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Cultural and cosmic forces drive Gavin Wanganeen’s art

Arts & Culture

Former Port Adelaide player Gavin Wanganeen admits it still feels “a bit weird” to be working as an artist after a long footy career, but the transition is paying dividends as he presents his biggest solo show at Hill Smith Gallery.

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Opening today, the Connected exhibition will feature a collection of contemporary paintings from what he describes as a “Star Dreaming” series.

“Pippa [his wife] and I saw a shooting star over at Port Victoria about four years ago and I said I had to somehow paint about that, so I paint about the night sky and I imagine myself in space above the stars looking down to the ground, dreaming about my family groups and my connection to family,” Wanganeen tells InDaily.

An AFL Hall of Fame inductee and Brownlow Medalist who played around 300 senior games for Essendon and Port Adelaide before retiring in 2006, Wanganeen is a descendent of the Kokatha Mula people in South Australia’s Central / South Western desert.

He has always felt a strong connection to his Aboriginal heritage and culture, and says he has been able to further explore this through his painting.

“It brings me back to my culture – my mum was part of the stolen generation herself and was taken from her parents when she was a young girl. To learn all about that is really powerful.”

The theme Connected also refers to his connection to his maternal great-grandfather, Dick Davey, a Kokatha man who grew up on the Koonibba Mission and was a respected leader in his community.

“I’m really dreaming of my family heritage,” Wanganeen says of his art. “So when I paint, it’s really spiritual. It’s made me want to understand and learn more about that side of my family.

“When people look at my painting, I want them to understand that it’s the view looking down to the stars and country.”

Part of Gavin Wanganeen’s Star Dreaming series of paintings.

Wanganeen’s art career had a tentative beginning when he was still playing football. During a discussion with his Port teammates about Aboriginal art, he suggested the Indigenous players each do a painting and get the rest of the team to choose the best one.

“We all went away and bought a piece of canvas and started it … I quickly realised it takes a long time so I rolled it up and put it away,” Wanganeen says.

“Eight or 10 years later, Pippa found it and asked me to finish it.”

Wanganeen completed the painting a few years ago, and it gave him the encouragement to continue with his art and develop his own contemporary style.

Although he has since shown his work in a number of places, the Hill Smith exhibition will be his most significant solo show in a gallery.

“Gavin’s artworks are themselves sublime, very subtle and spiritual,” says gallery director Sam Hill-Smith.

He adds that in addition to Wanganeen’s “natural energy and personality, there is also a greater cultural and indeed cosmic force that is contained in his work”.

Another painting in Wanganeen’s Star Dreaming series.

Wanganeen says it’s important for former footballers to forge a new life after retiring from the game, although the transition from the sporting world to the art world “felt a bit weird”.

“It still often feels a bit weird.

“I’m so used to playing footy – it was my life for so long – but it’s been really enjoyable.

“I love painting, and seeing a painting go up on the wall at home, that’s quite an adrenaline rush. It’s a wonderful creative outlet.”

Gavin Wanganeen’s Connected exhibition will be at the Hill Smith Gallery in Pirie Street from April 12 until May 5.

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