Sally Scales has been surrounded by artists all her life and heavily involved with the APY Art Centre Collective since its inception in 2017, but it’s perhaps not surprising that she only found time to pick up the paintbrush herself at the end of last year.
As well as being a spokesperson and regional project coordinator for the Collective, Scales is also part of the youth leadership team for Uluru Statement reform, has worked on a number of projects with the Art Gallery of SA (including the 2020 Kulata Tjuta touring exhibition to France) and until recently was chair of the APY Executive Board Council (the youngest person to have held the role) – all in addition to being foster mum to her little boy.
The young Pitjantjatjara woman is driven to speak and advocate for her community, but, like many people, she found that COVID-19 was a catalyst for personal change. She realised she also needed her own creative outlet, and it was the perfect time to make it happen.
“Everyone recognised the importance of artists last year on a more fundamental level,” she says of the pandemic year, “because artists helped us survive COVID – from the TV and movies that we watched, from the music that we listened to, the literature that we were reading and also the visual arts that we were seeing in our own home or online…
“Art is so important to culture, it’s so important to civilisations as a whole, and we forget that… there was a joy in art last year. It was about survival, as well, of everyone’s mental health.”
Scales found it was fun to pick up a brush and start painting, especially in the studio of the APY Gallery in Light Square, a welcoming space where senior and emerging artists sit and paint together and which she describes as being a bit like an “APY embassy”.
“I think the first few works of mine are drastically different because I was still finding my artistic feet… but what the collective is good at and what my elders have always been good at is giving an avenue for young emerging artists in that space of ‘Have a go, we’re here to support you’.
“I think a lot of people get really turned off if they try once and it doesn’t work out as they want, so for me, it was more about, ‘I’m just here to have a play and I’m going to give it a go’.”
In around five months, she created enough significant works for a joint exhibition at the APY Gallery with her artist mother, Josephine Mick. Aptly titled Irititja – Old, Kuwaritja – New, Ngali – Us (a generation story), it was opened last week by Ben Quilty and continues until May 1.
While Scales is making her own mark, she is also continuing the legacies of her mother and her Kami (grandmother), revered artist Kunmanara Wawiriya Burton, who passed away in March. She says her Kami, whose work has been acquired by the Art Gallery of South Australia and also featured recently in the Tarnanthi 2020: Open Hands exhibition, was a wonderful teacher and painter who encouraged her grandchildren to try her style.
“When she was here over the Christmas break, she did some works on paper, so Mum’s done some works on paper and I’ve done some works on paper as a response to it, so it’s that generational story, which is really special for me.”
Those works on paper are being displayed as part of the APY Gallery exhibition: “It’s a joy to have a little bit of her legacy as part of this show as well,” Scales says.
Scales has 11 paintings in the exhibition, while her mother has five paintings on show. They include several large-scale works measuring more than 3m x 1.2m.
Mum’s works are quite stunning – she’s a Ford Falcon compared to my little Prius coming along
Josephine Mick, who has been making art and crafts since the early 1960s when she attended the mission school in Ernabella (home of Australia’s oldest continuously running Indigenous arts centre), paints her home, Aralya, in the far north-west corner of South Australia. She is pleased that her children and grandchildren know their country and their Tjukurpa, and that painting has been passed down the family line to Sally.
“This is a special show for me. We remember my little mum Kunmanara Burton and show the new generation in my daughter Sally… My Sally is all of ours and we are so happy she is painting with us.”
For Scales, exhibiting alongside her mother has helped allay the nerves that might accompany a debut art show. The two enjoy painting together, but each has their own distinct style.
“We’re both brush painters but Mum’s works are quite stunning – she’s a Ford Falcon compared to my little Prius coming along,” Scales says with a hearty laugh.
“My work is very contemporary; it’s got a lot of elements to it, a lot of colour, a lot of spunk.”
Like her mother, Scales paints her home, Aralya, with her works drawing on old stories and traditions expressed through a fresh lens and a style that involves using several thick layers of paint.
“I don’t like divulging the inner stories, because I think that’s a trap with Aboriginal works,” she says. “People want to know the story rather than feel the painting or see it as a visual piece of work.
“My inspiration is my mum and my grandma but it’s also those inspirations from those elders because for me, I wouldn’t be where I am without all that leadership that was bestowed on me.
“I was 15 the first time a senior artist asked me to help them and support them. I’m now 31, so I’ve been around this space for 16 years.”
In her artist’s statement accompanying the APY Gallery exhibition, Scales reiterates the importance of Tjukurpa for Anangu, describing it as “a place, songs, dances, law and culture”. She says she has been lucky to have many family members teach her about her Tjukurpa, “and how to be a strong Anangu woman”.
“As I continue the legacies of my Kami and Mother, I carry the hopes of my elders and leaders in APY. I hope I can do them proud.”
The Sally Scales and Josephine Mick collaboration exhibition, Irititja – Old, Kuwaritja – New, Ngali – Us (a generation story), is at APY Gallery in Light Square until May 1.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.