Artist Lloyd Gawura Hornsby talks about discovering his Aboriginality

Artist Lloyd Gawura Hornsby, of Gawura Gallery, Glen Innes, is a proud Indigenous man sharing his culture. Photo: Nicholas Fuller
Artist Lloyd Gawura Hornsby, of Gawura Gallery, Glen Innes, is a proud Indigenous man sharing his culture. Photo: Nicholas Fuller

Gawura Gallery director Lloyd Gawura Hornsby was 58 when he discovered he was Aboriginal.

Since then, the 71-year-old artist has spent the last 13 years rediscovering his culture and sharing it with others.

And there's much to share, as visitors to the gallery, which he runs with his wife Wendy, know.

“Being Aboriginal means that I am part of one of the most democratic, oldest cultures in the world,” Lloyd said. ”You won't find it anywhere else – and it can be beautiful.”

Lloyd grew up in Queensland thinking he was Maori – partly, he suspects, so he wouldn’t be taken away by the government. For fancy dress parties, his mother would paint ta moko (tattoos) on his face, dress him in a towel skirt, and give him a taiaha (spear) to hold.

The aunt who brought him up, May O’Donnell, gave the clue. She told his daughter to look up the name of their ancestor Etienne Livingstone De Mestre, the trainer-owner of the first horse to win the Melbourne Cup.

De Mestre had had a child by an Aboriginal woman.

Lloyd’s daughter was taken aback, but to Lloyd it explained the racial discrimination he’d faced in the past.

“It was a load off my shoulders,” Lloyd said. “My daughter said: How do you feel, Dad? I said it makes sense, because of all the rubbish I put up with when I was a young man and a young boy. It's the best thing that happened to me!”

That was the beginning of a quest to discover his heritage as a Yuin man, a member of a tribe on the NSW / Victorian border.

Lloyd Gawura Hornsby and his wife Wendy.

Lloyd Gawura Hornsby and his wife Wendy.

Two days running up a phone bill trying to find someone he could talk to led to two years looking for family members. A land council manager in Ulladulla put Lloyd  in touch with the indigenous side of his family.

“I came down there to talk to relatives about culture, and got nothing,” Lloyd said. “The only way to find out was to go back and do studies.”

So, at the age of 60, Lloyd went to university to study a Bachelor of Indigenous and Contemporary Art. There, he learnt about the Stolen Generations – Indigenous children taken from their parents by the government between 1910 and 1970.

“I knew nothing about it,” Lloyd said. “I spent the first two years crying when I saw all the archival movies and videos, when you see what they'd been put through.”

Despite the historical atrocities, the more Lloyd learnt, the prouder he was of his Aboriginality.

“Aboriginals,” he said, “should not be ashamed of who they are, what they are, and what is flowing through their veins.”

Many Aboriginals, however, have been cut off from their heritage.

"A lot of them don't know,” he said; “a lot of Indigenous people have no idea about their background or anything to do with culture. They know they're of Aboriginal descent, and that's it.”

"EMU DREAMING": One of Lloyd Gawura Hornsby's paintings.

"EMU DREAMING": One of Lloyd Gawura Hornsby's paintings.

Lloyd wanted to share his pride in his culture, and his discoveries, with others.

His chance came when a teacher in Brisbane heard he'd been to university, and invited him to come and critique art as an Aboriginal elder.

That was the start of working in Brisbane with Indigenous children, talking about Aboriginal culture. He's been all the way up north to Cairns, and gone west of Mt Isa, where he taught kids how to throw boomerangs.

“An Aboriginal who doesn't know how to throw a boomerang,” he said, “something's wrong!”

He'll go up to Moranbah, in north-west Queensland, as he does every year, and help both black and white kids to paint designs on baseball caps.

Lloyd set up the Gawura Gallery here in October as part of his mission. The response from the town, he says, has been great – and he wants to make the gallery a tourist attraction, bringing visitors to Glen Innes for a few days.

“My whole job here, however, is not so much with the gallery,” he said; “I want to see changes with kids.”

He sits down and yarns with young people, regardless of their race.

“We need to reach out to youth in general, not to just one group,” Lloyd believes. “We need to reach out to all of them.”

Workshops he’s done with children led to cultural days at the Cooramah Centre.

“It's a good way of getting the families to come and sit, let the kids enjoy their culture, and let the families see what can happen when their kids are enjoying it.”

Lloyd has also worked with adults, including seniors, women's groups, and disabled people at Glen Industries.

For three years, he ran art programs with prisoners in Brisbane. Art, he found, was a way of healing; and prisoners would talk about ending offending, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, domestic violence, and how to find work.

Lloyd spent 18 months working with a man sentenced to 15 years for murder.

“I said, How do you feel? Are you going to be able to handle it? He said, Now that I've got my art, and I've got my guitar, I can do this, and I want to thank you very much for the time that you've spent.”

The Brisbane hospital Mater Mothers then got Lloyd working with mentally ill patients. One Aboriginal woman with full-blown dementia dotted a boomerang with a beautiful design, two weeks before she died.

“I hope that at her funeral they put that up so people could see she went back into her culture,” Lloyd said.

Lloyd is optimistic about the future for Aboriginals. There are, at the moment, only three Aboriginal politicians in federal parliament – but he expects this to change.

“I reckon maybe in one or two generations, Aboriginals will be up there where they should be – but education is the only way it’s going to happen.”

He points to UNE, which has one of the biggest systems for Aboriginals in the country, producing doctors, teachers, and lawyers, as do Newcastle, Griffith, and QUT.

TAFES are training Aboriginal rangers to teach farmers how to look after the land, “sharing their knowledge about Mother Earth”.

The men who designed the gallery and maintain the premises are Aboriginal, while his own daughter is marketing director for one of the world’s leading mapping companies, Esri.

“I would just like to see Aboriginals move forward and really start looking at reaching out with something that no other person in the world's got, and it's the culture that they have here.”

And Lloyd is playing his part in that movement.

This story Why Lloyd Gawura Hornsby is sharing his Aboriginal culture first appeared on Glen Innes Examiner.