An Interview with Jandamarra Cadd

An interview with Jandamarra Cadd

Jandamarra Cadd is a Sunshine Coast artist whose stunning portraits provide a moving message of unity, where Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians walk together, healing the wounds of the past.

Jandamarra has been a finalist in many major Australian art prizes, including the Archibald Prize in 2014. He is also an inspirational speaker who works closely with young Indigenous youth.

We’re in Jandamarra’s studio hideaway in the Noosa hinterland location of Pomona, and I’m interested in what brought this Indigenous man from Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Warung country in Victoria to this location.

My parents moved up from Victoria for work when I was very young, so I mostly grew up in Brisbane.  I feel very nurtured when I return to my ancestors’ country, and spent several years there as an adult. I’ve lived here now for 21 years and have made connections and do collaborative projects with the local Gubbi Gubbi people whose land I walk on with the utmost respect.  I travel a lot with my work, but always enjoy returning here to our little oasis with all its natural abundance. Being here and spending time with family gives me strength and refuels me.

You suffered sexual abuse as a child, ended up on the streets, and served time in juvenile detention centres. Has this influenced your work?

Immensely, because it shaped me in ways that a nice comfortable little life would not have. What I experienced as a child created immense anger and frustration. The hardest thing was trying to live in two worlds, trying to walk the line between the Aboriginal world and a primarily European society. In some ways they share similar values, but they are also vastly different.  A counsellor in a detention centre introduced me to a paint brush at the lowest point in my life after a period of time in solitary confinement. I had no words to communicate my state of mind, and the brush provided a way for me to express myself. A whole new language opened up

Your commitment to human rights and change in Australia is evident, and is expressed as a gentle coaxing for understanding and unity. Do you see your work as political?   

It’s more social conscience art. I focus on the pro rather than the anti. Some very traumatising and harsh things have happened to me and other Aboriginal people over time, and that damage needs to be acknowledged. But then a way forward must be found to heal from that. So through my art I invite the viewer to delve into those subjects, but in a way that is much gentler, like a tap on the shoulder rather than a slap on the face.  That, to me, invites true change, to bring about empathy and understanding. I want people to have a bigger picture of what Aboriginal culture is about, rather than resorting to stereotypes.

How would you describe your journey as a professional artist, and the development of your unique style?

It has evolved. At first it was quite difficult because I was working two or three jobs to sustain a lifestyle and still find time to paint. I started out doing traditional stories from my country, Yorta Yorta, and then over time it evolved into portraiture, which I’ve now been doing for about 18 years.  I found that through portraiture I could capture a specific look or facial expression that could speak volumes and capture powerful moments in time. Like a piece of music can move your spirit. My intention for doing that is to bypass the intellect and have people feel my pieces. When people feel, they start to let go of their biases and it softens the boundaries they have.

The dots are used to show how for Aboriginal people the connection to country is intrinsically linked to their sense of well being. So the dots themselves become a landscape which forms a part of the portrait as a whole.

Your combination of realism and Indigenous motifs is unique and crosses some cultural and stylistic boundaries? How has this been received by the purists of each style, and by galleries and buyers?

I’ve done it very respectfully. I do use dots in my work but don’t use symbols or stories from the traditional past.  I try to bring the two worlds together in an harmonious and balanced way. In that way it is quite contemporary – it’s a contemporary expression. I live in a contemporary existence, and these two parts are a reflection of who I am as a Scottish, Swedish and Aboriginal man living in today’s society.

My style does not belong in certain categories. It’s been a battle to try to be seen because it’s not traditional and not activist art, so I have had to forge my own way. There have been a lot of closed doors along the way, but they are opening up.  Finding your own fingerprint and living that to the fullest authentically is a beautiful thing, and that’s my approach.

In terms of economic survival, I try to align my purpose with day to day survival as far as possible, so my work is sustainable.  I don’t paint to follow the popular trends, and very rarely do commissions. I paint topics I am passionate about. Balancing the two has been tricky because you need things to sell to keep the financial pressure off.  But there would be no challenge or healthy fear in producing the easy stuff over and over because it sells.

You volunteer your time to speak at forums and share your story with Indigenous youth.  How do you manage the balance between these activities and your artwork?

We do it very trickily; [‘we’ being Jandamarra and wife Amy who is also his promoter and logistical team.] Sometimes there will be four or five major commitments in one week, and then I have to fit in studio work.  I have had to complete 12 paintings in the last five and a half months while doing travel and speaking events. I choose commitments where I hope to make a difference. I want to be part of a movement that is about going against the tide of materialistic values and monetary demands. We need to value our connections with one another, our family, and our community as priorities.

What are the most important messages you have for Indigenous youth?

Most important is the need to have faith in yourself and don’t believe what society projects on to you. Know that you have come from a beautiful race of people who have lived in harmony for over 2000 generations and you are the product of this. And though things seem hard at times, know that your ancestors walk with you.

How do you see your style developing?

I feel something new coming. There are volumes within me that I cannot put into words; a lot of my process is allowing the art to speak through me. I enjoy working in the hyperrealism style at the moment because it expresses feeling in a way that is very accessible to others.  But I dream of a more advanced expression of my message by having an even greater integration of the hyperrealism and the dots.

Tell me about your new exhibition coming up at the Caloundra Regional Gallery on June 20.

The exhibition is entitled ‘United Journey’. For me this is a very special exhibition because many of the portraits are of family and close friends. I have used their images to depict Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, not one of more value than the other, in true harmony and equality. It speaks of the need to walk together, living and learning from one another, and the need to act for sustainability within our economically driven society.

United Journey

Caloundra Regional Gallery, 22 Omrah Avenue, Caloundra.  

21 June to 12 August 2018.

The official opening, starting with Smoking Ceremony and dancers, will be on Wednesday 20 June at 5.30pm, and there will be a floor talk on 29 June.


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