un Projects is based on the unceded sovereign land and waters of the Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation; we pay our respects to their Elders, past, present and emerging.
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To return is to remember: Ruby Djikarra Alderton and Bianca Acimovic in conversation


Ruby, you are sitting in front of me. I see you. I see you physically. But how do you actually want me to see you? How do you describe yourself to the world today?

Within the artistic world, I often found that being my mother's daughter came with a lot of expectations. It took many years for me to, not only as an artist but also as an individual, differentiate myself from her. Both of my parents instilled in me that very lesson. Regardless of who they were, their languages or family history and heritage, to always be proud of myself and the richness within my own heritage from every angle. A part of that greater story as well, and a part of my family’s heritage, stories that they’ve left behind and being able to add to an incredible archive, especially for my own children.

That’s a long trajectory. You’ve got a cultural layer and an artistic layer that comes with your family. So, how do you share that?      

Members of my Yolngu family were activists at the forefront of land and sea rights, copyrights, arts law, protecting our sacred sites, protecting our languages, customs, lores and cultures. You know, Mum would always say it’s all in one. You know, the land, the art, the languages and everything, even us, we are all a part of those songlines together. All connected to one another.

For me, it was always through painting, printmaking and art in general that I found the best way for myself to connect and continue growing an ever-growing story. Even though I’ve always gravitated towards more painting and printmaking, I’ve always wanted to try new things. This usually ends up with me experimenting with all angles of my own identity and discovering new ways to express that.

Today, we are sitting in Kariyarra Country, and I feel that we can both comfortably say that we never thought we would end up here, in the Pilbara. Where is here? What is here?

Spinifex Hill Studio in South Hedland, in the heart of the Pilbara, Western Australia. Never in a million years did I think I’d end up somewhere over here on the west coast. I think it’s really important to me. You know what, graduating high school back home, at Yirrkala Community School in 2011 — that year, I was the only child to graduate. It doesn’t shock me so much when I stop and think about that, but I often find myself asking, Why is that?

As a mum of two now and with my eldest child on her way to high school in the next few years, it’s made me better understand that bringing what’s out there in the greater world to these remote places is critical for future generations. Creating an understanding that there’s so much out there and so many different pathways. As a child who had to be sent away to live in the big city for better education, I’d rather be a part of bringing that education to places that don’t get it as much.

You say, I never thought I’d end up here. You have not long lived in remote Western Australia. What was it that stimulated your significant migration from east to west? 

It’s a combination of a lot of things. I had heard many great things about the art practices from the Kimberley, then down into the Pilbara and even moving back east towards the desert. For us, it was a fresh beginning and being somewhere I’d never been before and just going along that new adventure. I could have gone home to the Territory or reverted back to the east coast. Then again, some things are too close to home as well.

When we reflect on the notion of return, what is the return of your story for you? What had happened at that time, and what are you returning to?

I was really mentally blocked and found it really hard to return to art making. Art making has always been something that has helped me heal myself somewhat. So two years ago, when my Mum passed away, being so suddenly cooped up in Newcastle, NSW, in our little unit amid COVID-19, I couldn’t do it. I didn’t know how to reconnect and return to art. It was the environment or just a longing to be in the country and return to somewhere that feels a little bit… I don’t know how to explain it, but away from all the hustle and bustle where I’m able to breathe, have thinking space, then I can return with a clearer mind.

You’re talking about losing your mum in your late 20s and being a mum yourself. You experienced family loss, but then you also lost your cultural icon. You lost your mentor?

Yes. Yeah. It was a lot; she was my first contact for everything. Everything. Whenever I just did a drawing or had an idea or a concept. She was always just a call away, no matter how far apart we were geographically. Mum was the person I would turn to most, especially during these difficult times, only this time, she was the very person I was mourning.

It felt really hard because I wasn’t sure who to turn to. For a bit there, I questioned myself. Have I learned enough from my mother to be able to go ahead and do it myself now? Even though I already knew to some extent in my heart the answer. I still resisted that, you know.

Mum had achieved so much. She received her doctorate at Flinders Uni, SA, Senior NT Australian of the Year and then the Australian Order came; Mum being Mum, we didn't make a big deal of it. On the other hand, the last few years were an eye-opener for me. It made me really go: oh wow, that’s my Mum! You know, when I heard her speak and reflect about her life experience, her own journey, and what it took to get there — I wish I’d asked more questions and all of that stuff. Weirdly enough, losing her made me feel like this is who I am.

You have described that your conscious return started when you saw the Spinifex Hill Studio gate. What were you returning to?

I felt so welcome when I walked in the doors here at Spini. At first, I spent a few weeks hanging out in the studio, painting, enjoying being here and soaking up the whole energy. The whole environment gave me the strength within myself and helped me return if you like.

Some of what you’re returning to are your individual art practice and your mum’s art practice. What is behind this?

Artistically, Mum and I would constantly bounce ideas back and forth from each other. Mum encouraged me to cross reference works of hers and to take inspiration from them. But I was also surrounded by my other mummies too, my Mum’s sisters. Painters, weavers, jewelry makers and printmakers, I know now what a blessing that was to have. Reflecting on that now has returned me to the idea of looking at other forms of art, too, and possibly other forms of expression. Many past projects of Mum’s, such as fabrics, that I’ve never got to experience seeing because it was before my lifetime. She and I talked about stuff like that and how maybe one day together we could, dreaming of the possibilities. Imagine if we did this and that, or we should try this. Unfortunately, we never got to it, but I’d love to return to those ideas we thought of together one day.

When we think of return as a symbol or a verb, it often has connotations of a curvature backwards. We think of return as a circle, a loop, a somewhat continuous spiral that takes us back and projects us forward. So where are you now? What is the trajectory for you? What does that next shape look like?

I’m not sure yet. But I’m keen to see what it actually turns into. I’m excited that I’ve returned to art. I’m excited to see what doorways open and the possibilities and what that means for me and for my two bubs as well. I believe I had to experience what I did to really stop, reflect and to understand myself better. Not just as a woman but especially as a young woman, a young mother. Returning back to feeling comfortable within myself again. Many pathways have been laid out for us. We just have to find the ones that fit and keep on going with it.

Ruby Djikarra Alderton is a Yolngu woman from Yirrkala in North East Arnhem Land who now lives on Kariyarra country in South Hedland, WA. Alderton is an artist and arts worker who has returned to practicing at Spinifex Hill Studio.

Bianca Acimovic is an arts and community engagement manager who over three decades has contributed to developing visual arts throughout Australia, expanding engagement and redirecting the focus of arts to be at the forefront of communities. Acimovic has recently moved to Kariyarra Country, in South Hedland, working with the Spinifex Hill Studio team.