In the winter of 2020, like many Melbournians, I skipped hastily across the border in search of sunshine and freedom. I landed in Brisbane, the lands of the Yuggera and Turrbal People. I choose the city for its creative sector, many of the artists, curators, and designers I have met over the years call Meanjin home.
I tip-toed out of quarantine into a world of colour. The sky was bright blue, a slight breeze making palm fronds dance. I walked for hours, up and down hilly streets, admiring suburban gardens full of mango and papaya trees.
I first saw Chris Bassi’s work at Aboriginal Art Co. in South Brisbane. The not-for-profit gallery is run by my friends Amanda Hayman and Troy Casey, who are making ethically sourced art affordable and accessible for everyone. Upstairs there is an artist’s studio. I stuck my head in and there was a canvas, much larger than myself, with an almost complete, immaculately detailed palm tree. I have spent many hours gazing up at palm trees or admiring their distant silhouette. It’s unusual to find yourself face to face with the life-size crown of a coconut palm.
On the table were smaller works. Bunches of ripening mangos, round and supple. A papaya tree, laden with fruit. Always at an intimate distance. Like you have climbed a fence and are now close enough to see which fruit is ready to pick. Chris’s work felt emblematic of my newfound home, warm and calm, during times of chaos.
He says, “My work is about the way we make place, about how we pull elements from around us to create something that we might call home.”
Chris is a Meriam and Yupungathi man, his Country is in the Torres Strait and Cape York Peninsula.
He tells his story below;
“A huge part of my work is about memory and accessing place from memory. It started as a personal story. Painting the connections between Brisbane, where I was born, and Far North Queensland, where we visit family and Thursday Island where Mum was born and raised.
As I have grown as a designer my practise has expanded. I’m interested in the ways everyone makes place. I worked at UAP and now with Blaklash, embedding First Nations voices in the built environment through architecture and sculpture.
I love this community driven work because painting is quite an isolating practise. You spend long hours in the studio by yourself. When you sit with a massive palm tree for a month, you paint each leaf individually and you kind of melt into it.
I’ve always drawn, since I was a young kid. Mum enrolled me into a painting class when I was seven. And then it kind of dropped off. I studied engineering and economics at university but didn’t finish, I always felt like there was something missing. I moved onto design and then a fine arts degree.
I’m a paint nerd.
I love the texture of paint and the way it makes me feel when I look at a painting. You see someone’s hand make a stroke and you feel connected to that person.
I like learning about the structure and history of painting, the lineage of genres such as still life, portraiture, and landscape. The history of mark making is a language within itself that keeps me continuously engaged. I like accessing that language and making something that speaks to me and my place in the world.
I think of painting as a type of theatre, a portal.
There are certain ways that painting has been used throughout history.
In the early days of colonisation, landscape paintings were used to sell the dream of Australia. They were sent back to England to say, come to Australia, jump on a ship, there is plenty of land here. These are the paintings we study in school and are how many Australians learn about the history of this land.
When British botanists arrived, they were coming from a very foreign place. Scientific painting was a way of interpreting a land that they didn’t understand.
My relationship to place is different. For me, there is a sense of home, a sense of belonging. We talk about Country, a spiritual, inherited relationship to place. There are cultural perspectives that comes from who I am, my way of being in the world, and there’s story – my stories, stories of home, connection, and memory.
In Frangipani Land there is a sense of music that I wanted to bring in. Memories of my mum, and of my grandmother sitting on the coconut grating stool making coconut oil. The frangipani is growing in a steel drum. In island societies, you make things and reinvent things. I connect with that as an urban designer, making things from what you’ve got.
My work is about place but it’s also about the way we pull things together to make home.”
Chris Bassi is represented by Yavuz Gallery.