Indigenous artist Leanne Tobin didn’t learn of her Aboriginal heritage until she was an adult.
A primary school teacher by trade but with a lifelong interest in art, Leanne was, somewhat ironically, working in Aboriginal education in the Northern Territory at the time she learned of a generations-old family secret where the heritage on her mother’s side was hushed up.
“My Nan chose to keep it secret, as soon as everyone was pale enough to pass as white,” said Leanne, a western Sydney born-and-raised Darug woman who, upon discovering the truth about her heritage, yearned to learn more.
“Nothing was talked about. Even my cousins who grew up knowing about their Aboriginality were silenced and told to keep quiet.
“The more we learned, the more we found out and the more I realised how significant mum’s story was."
Unexpected circumstances saw Leanne move back to Sydney in 1998, and employed in part-time work researching her history and mother’s family story.
"It became a journey of self-discovery and ‘serendipity’," she said. "Doors opened and provided opportunities to expand on those stories.
"I soon found there was so much to learn and that many were keen for me to share what I had learned.”
Her artwork developed a sense of purpose and became a vehicle to tell stories about her people and their past.
This journey has culminated in Leanne’s most ambitious work to date, an epic mural called “Gumadagu Gurang" (Place of our Ancestors) – a gigantic depiction of the southern night skies and the Emu in the Sky constellation as seen through Aboriginal eyes. The artwork (partly shown below) will take pride of place in the Westmead Redevelopment’s new hospital building, due to open later next year.
The mural, which carries the project title “The Night Sky”, is one of 14 artworks to go into the new hospital building and adjacent outdoor spaces.
To create Gumadagu Gurang – which consists of more than 20 panels painstakingly created to form the overall image – Leanne collaborated with her extended family, fellow Aboriginal artists Leanne Watson, Leanne Watson’s mother Aunty Edna, and her brother Chris Tobin.
Western Sydney University astrophysicist Professor Ray Norris consulted with the group earlier in the project on the orientation in the sky of the artwork elements.
“This was one of the things we learn when working with community – you can’t just go off on your own. There’s a consultative process, a necessity particularly when working with Aboriginal community,” Leanne said.
This process involved bringing together several different artistic styles for the overall artwork, with the group meeting for several planning and painting sessions, often at Leanne’s Blue Mountains home.
With the actual painting completed, the smaller canvases were then converted into the larger laminated panels, which have now been manufactured and are being installed in the new hospital building.
“Gumadagu Gurang represents the first of our projects that will go into these new spaces, and the committee is thrilled with the artists’ work,” said Carla Edwards of the Westmead Redevelopment Arts and Culture Committee.
“This massive project is a shining example of what we’re trying to achieve with this program of artworks and it fits beautifully into our stated themes of a healing environment connected to nature, understanding and respecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and promoting a positive identity for Westmead.”
Westmead Redevelopment Arts & Culture Strategy