Sonda’s Country

Sonda Turner

It was another hot and humid day in Northern Australia. I had been living in Darwin for 4 months and was now at ease with this bustling, vibrant and stuffy city. One day, while walking by the art gallery, I saw an Aboriginal woman sitting on the ground, her legs spread around a large canvas, her paints and brushes within easy reach. I stopped to observe her. Her hands were moving fast from the paint tins to the canvas as she was adding tiny dots here and there. It was mesmerizing; you had to keep watching.

The woman felt my gaze and raised her head. She was in her 60s, had a broad face and was wearing a large shirt and a long, flimsy skirt. Her name was Sonda. Without any preamble she started to describe her painting. This circle is a women’s ceremony. The twirling circles are willy-willies. This is a water hole. This is an emu track. All of a sudden, a whole map was unravelling before my eyes. She was inviting me home. This is my country. I sat down next to her to be closer to the painting, to her, to stop feeling like I was looking down on her. Her explanations were fast-paced, her words half-pronounced and her voice had earthy and throaty accents. I had to focus. She then showed me her brushes, all made of hair from the women of her family. What she was holding in her hand was a whole family heritage. Before I left, she asked me to come back in a week to see the finished masterpiece. And so I did. I was determined to buy her artwork but because a customer had already reserved it, I went for another painting instead. Sonda even negotiated the price for me because “some galleries make extra profit at the expense of their artists”.

A few weeks later, I had said goodbye to Darwin and resumed my journey around Australia. Next stop: Hobart, Tasmania. There, standing by the harbour, I could feel the chilling wind coming from Antarctica and I could have sworn I detected a faint whiff of penguins. Walking around town, I discovered an aboriginal art gallery and decided to go have a look. A notebook caught my attention because of its strangely familiar art style. I asked the manager the name of the artist: Sonda Turner. The very same Sonda I met some 4,500 km up north. He went on about what a famous artist she was and how she had been touring around the globe. I thought about our casual encounter. Even though she was in the middle of creating, Sonda took the time to share her knowledge & story with a complete stranger. And for that, I will always feel very blessed.

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