Pacific Personalities Interview: Joycelin Leahy
By Sabrina Habu
What motivated you to start creating art?
My biggest motivation is my passion for it and once I am in the flow, there is a powerful transformation that takes place. It is very spiritual.
From childhood, I have always created art, so it is part of my ‘living’ culture. I have made bilums and tapa cloth with aunts and grandma, made headdress with uncles and cousins, and painted walls, made dresses, drew in the sand, performed in village dramas and took part in sing sing. When I started going to school, I also did the same in primary, secondary and tertiary. I also sang with my family and in church. My mother makes clothes and composes music. She plays several different instruments.
As for commercial art or art that is “for sale”, it was my mother who wanted me to sell my art because she thought it was good. For many years, I was curating and promoting other artists’ work. It was my mother’s view that my art could sell better than other work I was trying to sell through my art and textile business and gallery.
I didn’t listen to her initially because I thought I wasn’t good enough. But in 2006, we had moved from Papua New Guinea to Brisbane. I went through a divorce/settlement and three years of legal battles. I lost my assets, having left PNG with two young children which placed me in a very vulnerable position – no employment. It was hard to take care of my boys and work…and my mother came to visit us after no contact for three years. She asked me what made me happy, and I said “art”. She laughed and said “maybe you should make art again. AND sell it”.
I took a drawing lesson and I was too advanced so I left. I tried watercolour and my teacher said “you lied, you have done this before”, so I decided to practice from home and build my skills. The first exhibition I entered my work in was the Luksave Art Show at the Yacht Club in Port Moresby. That was the national PNG art exhibition. I received twice the amount of money I asked for my work and later found out more than one buyer wanted my artwork so it was auctioned.
What would you call your style of art?
I would call my art “spiritual flow”. I invented it along with everything I work with. I make my own pigments from earth, rocks and other minerals, a heritage process I learnt from my grandma. Sometimes when I create an art project or story, it must combine visual with song and dance. In the Pacific Islands, as indigenous people, what surrounds us, our environment and how we live and exchange with nature, our thoughts, stories, is all art. We are part of nature and we become nature when we pass. It is a whole existence and we cannot separate from it. Nature and earth is our mother.
How long have you been painting and what inspires your art?
I have been creating art for 30 plus years.The inspiration comes from my spiritual beliefs that I’m with my ancestors. When I am making art, I am in my present. I am in a sacred journey that takes me wherever I want to go. Since I started inventing specific textile, painting and installation techniques it is also a thrill to find out how others react to what I create. They don’t always understand it but that’s okay.
Out of all the paintings that you’ve done, which would you say is your favourite?
I like many paintings I have created because I put in my best work for each piece. The Simbu Meri II stands out because she engages her viewers in a cheeky confident way. I want Pacific women to realise and believe in their beauty and power, know that they have this power and use it wisely.
What are some of the struggles that you have faced in the art business?
Art markets and financial supports are the main struggles for any artist in the region. Finding the right audience and buyers would help many to stick to painting and not wander back into other mundane employment or lose hope and stop creating. As a curator and dealing with international museums and art galleries, I understand that we need to build a community and an environment for the unique Pacific Islands art. Without the Festival of Pacific Arts and with COVID-19 restrictions, art in the islands will suffer. A lot of individual artists’ work will stop because internet and virtual platforms are very expensive.
We need to create dialogue with authorities for a better understanding. Better still, more artists should get into politics.
Wider creative platforms need to be established. Many pacific artists produce unique artwork. We need Government driven incentives that allow creatives to make and show unique art. The arts and creative industry is a huge revenue earner.
Pacific arts need its own stage. I curated Pacific Storms Contemporary Art Exhibition to bring dialogue into Australia for Pacific artists on climate change. Pacific Storms also brought recognition for our history with Australian black birding and South Sea islanders. It was also an opportunity to collaborate and unite creatives across many of our islands.
What advice do you have for upcoming artists from the Pacific?
Keep creating! Keep practising!
Form groups to give you strength and your own voice to lobby Governments for incentives, funding for collaborations (online shows, (hire me J)) and bring your art into education at all levels. Ask Government and education ministers to allow funding for this now. Don’t rely too much on text books with western content and don’t let your traditions pass away. And this time is for virtual creativity and sharing, engaging and selling.