Told to Ashley Ellis
‘To me, being bold is getting out there and just doing it, saying what’s on your mind and not holding back.’
My name is Jeanie Mason, and I’m one of the Bakandji people, from Wilcannia in Western New South Wales. My great grandmother was Sarah Cabbage, and she was the leader of the Bakandji people. I’m an artist and through my artwork I share cultural stories that my mother taught me. In 2022 I showed a collection of works at Hunt Club in Brimbank, depicting my mum’s stories. It was lovely to have the time during lockdown to make my art and get all the stories down. It really was a way of saying thanks to my mother for everything she taught me.
As a child, when holidays came, we never went away. Instead, my mum and my aunty Jessie would take us out to the bush. Those trips to the bush is where my art began. Mum would teach us about culture and tell us stories, which I drew in the sand to help me remember them. I learned about the emu (which is my totem), and how you need to tread very carefully when you go out to collect their eggs, because they have very good hearing. I’d draw the emu, and maybe some eggs next to it, and the pictures would help me remember the stories. I think I’m very much like my totem animal, the emu, because I’ve always stood my ground. My father taught us never to go looking for trouble, but if trouble finds you, don’t walk away. Stand your ground, say your piece, and then walk away.
Mum taught us how to identify medicinal plants; the ones that would make you sick, the ones that could heal, and the ones that could kill. She taught us how to fish with a hand line. I never knew mum could climb a tree, but on one trip out to the bush she pointed to some nuts right up the top of a gum tree, and before we knew what was happening my fifty year old mum was scaling that tree! She went up so damn fast I thought she was going to fall out! She could also run, and could run a rabbit down to catch it so she didn’t need to shoot it. She was quick!
How my art practice and storytelling began
The walls of the houses on the mission where we lived were lined with fibro, and if anyone played up and broke the walls, the bits were thrown into the little levy that ran through the mission. My cousin and I found some square pieces one day, and we looked at each other and said, ‘we can draw on these!’. So we drew on them with charcoal to capture mum’s stories, and we’d use a piece of rag to rub it off. Later, one of my eldest sisters gave us some old exercise books and pencils, and with that step-up we felt pretty flash!
Mum used to say that if you’re ever out bush and you have no food, you watch the birds, and eat what they eat. She was so tuned in to her environment, and she would pay attention to everything. When we hear birds, we just hear chirping, but mum knew exactly what they were all saying. Just before she died, she told us all about that. I just looked at her and thought to myself, ‘you never ever mentioned that before, you’re just about ready to leave us and you’re still teaching us things’.
Once, when I had heart surgery I hallucinated because of the medications I was on, and during the hallucination I saw all my family members and I was arguing with two older sisters that had passed, demanding to see my great grandmother Sarah Cabbage. The experience seemed to unlock something in my brain and I was able to remember some dance steps that mum and aunty Jessie had taught me. The doctor said that my feet were moving like I was dancing. Soon after, I went home to visit my cousin and I wanted to show her the dance steps. At the time there were men around which meant I couldn’t show her, and unfortunately I never got another chance to share them with her, so I’m going to teach my daughters so they can carry the legacy forward.
Finding strength in service
One of the bolder things I’ve done was going to uni as a mature age student and then working as an aboriginal customer service officer at Centrelink. My job was to help aboriginal people feel culturally safe and I consulted to various teams to help them provide better service to aboriginal people. You can’t be above other people. I don’t care what nationality they are. You can’t put yourself up here, and see them as being down there.
You have to meet them at their level, look at life through their eyes, and not judge them in any way.
I really loved working at Centrelink and I felt I made a difference in people’s lives. I think roles like the one I had are still really important today because there is still a lot of racism. You see it, you feel it. You can pick up on the falseness. They’ll say the right things, and make a token effort toward reconciliation, but when it’s not genuine you can feel the lies.
There was a time where I had to speak to a room full of mostly white people about my work. I was so scared I was shaking. I was very shy, but in that moment something came over me and I said to myself ‘stuff this! I’m tired of being like a scared little mouse, I’m going to go out there and put my thoughts on the table!’ So I did! I told them exactly what I was doing. I put it all out there. To my surprise, it was received really well! Some of my colleagues didn’t think I could talk, and when I finally did, they said ‘Jeanie, you’ve come out of your bottle!’ and I said ‘I’ve come out, and now you’re gonna hear me!’
Bold Stories, Bold Lives is a collection of portrait artworks and interviews by artist and writer Ashley Ellis – a culmination of a Creative Brimbank community storytelling project.