Professor Deborah Cheetham AO is a Yorta Yorta soprano and composer who has been an innovator in the performing arts for more than 25 years. She is the artistic director and founder of Short Black Opera and her operas include Pecan Summer, Australia’s first Indigenous opera, and Eumeralla: A War Requiem for Peace.
Her work has been commissioned by many Australian companies, including the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Australian String Quartet, Plexus Ensemble and the Goldner String Quartet. She is currently working on an international collaborative project, Woven Song, with the Australian Tapestry Workshop.
For The Influence, you have chosen to talk about the painting, Dulka Warngiid (Land for All) (2007) by Mrs Gabori, Mrs Moodoonuthi, Mrs Naranatjil, Paula Paul, Ethel Thomas, Amy Loogatha and Netta Loogatha. Tell me about it.
When you talk to people about works of art that have inspired them, I’m sure it’s common for people to say that it’s difficult to narrow it down, while some may be really definite about a single work. I’m in the latter category.
Often people will want to interview me, film me or take a photo and include it somewhere. If you google “Deborah Cheetham images”, you’ll see a lot of images of me standing in front of Dulka Warngiid. So even though I started out by thinking it was difficult to narrow down, a quick internet search would have helped me get there; it wasn’t hard.
It’s a painting which hangs in the National Gallery of Victoria at Federation Square. It stands at the end of the exhibition when you go through the First Nations gallery. At the other end of St Kilda Road a couple of blocks away, down at the Melbourne Recital Centre, there’s a tapestry version of the same work.
I’m not sure if you’ve had the chance to see it in person. It takes up the entire width of a gallery wall. I’m going to share my screen now – with an image, can you see that? None of the vibrancy that you can see in the image is exaggerated by digital enhancement. If anything, it’s more vibrant in person.
Dulka Warngiid was painted in 2007 by seven women from a little island off the Gulf of Carpentaria called Bentinck Island. From memory, it’s only about 23 kilometres across. It’s no longer possible to live there because of rising sea levels and most of the Kaiadilt people from Bentinck Island have moved to Mornington Island.
Dulka Warngiid means “land for all”. That’s the translation from the Kaiadilt. These seven women painted this glorious work as a collaboration. When you look at it, you see a map of Bentinck Island. You see its shape, you see that each section is clearly defined by a painterly style. We see part of the Country that each artist belongs to.
So these women painted this Country in 2007. And then in 2008, when they were building the Melbourne Recital Centre, Lin Bender decided there should be a tapestry made of this painting. Then the Australian Tapestry Workshop set about the commission to create a life-size replica of Dulka Warngiid. So you can see here the tapestry in situ at the Melbourne Recital Centre. On that wall there, on the second-floor balcony.
The Melbourne Recital Centre honoured me with life membership a couple of years ago and the presentation of that membership was made in front of the tapestry. I felt very humbled by the experience. I was fortunate again to be the recipient of the 2019 [Merlyn] Myer composition commission from the Melbourne Recital Centre, and I selected that artwork as the subject of my composition.
It made sense, because in the past five years I’ve written a collection of works called Woven Song, each of which responds to a tapestry which is based on a work by a famous Indigenous artist. I’m up to the fifth one, which premiered a few months ago. Singapore, Tokyo, New Delhi, Beijing and Paris are the five I’ve completed and there are five more to go – Dublin, Washington, Jakarta, Rome and the Holy See.
These tapestries reside in Australian embassies and high commissions around the world. You could call them silent ambassadors, but I would say they are not silent. I think we can hear with our eyes, in a way. But they are ambassadors nevertheless, in woven form, in 10 Australian embassies, high commissions and ambassador’s residences.
As many readers would know, I’m a member of the Stolen Generations. Returning to Yorta Yorta Country, and my grandfather’s Country, Yuin Country, has been a long journey. I spent my formative years not consciously knowing anything about that Country. I spent that time subconsciously knowing it but not being able to piece together the gap in understanding between my subconscious and my conscious being – the gap between the spirit, if you like, and the conscious acquisition of knowledge.
This is a work by seven women that live far away from their Country and it speaks directly to Country. This painting for me is about knowledge of your Country, about knowing it so intimately that you can speak of it without words. You can speak of your Country in colour, the texture of the painting, the stroke of a brush. Such is the detailed knowledge of Country. The logical thing for me as a composer was to respond to the artwork.
It’s life affirming. It’s wonderful. And there’s a sadness there because Bentinck can’t be inhabited any longer, so it’s about memory then, preservation of memory of a place that will go under water.
You know, I love the notion of the arts being unsiloed. Most of my career I have spent as a performer, as a soprano. But I’ve sought to bring the arts together as much as I possibly could. That’s never changed, I’ve always sought to bring the visual arts and performing arts together because that is traditional practice for First Nations people. The arts were the way of knowing, passing on knowledge and giving meaning to everything. They weren’t siloed: the singer was the dancer, the dancer was the painter, the painter was a storyteller.
Dulka Warngiid is outside of the embassy collection but I had the opportunity to respond to it – that’s how I ended up composing Song for Dulka Warngiid. There are eight parts of the island painted by the seven women, so there are eight movements in Song for Dulka Warngiid, which was premiered by Syzygy Ensemble in 2018. This song includes Kaiadilt language, which was gifted to me by the daughters of one of the artists, Mrs Gabori.
The daughters had come down to launch this exhibition of their mother’s work at Alcaston Gallery [then] on Brunswick Street and I was fortunate to be introduced to them at the opening. I knew I was writing this piece of music in response to this work, a work in which their mother was instrumental, and I wanted to let them know. When they said they would like to give me some language, I sang my thanks to them in Yorta Yorta – my grandmother’s language – and I was channelling her. She would have been fluent and I’m just clawing back bits and pieces of that language.
So I sang to them. It was an instant bond. They didn’t need to know how to interpret Yorta Yorta, they understood.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 17, 2021 as "Deborah Cheetham".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription