1. Firstly, tell us about yourself! Where do you live, what sort of art do you produce and how many children do you have?
I live on Miriwoong country in the north-west of Australia. This place is often described as very remote, but to many people here it is the centre of the world. The township of Kununurra is less than 60 years old. It is younger than many of the people who live here. It was built following the construction of a large dam that drowned a lot of country that belonged to Miriwoong people. The name is an English bastardisation of the Miriwoong word Goonoonoorrang, meaning river or big water. The dam is a tragic story but locals and tourists alike often view the damn today as something spectacularly beautiful. It’s this kind of irony, or amnesia, that lays at the heart of my practice.
The politics of nation-making and the colonial past and present of Australia and South Asia, where I lived and studied for three years in my twenties, run in quiet yet consistent ways throughout my work. I produce conceptual work in interdisciplinary ways. I’m driven by the capacity of art and culture to shape the public sphere and the social space between people. I work with video, words, photography, and collage, as well as the internet, conversation, food, and the media.
I have one son, soon to be three. And five step-kids aged between 23 and 12.
2. How do you continue to engage with your art practice alongside raising children? Do you have a dedicated studio space and routine, or do you work from home alongside other things?
I’m pretty systematic. I find I have to be. But art rarely leaves my mind. My son goes to kindy three days a week and I work from my home studio like crazy during those periods. I then try very hard not to work outside of that time, or to engage my son in that work in some way, which I am looking forward to do more as he gets older.
I am also big on lists. I have weekly lists that I type out each Friday for the following week. These are printed on brown paper bags. I find the visual aesthetic of them helps me to focus. I have a penchant for brown paper. The lists begin very neat and by the end of the week they are full of scribbles and notes and ticks and crosses. I’m collecting all the paper bags, which I plan to bind into a book when my son finally goes to school. It will be an illustration of all the things that filled his working mother's days, and a way to show the relatively invisible forms of labour connected to both art and motherhood.
3. What does a typical day look like for you and how much time do you manage to carve out for your own work?
I try to work to a 24 hour week—three 8 hour days, but that can easily spread into 32 hours when things are busy, which is most of the time. And then more when they are really busy. Though I am trying hard not to let this happen. This year I’m trying to split my days between arts admin, research and making. But it’s hard, and they are always overlapping.
It is a constant juggling act to make sure you have enough work coming in the future, have the capacity to focus on the work at hand, and the time and head space to love and engage with your family.
I’ve usually done three hours of house work, mothering, and cooking before I get to the studio – which is quite exhausting. But it’s also part of life. It enriches and gives you perspective.
4. Have you come up against specific challenges as an artist and mother? What were they and how have you managed to navigate them?
When my son was six months old life threw me a blessing in disguise. Amidst a horrible torrent of professional deceit, manipulation and bullying from a newly appointed business manager, I lost a job in the arts that I absolutely adored.
For over five years this job had not only given me a pay cheque every fortnight, it had also grown me up professionally and personally. The work was ever challenging and diverse, and it also had real impact on people’s lives and on society. I learnt about the persistent memories that refuse Australia’s historical narrative, I learnt about the complexities of human nature, the great need for professional rigour, and I also learnt about myself. We worked collaboratively on artistic and cultural programs that had lives locally, nationally and internationally. We had over come some big hurdles, including a natural disaster and the global financial crisis, and we now had a great team, a fully funded annual program and a five year vision. I had a small home and was part of a lively and loving community. And then five years of life, work and heart were smashed into pieces with one brief business manager and her one short email. It was heart breaking, illegal and full of bad feeling. My partner and I chose to walk away. And in time it proved to be an absolute blessing in disguise.
As a new mother forced out of employment, I became determined to reshape the ruins into the kind of independent practice I had always wanted. Motherhood forced me to refocus and fuelled a new kind of determination. I wanted to defy the odds that art and motherhood could not coexist. And I wanted to never need another full time job again. The first year was terribly difficult— we had very little money and I was full of uncertainty. But gradually things have come together. The second year was better. And the third is even better again.
What was interesting, was that once I had this experience myself, I started noticing artists who were parents all over the place, who were making amazing work and doing amazing things. These people are massive inspirations.
5. What is the best piece of advice you have been given?
Get a business card (thank you, Lenka Clayton). Tell the truth about time (I’m still trying Jenn Armbrust). To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power (Arundhati Roy).
6. Who are your role models / who or what inspires and encourages you?
Mahmoud Darwish, Palestinian writer. Clare Holland, comrade in conversations last week. The otherwise indefinable Jew Detective, John Safran. The broad cultural practices of Raqs Media Collective. Put simply, Kashmir. The emotion in the work of video artist Angelica Mesiti. Richard Flanagan’s reporting on Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. Lenka Clayton’s imagination. Bruce Pascoe’s incredible warmth and sharp mind. Artists Alan and Peggy Griffiths, my mother and father in law.
7. How has the experience of motherhood impacted your practice on an emotional/intellectual level? Has it made you view yourself/your work differently? Are there things that influence your work now that you didn't think about pre-kids?
It has made me a fiercer feminist. And, I hope, a more understanding person. And as I alluded to earlier it has given me a more direct sense of urgency. It is now more of a necessity, and less of a choice, that I find ways to make a living from my practice. If I don’t, either the practice dies or my family does. And I don’t want that to happen to either.
8. If your children were asked "Tell me about your mother" what do you hope they would say? Are there particular things you are trying to teach them as an artist / woman / mother?
She loves me.
9. What drives you to continue to create work?
Injustice and survival. The world. Its stories. Our stories. My stories. In full colour. Things are not black and white. They’re not even shades of grey. Life takes place in a full spectrum of colour. And art is a means of engaging with this, articulating it, sharing it. I don’t make art solely for galleries— I view them as one among many avenues that can give life to work in the world. And I try to make use of as many of these avenues as possible. I want my work to take on a life beyond me, to resonate with people and society.
To read more about Alana's practice and see her work, head to her artist page.