around and started talking a little bit of rubbish, like we do at times. And for some reason Aboriginal art came up as a topic. One of the boys, Daniel Motlop, who is one of the top end players (Northern Territory) started talking about how the top end Aboriginal people, they do the best art. And the Burgoyne boys and myself, our family ties are to more of the Western desert area, and we said ‘Aye look, our mob do pretty good art too, you know’. And there was a bit of talk going on and I said, “Well, why don’t we all do a painting, each of us?” There was about six of us Indigenous boys, seven actually! (We said) ‘Why don’t we do a painting and we’ll get the rest of the team to pick the best painting and then we’ll deem that region the best area for Aboriginal art in Australia’. So that’s how it all got started. We went away, bought a bit of canvas at the art shop, didn’t know, you know, where to start, but I somehow got started. And after a short while I realised that it was taking such a long time, so I rolled it up and put it away, and it wasn’t until eight years later that my wife Pippa had found this rolled up piece of canvas, an unfinished piece of art and encouraged me to finish it. So, I finished it and we stuck it up on the wall and I got back into the art.

MJB: Eight years is a long time for a canvas just to sit there, especially given your career now. Why did you let it sit there for that long?

GW: (There were) Probably a few reasons why the painting was just put away. I guess the main one was the fact that it was taking so long, was that it was taking forever to do those dots! That was probably the number one reason. Probably patience – I didn’t have the patience. But then the other one was, yeah, probably the belief that I was good enough, that it was not going to turn out nice. So, there was a bit of doubt, but once I kept persisting and mentally telling myself: ‘Hey, don’t die wondering, just have a crack, it doesn’t matter what people think, as long as you are happy to paint and you enjoy it, that’s all that matters. Don’t worry about any of the negative influences that come into your mind.’ Once I realised how to process those negative thoughts I got back into it and then when my wife Pippa encouraged me and said she liked it that helped, big time. So, I went ahead and finished it off, and thank goodness she did that, because now I’m a professional artist. And that sounds really weird saying that, because, you know, for 16-17 years I’d been playing professional football and I’m only used to saying, ‘Yeah, I’m an ex-professional footballer.’ But to say, ‘Yeah, I’m a professional artist’ feels a little bit weird and its taking time to get used to me saying that, and hearing that. But, yeah, it’s going along nicely.

MJB: I want to ask you about the shooting star (we talked about earlier). At what point did inspiration strike and you knew you had to be an artist?

GW: Yeah, well, inspiration had struck one time in my life. Pippa and I, we were over on the Yorke Peninsula. I have family ties to that area on the Yorke Peninsula, at a place called Port Victoria. And there’s an Aboriginal mission out there called Port Pearce Mission. The sun had just gone down – we were staying on the coast, beautiful views over the ocean – and I saw what I thought was a shooting star, which happened to turn out to be a shooting star, ‘cause I’d never seen one before! I said to my wife, ‘Pippa, what was that? Was that some sort of firecracker? Did it go off? It made no noise!’. And she said ‘that’s a shooting star’ and for some reason in that moment I wanted to put that, what I had seen, on canvas. The next day when we got back home I just started painting. I wanted to put that memory on canvas. I imagined myself above the stars, at a high point in the universe, above the stars, looking down through the stars to the ground. That’s how I do the paintings, so I’m looking down through the stars to the ground, to my grandfather’s country and my mum’s country, always being reminded of my roots on my mum’s side.

MJB: Do you think that that might be your grandfather’s way of speaking to you or speaking through you?

GW: Yeah, one of my cousins, my first cousin, said that he was adamant that is grandfather talking to you through that shooting star, and he wants you to paint. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, you never know, it could be’. I found that really interesting and inspiring in a way to think, ‘Well if it is, wow, how awesome is that?’

MJB: The interesting thing with regards to your shooting star anecdote was that when we think of seeing a shooting star, our first thoughts, or my first thoughts, is looking at it from the ground looking up. But you’re looking above down towards below. I guess perspective is such an important thing in art and as an artist, so when you paint, what perspective are you painting through? Is it through your indigenous culture? Through Gavin Wanganeen, the family man and footballer?

GW: I think it’s a combination of my connection to country and my grandfather and just remembering some of the stories he told me as a youngster back in the time when it was, you know, really hard for Aboriginal men to find their way. And then there’s the family man, being married to my lovely wife Pippa and our children that we have: our three girls, and my five children. It’s just been a wonderful outlet to have a release, I guess, an artistic release which is really fulfilling and gives you pride in what you do. And to feel those emotions, it’s really special. And it took me a while to, you know, it took me years to find that, so thank goodness I didn’t give up. I guess the moral of the story is ‘don’t give up on anything’. 

Gavin Wanganeen

MJB: I’m not sure who it was that said it, but they said, ‘If I felt the same way at age 50 as I did at 20, I would have wasted 30 years’. You have a new perspective, you know, a father of five, an artist, a statesman in the community - what do you think is the major influence on your current perspective? What is important to you in life?

GW: What’s important in life to me? I think it’s… as you get older and you hit that middle stage of your life, which is still reasonably young, because if you expect to live to late 70s early 80s, our early 40s you know, you’re only half way there, you’ve got a lot of life to live. But reaching that middle part of your life… I think I’m halfway through my journey. I think it’s really important to be conscious of the journey and not to be too focused on the destination, because you may never reach your destination and then your journey would be wasted. So, it’s important to enjoy your journey, live the journey, and then when you reach your destination it’ll be so much more fulfilling. I’ve learnt that.

MJB: Okay so, last question. And we always ask this of our interviewees at M.J. Bale. What do you think are the values of a gentleman? What is it that makes a gentleman?

GW: I think being conscious of the people that are around you and to always have a thought for them. A kind thought for them.