KATIE WEST: It Stops Here
For Katie West, the traumatic transgenerational effects of Australia’s Stolen Generations and colonialism stops with her.
Working in Indigenous health and through art, West is establishing a deeper understanding of her own identity, as she reconnects with her Indigenous roots and dismantles the past.
Exhibiting her latest work, Decolonist as part of Next Wave’s Kickstart program (2016), West construct’s her own methods of decolonisation and healing through her work. The Pin sat down with West to learn how a modern day Indigenous woman reconnects with her Aboriginality and ultimately, finds herself through her work.
THE PIN. Where did you grow up?
KATIE WEST. I grew up in a small town called Badgingarra, just two and a half hours from Perth.
What was your household like?
K. It was really great. Growing up in the country, we had a lot of freedom to do whatever we liked. My brother, two other girls, and I were the only Aboriginal people in town.
Was art a big part of your life growing up or was it something you discovered?
K. I think it was something I always did and I was always encouraged. My grandparents were really involved in local theatre groups all through my childhood.
So you have an acting career in community theatre?
K. ..Yeah [laughs].
What ideas around identity, ethnicity, race and culture were instilled in you as a child?
K. I grew up with a lot of the negative stereotypes about Aboriginal people and had a skewed sense of what it meant to be Aboriginal. That made me think, what does this mean for myself?
Did you have role models or people that you looked up to?
K. Not really. Not until people like Nova Peris and Cathy Freeman started becoming famous. I would have been 11 years old then.
What was it like to see Indigenous people like Cathy Freeman and Nova Peris dominating in their fields and being so visible in Australia through media?
K. It was such a big deal because I didn’t think or know that anyone Indigenous was capable of doing anything well. That’s really sad to say but I seriously believed that as a kid.
How old were you when you became aware of race?
K. Really early on. My grandparents (who are my adoptive grandparents and are white) would tell me I’m Aboriginal and try to teach me what they knew. The sense of being different started when I was in pre-primary. Up until that point I went to school with a group of kids that I had known since we were babies and then a new girl came and she took an instant disliking to me. As I got older and looking back on this experience there were definitely views her family held that might have influenced her response to me.
How old were you when you found out about your family's history, your mob and your country?
K. I’ve always known I was Yindjibarndi. My grandparents fought really hard to find out where my nana was from for my mum. We would go up to Pilbara to visit Nana every year when I was small. When she died, that stopped happening and unfortunately I don’t feel close to that side of the family.
When did you decide as an adult to reconnect with your Indigenous heritage and how did you start that process?
K. It was really out of need to be strong in who I was. There are serious injustices going on in Australia that I feel I am a part of. When Indigenous people are talked about everyone is put in the same boat when it comes to the concept of race. Having a non-Indigenous family meant that I also felt the playing down history and the playing down of injustices that continue to happen today. I didn’t really know how to deal with that so building up my identity and deciding where I stand on issues is part of me conquering feelings of uncertainty.
Does Aboriginality have an impact on the art you make?
K. It’s always had an impact. Partly, because there was a certain expectation that I felt from other people and an expectation that I perpetuated as well.
Going through Next Wave’s Kickstart program has allowed me to actually feel like an individual in my practice and not worry what other people (Indigenous or non-Indigenous) think or expect. That was a massive breakthrough. I thought my voice was not authentic because of how I grew up.
The other thing that helped was after I did visual art I went and studied sociology. That really broke things down.
What is the intention behind your art for you and what do you want people to gain from it?
K. For me, it’s the space where I am able to build my sense of identity and address trauma as well. It’s a very clear intention that transgenerational trauma stops with my generation. I have tried to create work that provides a calm space where non-Indigenous people can enter and consider as well. The issues that we see with Indigenous emotional wellbeing and physical health, at its very core, comes from our construction of the Australian national identity. We [Indigenous Australians] are not included in that narrative in a healthy way or in a way that’s actually respectful of our heritage. My most recent work Decolonist is really trying to turn this current perspective on it’s head.
Did you find that you met more people who you can relate to more or who relate to you and your values?
K. It took a while. It’s only happened in that last few years really, because I put myself in the situation of working with Indigenous people. Moving over to Melbourne was part of that too. Being around more people of a similar age thinking about these things as well. In Perth I didn’t know any other Indigenous artists my age thinking about these issues.
What does it mean to be an Aboriginal woman in Australia at the moment?
K. I am much stronger in being Indigenous than I was growing up. This is something I am still figuring out too and I don’t know everything about Yindjibarndi culture. The Stolen Generations happened, there’s been an impact.
Is that the same with blogging?
K. I did have a little blog but I got rid of it. I felt it was really good for working through ideas, but recently I did a total update of my website and deleted it. With Decolonist I realised that I have grown up with this idea that I have to lay everything out for everyone because people ask so many questions all the time, but I actually don’t.
Working in Indigenous health for a time, I believe in the wealth of sharing stories to learn but otherwise, I actually don’t have to show everyone everything all the time.
THE PIN. If you could give yourself one piece of advice about the skin you’re in what would it be?
KATIE WEST.This question makes me want to cry. I honestly don’t know what I’d tell my younger self or if there is any point in imagining what I would say, or even if I did hear this magical sentence as a kid, would it have made a difference given the context I was born into.
I can say that through my practice I have gained a much clearer sense of the understanding of the world that I would like to instil in my own children (who are yet to exist!). I hope they will grow up with a very clear understanding that the concept of race is a social construct, they have agency to define their own sense of identity, and they know when it is necessary to call out prejudice, both to stand up for themselves and others.
- This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photo credit: Next Wave Festival 2016.