A few years ago, Cherie Johnson’s daughter came home from kindergarten and told her mum she had learnt a few Aboriginal words.
Then, Johnson recounts, her little girl said, “and you’re one of them!”
“And I said, ‘Big girl, you’re one of them too’, and she went – gasp, ‘Am I?!” Johnson says. “To her, this was news! She had not heard the term, ‘Aboriginal’.”
Cherie Johnson, like her daughter, doesn’t give too much thought to terms or labels. Instead, she’s devoted to opening eyes and sharing ideas, so that there is no sense of being them or us.
SOMEHOW – in between her family role, curating an exhibition, creating her own art, studying for a PhD, and running a business that bridges gaps between people – Cherie Johnson finds time for lunch.
She chooses the Honeysuckle Hotel by the harbour.
“It has nice light there,” she says, providing an artist’s response to the question of where she would like to eat. Not that Cherie Johnson readily refers to herself as an artist.
“For Aboriginal people, art is a western term,” she says. “Because the poetry and art and stories you know, you speak them, you sing them, you recite them, you wear them, you dance on the country they belong to. They’re all interlinked. So you don’t see them as an art practice. They’re just a practice.”
Cherie Johnson was born in South Australia in 1978, yet the heritage on her mother’s side is closer to this region. Johnson is a Gamilaroi and Weilwan woman. Unlike her daughter’s kindergarten experience, Cherie remembers being made to feel uncomfortably different when she first went to school. She recalls coming home crying, because some of the kids had called her “yukky names”. She was hurt that she had been called “black”. Her mother, Dawn, replied in a matter-of-fact way, “You are. You’re Aboriginal.”
Cherie Johnson not only knew who she was, she embraced it. Naturally, Cherie didn’t like being picked on for who she was, but she began to learn then what she still applies: “You have to be on your guard somewhat, because I don’t represent me. I represent my family and I represent my people.”
Cherie moved with her family to Lake Macquarie as a small child. From about the age of 10, she lived at Windale. The suburb’s reputation as a tough place to live is distant from Johnson’s memories of life in Windale.
“That was my community and I loved it,” she recalls. “It was a real community feeling and everybody looked over the fence, and if you weren’t home by the time the streetlights went on, the older people would say, ‘Get home before I ring your mother. It was that kind of environment.
“Especially in the Aboriginal community, we all looked out for each other, we all knew each other, and that was really beautiful.”
In her household, young Cherie watched her mother draw fine illustrations, and from her grandmother, Rachel Darcy, she learnt how art, nature and life were entwined. They were all part of who she was.
“This was the beginning of my love of creative expression, of nature, of life, just the natural, seeing things grow and creating something beautiful,” she explains. From her Nan, Johnson says, she also inherited a key character quality.
“Tenacity,” she says. I’m so glad to be born of this family line. My mother carries it, and I’m seeing it coming out in me as I get closer to 40, and I can see it in my daughter.”
As a teenager, Johnson’s tenacity was sorely tested. She lost her Nan and her father, David McLaren, in the same year – “I crumbled like a house of cards”.
“Some things I wasn’t processing, I was in my own grief, and then I realised I actually found solace in my art. It allowed me to think through things, to process and sometimes, just be meditative in my doing, and not have to get super analytical about all the other things going on in my life.”
Johnson expressed herself, and gave herself space to think, through painting, writing and dancing.
In her late teens, Johnson headed to Sydney, studied set design and danced at the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA) and participated in cultural workshops and conferences all around the country and overseas.
While attending an indigenous youth conference in New Zealand, she was in a bad car crash. Then a few years later, she had a serious medical episode. Those experiences jolted her to think about life. She left Sydney behind, and art – for a while. Back in Newcastle, she bumped into her future husband, Chris Johnson, outside a nightclub.
“It’s actually quite funny, because we met at high school, but I didn’t remember him,” Johnson giggles, explaining he had joined an Aboriginal dance troupe she had begun at Newcastle High. After the club meeting, he invited her to dinner, “and the rest is history. Two kids later. Actually, Sunday is our wedding anniversary. Thirteen years.”
Cherie Johnson embarked on a teaching diploma from the University of Newcastle. She had already completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts, which she didn’t enjoy, and for a time she “fumbled” through her teaching studies until it occurred to her she could bring in her art, culture and identity – “I was born to do this! All the parts of me, of who I am, fits into teaching”. What she had learnt in her life, she would share.
Working as a teacher, Johnson became aware of the need for more educational resources on Aboriginal culture. She set up a business, Speaking in Colour, which she says, has provided a learning curve for herself as well.
“I’m first-generation business,” she laughs. “At Speaking in Colour, we are inspired by tradition, but we are contemporary practitioners.”
Speaking in Colour’s clients have broadened beyond teachers; companies and government departments have hired the company to hold workshops and encourage conversations, to “join the dots” from the past to now, from the first Australians to all Australians.
Cherie Johnson is planning to do the same with an art exhibition she is curating for The Lock-Up in Newcastle. The exhibition, which opens on October 21, is titled “Transmission”.
Johnson has brought together artists from around the country. Among the exhibits are designs seared into felt hats by husband-and-wife team, Billy and Lulu Cooley. Johnson had become aware of the couple during an arts residency in central Australia earlier this year. She admires the way their work brings together two traditions – the pastoral, with the stockman’s hat, and the time-seasoned practice of burning patterns into wood.
The past and present will also be literally sewn together in the exhibition, with possum pelt blankets, and floating in the space will be a large jellyfish woven by a group of local women. The spectacular results of school students connecting with their culture will also be displayed, with a series of sculptures.
“These are all artists transmitting cultural knowledge in a culturally appropriate way,” Johnson explains.
“We wanted to get artists who were doing amazing works but were doing it in a way that was giving honour to the stories, and respectfully reviving [stories].”
Johnson hopes the exhibition provides a chance for viewers to experience a different way of looking at things, “through an Aboriginal lens instead of through a colonial lens”.
The ideas Johnson is exploring in “Transmission” flow into her research for her PhD. She has been looking at the impact of urban Aboriginal women connecting with culture, but her study also curls back to Johnson’s love of teaching. She hopes it contributes to a national conversation about education reform, and to help ensure learning about Aboriginal culture has a central place in every Australian classroom.
“All children have the right to learn about Aboriginal culture, because this is Australia,” she says. “If you walked into Canada or New Zealand [schools], you’d be greeted with a first nation culture, and we don’t have that yet.
“In those countries, that’s evidence of a two-way walking together. We don’t have a two-way walking together here . . . Until we have something like that, we are decades behind.”
Above all, Cherie Johnson wants her study and her work, her art and her heritage to connect more of “us”.
“I got taught very young, ‘We’re all linked to the chain, we all have our part’,” she explains. “We’re all together, we all do our different parts to make a whole.”