It’s a commonplace in Aboriginal art that creative people emerge from nowhere at a mature age and delight us with their accumulated experience “ now set down on canvas. But, until now, it’s usually an artist from a remote community “ The Kimberley, the APY Lands or Bentink Island “ not good ol’ Redfern.

But Shireen Malamoo “ now showing at Agathon Galleries in Sydney “ has plenty of life experience to share with us, and a visual language that speaks of the spiritual worship inherent in her part-Kanak ancestry and perhaps some exposure to the art of Ian Fairweather as much as familiar Aboriginal styles.

Shireen was the fifth born of a family of eleven. She lived in the town camp on the Birrigubba Lands of Plantation Creek near Ayr in tropical Queensland. As a child she fished for local seafoods such as fish, prawns and crab. She enjoyed collecting bush foods such as sweet potato, mangoes, Damsens (wild plums) and ˜bread and dog’. This was a form of wild honey that grew on vines and looked like brown loaves of bread.

Shireen grew up in a tough Pentecostal community whose belief systems combined both indigenous spirituality and Christian doctrines introduced by the missionaries. Commenting on her family, They were stoic people who dressed up beautifully for church, proudly sang the hymns and lived their lives according to a sense Christian morality that respected hard work and diligence¦¦they believed that if you worked hard you could change your life for the better. They did things like clean the churches, the court houses and police station and the gardening¦most worked in the sugar cane industry, one of the three industries on which the initial economic success of Australia was founded. It’s a tragic historical fact that the White Australia policy which was introduced at Federation and continued until the early seventies, delivered a ruthless form of ethnic cleansing. At this time most of the South Sea Islanders who had worked so diligently in the sugar cane industry were dumped in the Torres Strait and Cape York.’

Fortunately, Shireen attended the local public school and later James Cook University where she studied arts. Her studies were curtailed by the need to earn money. For many years she was employed as a public servant while working voluntarily in a range of organisations which served to progress Aboriginal welfare in the region. Subsequently, she has served on government boards representing the interests of indigenous people in areas relating to human rights, ethics, culture, health and education. Her involvement with the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care included membership of the Finance Committee. She was a Commissioner of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) for North Queensland from 1991 to 1993 and, later, on the NSW Parole Board for nine years.

She’s also an accomplished jazz singer.

When Shireen turned to art, it was underpinned by the combined cultures of her parents; the Vanuatu, Tongoa heritage of her mother and her father’s Vanuatu and Aboriginal lineage. Shireen’s totem from her father’s side is the carpet snake. My art depicts the political and spiritual experiences of my life¦the figures are the spirits of those who came before us¦. they’re invisible presences all around us, but larger than life ¦some from the past are of people in trauma; some like those in the community around here¦.others are heroic, symbolic of courage and vision for Aboriginal and Vanuatu empowerment.

Lurking behind the European value system of the ancestors to which Shireen’s refers in her painting, was an abiding belief in the spirit world of the Dreamtime¦¦this included sorcery or puripuri . It was widely practised and often called on in a variety of ingenious ways to control the behaviour of exuberant young children. ˜Many of us kids saw spirits, and older people reinforced this by telling us about their experience of the spirit world and puripuri.’

Shireen concludes: I began painting several years ago because I wanted something for myself, my family and my people. My work is increasingly where I go to pull back from my busy life in the community. They allow me to reflect and create out of things that I think and dream.