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Flourishing in a harsh land

There’s a lot happening for Alena Landers (OW2020) right now. Her stunning artwork is being exhibited at the NGV, she’s started the art course of her dreams and she’s negotiating the whole new world of university life. She talks to Paul Munn about Life, the University and Everything.

For Alena Landers, life is suddenly going very large. The first person in her family to go to university, she’s in her first year of a Fine Arts degree in Visual Arts at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA). She’s in residence at Queens College. And she’s exhibiting her work A Harsh Land at the National Gallery of Victoria as part of the 2021 Top Arts Exhibition. ‘Top Arts’ – curated and administered by the NGV – showcases exceptional work created by students in VCE Art and VCE Studio Art.

A Harsh Land is the high point of an artistic journey Alena started as a child in Broome and continued through Yiramalay to Learning in Residence (LiR) and her Studio Arts course at Wesley Glen Waverley. The work is a series of mixed media collages that explore aspects of her Indigenous heritage,
along with the land and environment.

Alena explains it in her artist’s statement: ‘As a young Indigenous woman in 21st century Australia, from the Djugun and Noongar tribes of Western Australia, I’m constantly navigating the worlds of my Aboriginal culture from my hometown of Broome with that of my education here in Melbourne,’ she says. ‘I worked with natural bush plants, such as eucalyptus leaves to eco dye the fabrics, prior to collaging and stitching each work using symbolism to create small narratives of my identity, my people and my culture.’

‘My parents taught me to creatively express myself through art since I was young,’ Alena says. ‘Working on A Harsh Land was at times a challenging experience. I explored my family history which revealed their resilience and tenacity living on their country while being treated as outcasts. It reinforced the value of family and friends in my life and allowed me to explore my identity in a safe space.’

Alena’s Studio Arts teacher Michele Maher is very proud of Alena and what she has achieved, both as an artist and a person. ‘Being open minded about what one’s making lets the work take on a life of its own, and that is what Alena did. It’s why her artworks were so engaging in the end,’ she said. ‘She’s a highly resilient student and was able to put a lot of her own story into her art, which is perhaps why it was selected for Top Arts.’

One gets the feeling that for Alena, the art will take care of itself while she’s studying at the University of Melbourne; right now, the big challenges for her are coming from elsewhere.

‘This new period of my life is very exciting but intense; I'm still only very new to adult and uni life – it’s a pretty big shock to me! Not everything is straightforward like ticking it off a list. It can be a bit overwhelming,’ she admits.

A bit like being drawn into a whirlwind…

Fortunately, she’s surrounded by ‘an amazing support system’ between Yiramalay, Wesley College, Queens College and support services on campus. And then there’s the friends she’s made along the way. ‘Meeting so many new people from all over Australia, with different cultural backgrounds and experiences has been by far my favourite thing. My new friends have made it easy to make new connections and friendships.’

‘Time is something I worry about. A lot. I worry about how I’m going to juggle my life with uni, friends outside of uni, college life and my personal life. I’m learning to manage my time better, which is going to be hard but a very valuable lesson that will help me in the future.’ Here Alena voices the realisation that comes to us all in this particular rite of passage: ‘At college you are your own responsibility.’

And what of life at Queens College?

‘O Week (Orientation Week) at College was jam-packed all day with activities from 7.00am to 11.00pm every day for eight days. I found it at times exhausting, but I felt better knowing I wasn’t alone in it, like the other 120 freshers at my College. You become really close with people really quickly.’
‘Queens follows LiR’s sense of family and community, but it is very much self-driven; no one’s taking you to your doctors’ appointments, telling you to go to dinner, school, meetings… It's not like you are a part of a community, it's more like you are the community - it's a very close college. I’m excited to really set down roots and make this my home, just like I did with LiR.’

Alena’s experience speaks volumes for the value of the Yiramalay/Wesley Studio School and LiR experience as a safe and supportive pathway our Indigenous students can take – should they choose to – into a broader landscape of social, educational and professional opportunity: ‘I was very shy before I arrived at Yiramalay and avoided a lot of socialising with others. My time at Yiramalay and Wesley allowed me the space to explore my cultural identity in a safe environment. I’m much more comfortable with who I am and more open to making friends and having new experiences.’

The flourishing Ms Landers may feel like she’s riding a whirlwind right now, but it’s lifting her into a bright future of her own making. Her final remark speaks powerfully about what happens when we create a space within our community for people to flourish: ‘I hope to someday become an art teacher. My art teacher Ms Maher really inspired me over the past two years and hopefully one day I can model her teaching to other kids back home in Broome.’

Paul Munn is the Editor of Lion and a regular features writer.

You can see Alena’s A Harsh Land in the 2021 Top Arts exhibition, currently showing at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia at Federation Square until Sunday 11 July.

Find out more about Alena's peers from the Class of 2020

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