Mother and daughter weave magic on canvas

18th April 2020 10:00 AM

In the rocky crags of Valla Beach on the northern NSW coast, Melissa Greenwood and her mother Lauren Jarrett sit in the darkness and heed the crashing waves.

It's an ancient birthing cave, where on this "jagun" (ground) a long line of Aboriginal women have welcomed the next generation of their people.

Lauren played here as a "jarjum" (child), now, like her mother Melissa, comes here to draw on the strength of her matriarchs.

Mother and daughter artists Melissa Greenwood and Lauren Jarrett find strength and inspiration in ancient birthing caves on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales. Photo: Marley Morgan (@barefootwandering.photography)
Mother and daughter artists Melissa Greenwood and Lauren Jarrett find strength and inspiration in ancient birthing caves on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales. Photo: Marley Morgan (@barefootwandering.photography)

For many Aboriginal people these birthing caves are a place of healing and reflection.

"We often visit and sit in them and feel the energy of all those years ago," says Melissa, who is a descendant of the Dunghutti, Gumbaynggirr and Bundjalung tribes.

Dunghutti and Gumbaynggirr traditional country stretches from the far north to the mid-north coast of NSW. Bundjalung encompasses the northeast corner of NSW and the southeastern corner of Queensland, as far as Grafton in the south, Logan River in the north and inland to the Great Dividing Range at Tenterfield and Warwick.

Melissa's maternal great-grandmother was one of the main cultural midwives on Gumbaynggirr country in the 1940s, a time when Aboriginal women were not allowed in hospitals. She says "Gran" delivered babies all over the Nambucca Heads valley, even some of her own grandchildren.

"Birth and the whole process of having a child is a beautiful thing," Melissa says.

"How it transforms your life as a woman is why we are so drawn to it."

It's this matriarchism that inspires the artist duo's brushstrokes on canvas; a mother-daughter relationship that has flourished into the thriving Aboriginal art business, Miimi and Jiinda, Gumbaynggirr for "mother and sisters".

Melissa Greenwood pictured with her mother Lauren Jarrett, who is a master basket weaver. Photo: Marley Morgan (@barefootwandering.photography)
Melissa Greenwood pictured with her mother Lauren Jarrett, who is a master basket weaver. Photo: Marley Morgan (@barefootwandering.photography)

MIIMI

Melissa's grandmother "Nanna Etti" was the oldest Gumbaynggirr woman left in Nambucca Heads before she died in 2005. She had 14 children, many who were taken by welfare as part of the Stolen Generation. Lauren was one of them.

She was nine years old when the government forcibly removed her from her homelands on the mid-north coast and placed her in an orphanage.

"Some of my fondest memories were of Red Rock and Corindi, spending a lot of time with the elders, who back in those days spoke in language and still did hunting," says Lauren, who was born in Bowraville.

Red Rock, near Coffs Harbour, was her grandmother's father's ancestral homelands.

"We ate a lot of bush foods. (There was) lots of fishing and sitting around the campfire, it was more tribal with bigger families. (We) played in the bush, making things out of our environment and drawing pictures in the dirt and the sand with sticks.

"Then I was taken away and put in an orphanage. I remember everything. I was nine when I went in and I left when I was 18."

The 63-year-old said by that time, she was "a proper little white girl".

Miimi and Jiinda founders Melissa Greenwood and Lauren Jarrett. Photo: Marley Morgan (@barefootwandering.photography)
Miimi and Jiinda founders Melissa Greenwood and Lauren Jarrett. Photo: Marley Morgan (@barefootwandering.photography)

When Lauren reconnected with family many years later, she says she felt like a stranger, confused, like she didn't fit in.

"It would take some time to reconnect as we were now virtual strangers, as a result of me being in an institutionalised environment.

"It was very different to an indigenous tribal background. Rules, regulations and punishments became the norm in a new and strange world. We had to do what we were told or be chastised and as an Aboriginal person I often felt misunderstood. I found myself constantly in trouble.

"When I came out, I was so full of anger. I realised I had to do something about it, so I made an effort to pursue Aboriginal cultural knowledge as a means of healing.

"Today, I am appreciative of all my experiences as they have made me a more understanding and caring person of all cultures, white and black."

Lauren was determined to regain knowledge of her indigenous heritage that she had lost.

"Painting was very important, finding my stories, doing dance and weaving," she says.

"It's helped me find peace. I've shared this with my children and grandchildren and continue to teach and share our cultural ways today to all races."

Lauren is now a highly respected master basket weaver. She has been painting and weaving for the past 30 years. Her weaving creations have hung in some of Australia's top galleries and museums, including the National Museum of Australia.

Melissa Greenwood from Miimi and Jiinda pictured with the artwork commissioned by Andy and Deb from The Block 2019. Photo: The Block/Channel 9 (supplied by Melissa Greenwood)
Melissa Greenwood from Miimi and Jiinda pictured with the artwork commissioned by Andy and Deb from The Block 2019. Photo: The Block/Channel 9 (supplied by Melissa Greenwood)

JIINDA

Some of Melissa's earliest memories are of her mother painting. She fondly remembers floors and tabletops sprawling with natural fibres, ochre, paint and brushes.

"Our house was always filled with Mum's paintings and baskets," the 35-year-old says.

"I was born on Gumbaynggirr country in Coffs Harbour, then I spent my adolescence years on Bundjalung country. Mum was painting a lot of Bundjalung dreaming and creation stories at the time, so I learnt a lot."

Lauren single-handedly raised Melissa, her sister Sandy Greenwood, an award-winning actress and her brother, Minjarrah, a talented musician.

"Mum taught me and my sister to do traditional dance growing up. My brother, he does traditional dance as well, and plays didgeridoo," Melissa says. "I always wanted to be an artist like Mum but never had the full confidence to finish a painting."

In 2015, Lauren moved to Melbourne to be with Melissa as she awaited the birth of her first child, son Harper, who is now four.

"During that time, we got really into painting and weaving together," Melissa recalls. "Mum forced me to finish a painting for the first time, to finish it and feel really proud about it."

Lauren interjects: "She was a natural artist and couldn't see for looking."

"My lack of confidence in my paintings, originally, comes from what we've been through," Melissa says.

Birthing Caves series by Miimi and Jiinda, created by Melissa Greenwood and Lauren Jarrett. Photo: Melissa Greenwood
Birthing Caves series by Miimi and Jiinda, created by Melissa Greenwood and Lauren Jarrett. Photo: Melissa Greenwood

Melissa describes life as hard growing up. She says the intergenerational trauma is in her DNA. Her family lived on welfare. While they were financially poor, her mother made sure they were culturally rich in other ways.

"Mum was traumatised from the home (orphanage) that her own confidence was shot, so we didn't have much self-confidence either," Melissa says.

"It affected us quite heavily. Me, my sister and my brother were all angry about what happened when we were teenagers. I think it was the pain of what happened to Mum and intergenerational trauma that was passed on.

"I remember being very angry at the law for the injustice that it did to our people and my family and my mum.

"I studied legal studies throughout high school, then I went on to study a Bachelor of Justice Studies majoring in Critical Criminology at uni and was always fascinated with the law. Originally, I wanted to be a lawyer so that I could represent Aboriginal people, but I ended up doing similar work supporting survivors of the Stolen Generation and running Aboriginal youth projects."

Miimi and Jiinda co-founder Melissa Greenwood. Photo: Contributed
Miimi and Jiinda co-founder Melissa Greenwood. Photo: Contributed

Melissa is the national projects manager for Culture Is Life, a national organisation that prevents youth suicide in Aboriginal communities.

In 2018, she was moved to launch Miimi and Jiinda with her mother and Sandy.

"After growing up with all Mum's paintings in the house, I thought we need to do something with all of these paintings," Melissa says. "I remember saying 'we need to get these out into the world for people to see her talent'."

Miimi and Jiinda founders Lauren Jarrett and Melissa Greenwood. Photo: Yaseera Moosa
Miimi and Jiinda founders Lauren Jarrett and Melissa Greenwood. Photo: Yaseera Moosa

They started off with a market stall in Melbourne, followed by the creation of their Instagram page (@miimiandjiinda).

"We had our first exhibition in Seaford (Victoria), near where we were living, and it sold out on the first day. We had to restock and it sold out again," Melissa says.

"That's when we realised, 'wow, people are really loving what we do'."

Miimi and Jiinda now has more than 25,000 Instagram followers.

"Once we began to establish the business more, Mum had a calling to move back home to Gumbaynggirr country, near Nambucca Heads," Melissa says.

That was early last year. Melissa followed with her young family.

"Painting and doing culture on country, where we are from, just felt right," she says.

Melissa Greenwood says she feels fortunate she is able to paint with her mum every day.
Melissa Greenwood says she feels fortunate she is able to paint with her mum every day.

Together, Melissa and Lauren's art tells the story of their matriarchs through fleshy pink and deep red ancient birthing caves that hedge across the canvas. Big circles with intricate dots and free-flowing linework represent meeting places, connections and the heart centre.

"Having a child does something to you," Melissa says. "It shifts your whole being and you become more whole, and the confidence comes through. Having Mum with me, physically, living with me for two years, her encouragement, she guided and pushed me.

"We've gained strength from the struggles we've all been through as a family, and that is portrayed in our artwork. We're passionate about change. That's where all the beautiful light and bright colours come from."

Miimi and Jiinda's big break came in 2019 when their fledgling business was commissioned by Nine's reality renovation series, The Block.

"I reached out to The Block Shop on Instagram and mentioned that we had some artwork," Melissa says. "That's how Deb and Andy (contestants) found us."

The artwork was 2.5m by 1.8m and hung in the contestants' living room.

"We were in disbelief that they chose us to do this huge painting," Melissa recalls.

"A lot of people actually said, 'it's not going to happen, you're not going to get it done in a week, why don't you let it go and try out next year on The Block'. I was like 'absolutely not'. Nothing was going to get in our way.

"I took four days off work and we pulled the couches out of the lounge room and put them on to the deck. We cleared the whole space because the painting was so big when we laid the canvas down.

"We painted for 10 hours a day for four days straight. My whole body was sore. We had to take turns. That was the first time we've done a painting that size."

 

Miimi and Jiinda's break came when The Block contestants Andy and Deb commissioned them to paint a massive canvas for their living space. Photo: Channel 9
Miimi and Jiinda's break came when The Block contestants Andy and Deb commissioned them to paint a massive canvas for their living space. Photo: Channel 9

Prints of Andy and Deb's piece, titled Jaanamyli, are Miimi and Jiinda's most popular piece. The painting represents a "meeting place".

"It is beyond words how popular the painting has been. Everyone just connects with it," Melissa says.

While Sandy is no longer working with them, the First Nations actress is telling the stories of the family's feminine bloodline in the theatre production, Matriarch, which recently won two Green Room Awards.

Melissa Greenwood and mother Lauren Jarrett. Photo: Alicia Fox.
Melissa Greenwood and mother Lauren Jarrett. Photo: Alicia Fox.

As Melissa raises her own son on Gumbaynggirr country, just as her mother raised her, Melissa says she feels a strong sense of responsibility to keep her culture alive.

"I feel like there is magic behind our business, it feels like this business and what we are doing is bigger and beyond us. It's like our calling from our ancestors and we're doing what we are supposed to be doing in this lifetime.

"I feel very lucky that I am able to paint with my mum, that she can be my teacher."

miimiandjiinda.com