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miimi & jiinda – the mother-daughter duo exploring culture through art

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Lauren Jarrett has always been an artist. As a young jarjum, or child, her earliest memories are of making ‘bush pictures’ in the sand with sticks and stones, crafting tiny sculptures from bits of plants and feathers, weaving local native grasses, and singing in Gumbaynggirr language with her aunties and grannies. Back then, the elders had a knack for seeing each child’s unique gift. “Love was just paramount,” Lauren says. “They’d study us quietly – they knew who you were and they’d guide you towards that, whether it was healing, art, dance or whatever.”

Lauren spent those early years in the lush muruy (rainforests), bindarray (rivers), gaagal (oceans) and marlalbang (mountains) of her ancestral country, which spans from the northern end of Byron Bay down to Kempsey in New South Wales. But at the age of nine, her world shattered when she was forcibly removed from her family, made a ward of the state, and taken away to live in an orphanage run by Catholic nuns. She remained there until she was 17. This was at a time when Aboriginal children like Lauren – and her 13 siblings – were regularly wrenched from their families by government agencies and church missions intent on stripping them of their culture, language and identity.

“You couldn’t act or speak in any way that was Indigenous,” Lauren says. “They tried to break your spirit.” She remembers her aunties and grannies despairing that their culture would be lost forever – “but I was determined!” she smiles. “Nothing’s ever lost; you just need to tune into spirit, ask for guidance and do some research. It’s all there.”

She did tune in, and discovered that reconnecting with art was a balm that began to heal her trauma and strengthen her spirit. Lauren’s daughter Melissa vividly remembers growing up around her mum’s bounty of art projects. At home, surfaces overflowed with paints, ochre and feathers, while floors were replete with plants, weaving fibres and stacked-up paintings. Woven baskets were everywhere, and “spilled outside the house, too!”

Though Melissa dabbled in painting as a teenager, it wasn’t until later that she tapped into it fully. “I was living down in Melbourne, Mum had moved in to help me raise my newborn son Harper, and for the first time ever, I finished a painting,” she says. “From that moment, I was hooked.” Mother and daughter got busy painting and weaving. They held their first exhibition in a small Melbourne café and when, to their astonishment, every piece sold, Melissa decided to start a business. Her sister Sandy came on board with design and marketing skills, they set up an Instagram account (which has attracted over 8000 followers in less than a year), and the commissions started rolling in. Miimi & Jiinda was born: a name deriving from Gumbaynggirr words ‘miimi’ – mother – and ‘jiinda’ – sisters.

When Lauren decided to move back to country to be closer to her remaining sisters and brothers, Melissa soon followed. “We love Melbourne, but the move felt right,” she says. “It just made sense to paint country on country.” Miimi & Jiinda paintings conjure up their ancestral homelands and celebrate the long line of matriarchs in their family. “We’ve had our struggles dealing with intergenerational trauma, but our art is about the beauty and strength of women, the resilience we all carry,” Melissa says. “The colours are bold, bright, positive and proudly feminine.”

They paint a sacred site for Gumbaynggirr people known affectionately as ‘Titti Mountain’, because “it’s the shape of a young woman’s breast – big and perky!” Lauren laughs. Also featured are the birthing caves around the Nambucca Heads coastline, which were traditionally made by breaking down ants’ nests and bedding the clay into the earth to make a shiny, smooth floor for the women. “I see the textures of those caves and imagine my ancestors giving birth there,” Melissa says. “Then the tides come up and cleanse them.”

For Lauren, creating art, running basket-weaving classes and learning Gumbaynggirr language is a powerful reconnection to her ancestors. As she walks through country with family, the ancient wisdom and stories flow. “We ask permission from the ancestors before we pick anything,” she explains. “We forage for wetland plants like lomandra to weave. I show them the plants that are medicinal, the saps you can make glue from, the leaves you can drink as tea, and the type of wattle you put next to babies to help them sleep. There’s the dogwood flowers that tell us it’s time for crab season when they come out, and the star alignment that tells us it’s time for emu eggs. You let Mother Earth know you’re here – it’s what we’ve been doing for thousands of years. It’s part of who we are.”

Lauren’s woven baskets have been on display at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, and Miimi & Jiinda have been featured artists at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo. A trip overseas is on the horizon, to plant the seeds for launching their own product range. For both artists, it’s a way to share their stories and culture with the world. “Gumbaynggirr people are known as ‘the sharing people’ and we’re so like that, we share everything!” Melissa says.

And, as with any exchange, the joy goes both ways. “You can see Mum stepping into her power,” Melissa says. “The art is helping her flourish and feel that sense of pride.” Over 50 years after she was stolen away from her family, culture and country, Lauren is back to that place in the bush where she started, surrounded by generations of family, and by art, and by love. Only this time, she’s the grandmother. And now she finds herself sitting with her daughter and her grandson, making bush pictures in the sand using sticks and stones, crafting tiny sculptures from bits of plants and feathers, and weaving with the local native grasses.

This chinwag comes from the pages of frankie 92, first published in Nov/Dec 2019.