WOMEN OF NOTE:
Niah Mcleod | Artist
Niah Mcleod’s childhood memories have that small town charm—kids swimming in creeks, jump swings, laughter on the streets, and the kind of community spirit that only tends to grow in the places where you know your neighbours names and people stop to say hello. Mcleod grew up in the Northern Rivers, her mother was an artist and her father a poet, musician, and aboriginal activist. So while her connection to nature and artistic disposition was the likely trajectory, it wasn’t until 2016 that she first called herself an artist. To challenge and change takes resilience, but more importantly, demanding to see something differently takes courage. In an act of independence and intuition Mcleod began to explore her art practice as a form of meditation, breaking down the restrictive barriers of what that meant and looked like in today’s landscape. Through her paintings the artist seeks to shed light on Indigenous culture, instigate a sense of peace and calm amidst the chaos, and reinvigorate our relationship with nature.
Where were you born and raised and how do you think this upbringing impacted who you are today?
I was born in Nowra on the south coast of Sydney. At an early age my mum, brother, and I moved up to the Northern Rivers. I was raised by my single mum who was only 21! We were first living in a women’s refuge in Lismore then moved into an old cowshed that had been converted into a house in Bangalow, a small town in the Byron Bay Hinterland. A few years later my mum bought a house up the road, and this is where I grew up. I had an incredible upbringing. It’s a really beautiful place to live.
What was the atmosphere in your community like when you were young?
Very nature based, everyone outside, surfing. My school was on the beach in Byron so it was a really healthy community. Growing up the kids were in the creeks, making jump swings, we didn’t have all the phones and apps that people have now so you actually had to go outside to meet someone or talk to a friend—the best! Bangalow was a lot smaller back then, everyone knew each other.
What was your earliest memory of really noticing or understanding art as a form of expression?
Mum was extremely creative, so I grew up with her painting around the house and creating things from day dot. My father was an ARIA nominated song writer/singer and started The Doonooch Dance Group in the early 1990s. My first memory was watching the boys dance and sing in Bellingen.
When did you first begin to call yourself an artist?
The first time I ever called myself an artist was four years ago when I had to put my occupation down on my daughter’s birth certificate. I still find it strange to call myself an artist, or to tell someone what I do. People always give me the, ‘Aw that’s nice,’ look.
And you only decided to exhibit your work five years ago, what was the reason for the wait?
I grew up being creative and dabbling around but ... I failed art in high school. I cannot draw a still life picture of a bottle or a bowl of fruit to save my life and we never explored other ways of painting so I grew up thinking I was really bad at art. One day something just switched and I needed to meditate in my own way and this is what came out.
How do you approach your art? What’s your process like?
I try not to think about it too much. I start with two or three colours and that’s it. I’ve tried to plan paintings and I become really overwhelmed, so my paintings usually chop and change half way through. Whatever comes out, comes out.
Is there a particular message or intention that underlines your work?
I hope I can create some type of calm amongst the madness.
Toni Morrison once said, ‘This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.’ Does the current political, social, and environmental climate influence or inspire your work?
Definitely. Painting is my part, it’s my belonging, and it’s what I have to offer. I would love to speak out more [about] what’s going on—especially in politics, the incarceration of Indigenous people, the abuse our people still suffer throughout Australia on a daily basis—but I am not great with my words, I’m quite shy and if I can avoid the physical spotlight I will. If my paintings can bring peace to this chaos and show a little bit of Indigenous culture that may help to break down barriers, I’m so happy!
Do you think art can instigate change?
Definitely. If you feel something once you look at art then change has already occurred somewhere within you. Whether it’s your perception of something or an emotional change, the power of art can most definitely instigate change.
What’s your workspace like?
With two little kids running around 24/7 my space is chaos. I usually paint in ten-minute intervals or when my son sleeps. As soon as I am finished I have to put them away because my son likes to add his little input. My partner and I both work from home so we tag team with the kids throughout the day so the other can work.
What about your relationship to nature, does this influence your work?
Yes. Anyone who knows me knows my house is usually filled with plants and trees and flowers. I feel like I can breathe properly. It gives me a clear headspace.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a lot of commissions at the moment [and] I’m doing a collaboration with an underwear company that will be coming out next year. My work is [also] currently featured in Kate Owen Gallery as part of the East Coast Matters exhibition and I’m planning my next solo exhibition. Very exciting, a little bit overwhelming, and very surreal.
How do you nourish yourself?
(Laughs) I’m struggling in this department as most parents do but trying to become better. I really try to look after my skin. I meditate and I’m about to have my first night away from the kids in four years, so I’m pretty excited for a full nights sleep!
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m studying my native languages, so that’s taking up [time for] any other type of book. Otherwise, Pugicorn, Wombat Stew, and Edwina The Emu seem to be the night favourites.
What’s your favourite smell?
Rain. Always. Or sunscreen after someone has just come out of the ocean. I know, weird! My brother and I were very allergic to sunscreen growing up so maybe that’s why.
Do you cook?
Yes I cook; I’ve cooked in restaurants.
What’s your favourite thing to eat or make?
I eat everything. Maybe seafood? I have a major sweet tooth so I bake a lot of cakes. Although, I will burn toast almost every time.
Is art an act of courage?
I believe it is, it’s so daunting and it shows vulnerability. It took a lot of courage for me to put up my first painting. I still don’t go out of my way to show people in person. I hide them [the paintings] if people come over.
Is it an act of hope?
Are you hopeful?
I am hopeful.
What gives you hope?
My kids give my hope. Looking around and seeing what is currently happening in the world gives me hope. As fucked as it is that racism is still relevant and is still happening, thanks to people’s actions we have a very powerful voice and it’s finally being heard.
Interviewed by Annika Hein for Deiji Studio’s Field Notes