Meet the Mob: Cherie Johnson

“Just because I’m Aboriginal doesn’t meant I have the flag tattooed to my forehead.”

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When Cherie Johnson was hanging her art works at an exhibition in Western Australia a critic challenged her use of white, rather than indigenous, kids as subjects.

But they were indeed Aboriginal kids – just fair skinned.

Cherie says she wearies of the narrow perception of who qualifies as Aboriginal.

“I’m Aboriginal because of my DNA, not because of my lingo,” she chirps.

A qualified visual arts teacher, Cherie Johnson takes Aboriginal education and creative resources into schools across the Hunter and across the country.

She’s “black and proud” and utterly passionate about teaching culture to kids, but her family’s passion for footy leaves her cold.

“I’m out the door when the Origin is on.”

Jill Emberson met Cherie for Meet the Mob while she was supermarket shopping with her 20 month-old son Tobias.

Hosted by Jill Emberson, Mornings presenter on 1233 ABC Newcastle, Meet the Mob is a weekly profile of Aboriginal people in the Hunter region of New South Wales.

You can listen to each Meet the Mob interview by clicking on the audio player or you can download each interview as an mp3 by right clicking on the blue heading under the audio.

Aboriginal fibre art classes at Olive Tree Markets to be presented by Speaking in Colour

EDUCATOR: Cherie Johnson, of Newcastle, is the force behind Speaking in Colour. The organisation will present workshops at Olive Tree Markets.

EDUCATOR: Cherie Johnson, of Newcastle, is the force behind Speaking in Colour. The organisation will present workshops at Olive Tree Markets.

OLIVE Tree Market in conjunction with Speaking in Colour, a Newcastle-based Aboriginal art and education organisation, will deliver five workshops giving Novocastrians a hands-on opportunity to learn more about Aboriginal fibre arts.
“We will be making bracelets for the littler cohort … for adults, we will give them a little starter making a bowl,” Speaking in Colour’s Cherie Johnson said.

“What we are having is a contemporary workshop inspired by tradition and local practices run by people in the local area.”

 Woven baskets

Woven baskets

Ms Johnson, a Wailwan woman raised in Newcastle, said the region had a rich history of Aboriginal fibre arts.

‘Weaving was part of everyday; everybody learnt to weave,” Mrs Johnson said. “Boys and girls learnt from a really young age.

“Everyone could weave, they could make something or fix something.

“There were also master weavers … people who were really good at teaching. You could tell their particular style, because they would use a particular pigment or stitch.”

“From my understanding, there were 16 different techniques across Australia. The techniques varied due to the objects they were making, but also the materials.”

Gumnut basket

Gumnut basket

In the Newcastle area, Awabakal country, the most common materials for weaving were lomandra, sedge and stringy bark.

“Stringy bark trees were all over and you would strip the inner new growth of the bark and make a rope,” Mrs Johnson said. “You would use that to make fishing lines, bird nets … it was also used for dilly bags.”

Awabakal used ochre, roots and seeds to dye the raw materials, Ms Johnson said.

Workshops dates: Aboriginal weaving, March 3; Aboriginal art appreciation, April 7; Aboriginal dance, May 5; canoe building, June 2; contemporary graphic art and painting, July 7.

All workshops are free, and are funded by Newcastle City Council.

For workshop times and information check the website:

Cherie Johnson connects cultures

Then, Johnson recounts, her little girl said, “and you’re one of them!”

“And I said, ‘Big girl, you’re one of them too’, and she went – gasp, ‘Am I?!” Johnson says.  “To her, this was news! She had not heard the term, ‘Aboriginal’.”

Cherie Johnson, like her daughter, doesn’t give too much thought to terms or labels. Instead, she’s devoted to opening eyes and sharing ideas, so that there is no sense of being them or us.

SOMEHOW – in between her family role, curating an exhibition, creating her own art, studying for a PhD, and running a business that bridges gaps between people  – Cherie Johnson finds time for lunch.

She chooses the Honeysuckle Hotel by the harbour.

“It has nice light there,” she says, providing an artist’s response to the question of where she would like to eat. Not that Cherie Johnson readily refers to herself as an artist.

“For Aboriginal people, art is a western term,” she says. “Because the poetry and art and stories you know, you speak them, you sing them, you recite them, you wear them, you dance on the country they belong to. They’re all interlinked. So you don’t see them as an art practice. They’re just a practice.”

Cherie Johnson was born in South Australia in 1978, yet the heritage on her mother’s side is closer to this region. Johnson is a Gamilaroi and Weilwan woman. Unlike her daughter’s kindergarten experience, Cherie remembers being made to feel uncomfortably different when she first went to school. She recalls coming home crying, because some of the kids had called her “yukky names”. She was hurt that she had been called “black”. Her mother, Dawn, replied in a matter-of-fact way, “You are. You’re Aboriginal.”

“Oh! Ok!”

Cherie Johnson not only knew who she was, she embraced it. Naturally, Cherie didn’t like being picked on for who she was, but she began to learn then what she still applies: “You have to be on your guard somewhat, because I don’t represent me. I represent my family and I represent my people.”

Cherie moved with her family to Lake Macquarie as a small child. From about the age of 10, she lived at Windale. The suburb’s reputation as a tough place to live is distant from Johnson’s memories of life in Windale.

“That was my community and I loved it,” she recalls. “It was a real community feeling and everybody looked over the fence, and if you weren’t home by the time the streetlights went on, the older people would say, ‘Get home before I ring your mother. It was that  kind of environment.

“Especially in the Aboriginal community, we all looked out for each other, we all knew each other, and that was really beautiful.”

EXHIBIT: Billy and Lulu Cooley's "Walka Mukata", 2017, with designs burnt into hats.  Image courtesy of the artists

 EXHIBIT: Billy and Lulu Cooley’s “Walka Mukata”, 2017, with designs burnt into hats. Image courtesy of the artists

In her household, young Cherie watched her mother draw fine illustrations, and from her grandmother, Rachel Darcy, she learnt how art, nature and life were entwined. They were all part of who she was.

“This was the beginning of my love of creative expression, of nature, of life, just the natural, seeing things grow and creating something beautiful,” she explains. From her Nan, Johnson says, she also inherited a key character quality.

“Tenacity,” she says. I’m so glad to be born of this family line. My mother carries it,  and I’m seeing it coming out in me as I get closer to 40, and I can see it in my daughter.”

As a teenager, Johnson’s tenacity was sorely tested. She lost her Nan and her father, David McLaren, in the same year – “I crumbled like a house of cards”.

“Some things I wasn’t processing, I was in my own grief, and then I realised I actually found solace in my art. It allowed me to think through things, to process and sometimes, just be meditative in my doing, and not have to get super analytical about all the other things going on in my life.”

Johnson expressed herself, and gave herself space to think, through painting, writing and dancing.

COMMUNICATOR: Cherie Johnson talks about the links from the past to now.

 COMMUNICATOR: Cherie Johnson talks about the links from the past to now.

In her late teens, Johnson headed to Sydney, studied set design and danced at the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA) and participated in cultural workshops and conferences all around the country and overseas.

While attending an indigenous youth conference in New Zealand, she was in a bad car crash. Then a few years later, she had a serious medical episode. Those experiences jolted her to think about life. She left Sydney behind, and art – for a while. Back in Newcastle, she bumped into her future husband, Chris Johnson, outside a nightclub.

“It’s actually quite funny, because we met at high school, but I didn’t remember him,” Johnson giggles, explaining he had joined an Aboriginal dance troupe she had begun at Newcastle High. After the club meeting, he invited her to dinner, “and the rest is history. Two kids later. Actually, Sunday is our wedding anniversary. Thirteen years.”

Artist Nicole Monks' photograph, "in up" from the "all in one time" series, 2016. Photograph taken on Barkindji Country. Picture courtesy of the artist.

 Artist Nicole Monks’ photograph, “in up” from the “all in one time” series, 2016. Photograph taken on Barkindji Country. Picture courtesy of the artist.

Cherie Johnson embarked on a teaching diploma from the University of Newcastle. She had already completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts, which she didn’t enjoy, and for a time she “fumbled” through her teaching studies until it occurred to her she could bring in her art, culture and identity – “I was born to do this! All the parts of me, of who I am, fits into teaching”. What she had learnt in her life, she would share.

Working as a teacher, Johnson became aware of the need for more educational resources on Aboriginal culture. She set up a business, Speaking in Colour, which she says, has provided a learning curve for herself as well.

“I’m first-generation business,” she laughs. “At Speaking in Colour, we are inspired by tradition, but we are contemporary practitioners.”

Speaking in Colour’s clients have broadened beyond teachers; companies and government departments have hired the company to hold workshops and encourage conversations, to “join the dots” from the past to now, from the first Australians to all Australians.

Cherie Johnson is planning to do the same with an art exhibition she is curating for The Lock-Up in Newcastle. The exhibition, which opens on October 21, is titled “Transmission”.

Johnson has brought together artists from around the country. Among the exhibits are designs seared into felt hats by husband-and-wife team, Billy and Lulu Cooley. Johnson had become aware of the couple during an arts residency in central Australia earlier this year. She admires the way their work brings together two traditions – the pastoral, with the stockman’s hat, and the time-seasoned practice of burning patterns into wood.

The past and present will also be literally sewn together in the exhibition, with possum pelt blankets, and floating in the space will be a large jellyfish woven by a group of local women. The spectacular results of school students connecting with their culture will also be displayed, with a series of sculptures.

“These are all artists transmitting cultural knowledge in a culturally appropriate way,” Johnson explains.

“We wanted to get artists who were doing amazing works but were doing it in a way that was giving honour to the stories, and respectfully reviving [stories].”

Johnson hopes the exhibition provides a chance for viewers to experience a different way of looking at things, “through an Aboriginal lens instead of through a colonial lens”.

The ideas Johnson is exploring in “Transmission” flow into her research for her PhD. She has been looking at the impact of urban Aboriginal women connecting with culture, but her study also curls back to Johnson’s love of teaching. She hopes it contributes to a national conversation about education reform, and to help ensure learning about Aboriginal culture has a central place in every Australian classroom.

“All children have the right to learn about Aboriginal culture, because this is Australia,” she says. “If you walked into Canada or New Zealand [schools], you’d be greeted with a first nation culture, and we don’t have that yet.

Cherie Johnson shares a laugh with Scott Bevan over lunch. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

 Cherie Johnson shares a laugh with Scott Bevan over lunch. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

“In those countries, that’s evidence of a two-way walking together. We don’t have a two-way walking together here . . . Until we have something like that, we are decades behind.”

Above all, Cherie Johnson wants her study and her work, her art and her heritage to connect more of “us”.

“I got taught very young, ‘We’re all linked to the chain, we all have our part’,” she explains. “We’re all together, we all do our different parts to make a whole.”

Explaining the Sorry Day

NATIONAL Sorry Day, which has been held on May 26 since 1998, is not on the radar of many.

Newcastle’s Cherie Johnson says that was because what the day represents is poorly understood.

The date of Sorry Day coincides with tabling of the Bringing Them Home report in the Federal Parliament on May 26, 1997. A report that described the separation and forced removal of Aboriginal children from their communities to turn them into “white Australians”.

“People want to know why are we addressing this day (Sorry Day), this issue?,” Mrs Johnson said.

“There is still the thought that things that have happened to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, that it was something that happened a long time ago.

“But there isn’t a family today that hasn’t been affected and is still living through the traumas of those acts and policies.

“So, it actually is very relevant today and we see the fruit of that today – and it isn’t good fruit – when you look at the fact four per cent of Aboriginal people in the Newcastle and Lake Macquarie area reach the age of 65, only four per cent.”

Mrs Johnson said 40 per cent of the Aboriginal population in the Hunter were aged under 15. However, “the old people” were not living long enough to bring their “wealth of knowledge” and support to younger people throughout their lives.

“When you look at the bell curve, with lots of young people at the bottom and not many older people at the top, that is typical of a third world country,” Mrs Johnson said.  “And that’s Newcastle, Maitland, Lake Macquarie and Nelson Bay.”

This, when you consider the importance of community and family support in order to achieve in the areas of education, employment and health, was having a big impact on the community, she said.

Government policies which saw the establishment of missions and reserves, assimilation and the forced removal of children from their communities where some of the forces behind “complex” problems the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community were facing today.

“How do you summarise more than 200 years of dispossession so people can understand it,” she said. “We lived a camping lifestyle always. Always learning, always teaching, always exercising, eating a paleo style diet … walking 10-15km a day, swimming, climbing trees…

“Then to go onto a reserve because they couldn’t live on their ancestral lands. They couldn’t practice culture, they couldn’t speak their language.”

What the non-indigenous community can do to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is to not deny the history, she said.

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