Dreaming Through a Paintbrush
Like the ancestors before her, Bidjara artist Sheri Skele uses paintings to tell stories of coastal landscapes. Georgia Beard explores her journey to discover her indigenous heritage and preserve her culture on the canvas for generations to come.
When Sheri Skele goes into her art studio, her daughters often follow. Heart, 7, and Haven, 4, love to watch as warm colours and nature-inspired patterns move from the paintbrush to the canvas. Sometimes she gives them their own canvases, and two generations paint alongside each other.
This sense of connection and family heritage is important to Sheri. As a proud Bidjara woman living on Gubbi Gubbi land on the Sunshine Coast, she connects to her deep-rooted indigenous culture through artistic expression.
Her style is free flowing, using Aboriginal dot techniques, symbology and natural ochre pigments to symbolise diversity and reflect the local landscape.
She hasn’t been painting for long. After dabbling in cake decorating and arts and crafts over the years, she first picked up a paintbrush in the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns.
“I’ve always been able to express myself through art, but I didn’t know I could actually paint, so that came as quite a surprise to me,” she said.
“My first idea was inspired by local Gubbi Gubbi country.
“I grew up listening to John Williamson, and I just love his music. He sings about Australia and the different Aboriginal communities he’s visited and that also inspires me.”
Sheri embraced Aboriginal art as a form of expression, establishing her business as an artist and digital designer.
Through Bigi Nagala – meaning ‘I am dreaming’ in Bidjara language – she tells stories of the environment and shares memories of culture and country.
“Aboriginal art wasn’t really a choice,” she says. “It was more intuitive. That’s what felt right for me, and it just came through naturally.”
Growing up on the Sunshine Coast, Sheri originally believed her family belonged to the Gubbi Gubbi people and spent years unaware of her true Bidjara background.
“Like so many of my Aboriginal brothers and sisters, I grew up not fully understanding my heritage,” she said. “Understanding my past allowed me to learn about another culture and I use this research and knowledge to empower me and influence my art.”
Although most of her elders are no longer alive, the elders Sheri was able to meet have welcomed and encouraged her. She continued to explore her identity through her own research, joining Bidjara groups on social media and meeting other Bidjara people whose land spans across South West Queensland and is home to substantial Indigenous cultural heritage, Indigenous healing places, undisturbed natural bushlands, lagoons, wildlife and ancient waterways.
Sheri also gained opportunities to travel and experience different Aboriginal communities and traditions.
While living in the town of Nhulunbuy in the Northern Territory, she landed a job at Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation, which facilitates the protection, conservation and sustainable management of land for recreational use. There, she found community among other indigenous people.
“When I was travelling, my aunties and uncles took me out bush,” she said. “They weren’t my actual aunties and uncles, they just took me under their wing, and that’s what they asked me to call them.”
“They were Yolgnu, part of the Northeast Arnhem Land culture. They shared many stories with me and began teaching me how to live off country.
“That was where my spark to get to know my culture was lit.”
Now Sheri draws her artistic inspiration from a childhood spent on the Sunshine Coast beaches, and an adulthood spent exploring her Aboriginal heritage.
Our dreamy cover art, Pink Sunset, arranges Aboriginal symbols of people and meeting places in a natural landscape with hues of peach and gold, revealing the rich indigenous history of our region.
A former Pharmacy Assistant, Sheri also has completed a Bachelor Degree in Social Science with a Geography Major and an Urban Planning Minor.
However, art now has her heart.
“When people look at my art, I hope they can learn a little bit more about the oldest surviving culture in the world,” she said. “I would like to inspire people, particularly non-indigenous people, so they can take it upon themselves to understand our culture.
“I know this is my passion now and this is what I want to do for the rest of my life – and I want to teach my daughters.
“Every time I’m painting, and they come into the studio, they’re asking me questions, which prompts really good conversations.
“I didn’t grow up in a family or a home where we talked about it. I was always envious of other people who were lucky to grow up completely immersed in their culture, so I just want to expose the girls to their culture as much as I can.”
Discover more about Sheri’s story and artwork at www.biginigala.com.au