Artist, Niah Juella McLeod

Niah Juella McLeod is the face of the future: a child of the digital age who looks to her ancestors for inspiration. She is a post-modern pin-up girl, a cultural cornucopia, effortlessly melding boundaries to find meaning.

As an award-winning artist, model and proud woman of the Yuin nation, Niah is feted worldwide, but chooses to stay at home with her two children in northern NSW, co-parenting with her film producer partner, Blake. She has won the Byron Bay Art Prize (2016) and the UNSW Paddington Art Prize (Young Artist category, 2017). Her work is commissioned by Tourism Australia and she recently returned from meetings with European gallery owners. Niah’s first solo exhibition opens this month at Bangalow’s Ninbella Gallery. She is still years from 30. Niah’s paintings invoke dreams, the night sky, or perhaps her ancestral Dreaming. She doesn’t attempt to define the images that come to her. Rather, she finds inspiration as she approaches the blank canvas, fed by stories she feels she should know, but has never heard.

“It’s a strange feeling,” she says, when we meet at her home. “My images don’t have explicit narratives, just an idea of a story I think I may be a part of. My Uncle Paul once said to me, ‘It just appears from the mystic unknown that’s all around in the Dreaming’. I think that’s a pretty special way to look at it.”

Ngudjung Yugarang - Mother's Heartbeat by Niah Juella McLeod
Ngudjung Yugarang – Mother’s Heartbeat by Niah

How do you negotiate between tradition and painting your own way? “I follow my gut. I’ve had moments where I start to paint something and think ‘that doesn’t feel right, that’s not my painting’, but it’s completely intuitive. I didn’t grow up with Aboriginal artists around me to ask questions, so I’m still learning. I know I’m painting a story – I can feel it – but I don’t always know what the story is. My heritage gives me a solid sense of identity; it keeps me grounded by giving me a feeling of belonging.”

Has art always been part of your life? “Yes and no. I grew up in a house filled with beautiful Aboriginal art and my mum is an artist (not Aboriginal). I didn’t start painting until about four years ago when I began getting bad anxiety. Painting is my meditation.”

You committed to the life of an artist when you were 23 years old. Was that a difficult decision? “It was a bit of a leap. I had just moved down to Sydney; I didn’t know anybody. Luckily, I was renting with an awesome woman, then I met my partner, Blake. They were both really encouraging. I was accepted for an exhibition where, graciously, I sold every single piece of artwork. To top it off I found out I was pregnant with Matilda on the last day of the exhibition, so that was pretty special.”

What influenced your decision? “There were two moments in particular. I had sent the first painting I did to my paternal grandmother in Wreck Bay, on the south coast. I didn’t hear back from her, so I assumed that she didn’t like it. Then just after I moved to Sydney my sister called to say Grandma wasn’t well. I hadn’t been to Wreck Bay since I left with Mum when I was two, so this was daunting.

“I walked into this house with all my brothers and sisters and uncles and aunties and cousins, and everyone looked like me, but I had no idea who 99 percent of them were! It was amazing, but overwhelming.

“I was able to see my grandmother and say my goodbyes and she passed away the next day. While I was there my family told me that my grandmother had loved my painting, which sent this whole new set of inspired tingles through me.

“Then a few days later I had a casting for Fashion Week. I remember standing in line with a bunch of extremely young, stunning girls, feeling like cattle about to walk down the runway only to have someone say ‘Next please’. I thought ok, I can do better, and left. That was the moment I took that leap of faith.”

Niah with her family
Blake holds Darcy while Matilda cuddles up to Niah

How does art and motherhood work? “Matilda and Darcy are beautiful souls and I’m very lucky. In saying that, kids and fine dot art don’t mix well! I’ve had some big painting accidents with Matilda, and I’ve walked past paintings and seen that she has dotted along to put her part in, which is nice. Matilda has her own canvases now and I love that.”

Why Bangalow? “I moved to Bangalow when I was two years old: it’s home.”

Crazy question: how would aliens from another planet interpret your imagery? “Give me all the crazy questions! I would say they might read my art as looking like movement but feels still.” Which describes Niah herself, moving fast towards the future, powered by the still depths of the past.

Niah’s first solo exhibition is on at Ninbella Gallery in Bangalow, 7-27 December 2018.
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