For many, art is an artist’s means to convey a deeper story—and that is especially true for Australia’s First Nations people. Kiya Watt, an award-winning contemporary Indigenous artist, is one of the many creating artworks that speak to that wider history, finding a connection to ancestors, language and Country through each piece.
The 28-year-old was born in the Western Australian town of Albany, where she still lives today with her three children. As a proud Menang woman, Kiya feels a strong connection to the land—Boodjah—which her ancestors have inhabited for more than 60,000 years, and why she chooses to remain and work in her local community.
Launching her artistic journey four years ago, after her twin sons Allikae and Desean had a NAIDOC event that required them to work on a project together, Kiya’s artworks have since included murals, prints, a co-creation of the first Indigenous doll to appear on Playschool and most recently, a line of earrings.
“What a lot of people don’t know is at the time I started to paint I was in a very abusive relationship in Perth,” Kiya tells marie claire Australia. “I had lost my self-worth and isolated myself from my family and due to my father’s displacement and lost connection with his family and culture, I found painting really therapeutic.”
After posting her sons’ NAIDOC project to Instagram, Kiya was asked if the painting was for sale—a moment she recalls bringing “pride” in her culture, admittedly something she had never experienced before.
“I dealt with a lot of racism growing up and was bullied at school, so to protect myself around high school I started to rebel,” she says. “But, seeing my children have pride in something that I did, made me realise I had to continue to paint—but not only paint, also reconnect with my family and culture.”
While working past her traumatic experiences, Kiya began to connect with her culture through these artworks, a task she now knows will continue for the rest of her lifetime.
“What I think a lot of Australians don’t know about Aboriginal art is it isn’t just dots and squiggles, our art is our lifeline—it carries our creation and dreaming stories which have been handed down for decades” she explains. “And we can’t just paint them from scratch, we learn them from our Elders and then we are responsible, through these learnings, to protect them and then put back into our communities for future generations.”
Releasing her latest collection of earrings, Kiya was inspired by her Nan, Carol Peterson, who taught her the Noongar language—creating something that is reflective of her people and their creation stories.
The earrings feature different animals that belong to the Menang Boodjah land, including a snake, the dolphin and the blue-tongue lizard.
“We are taught from our Elders the creation stories of our lands and the animals that are connected to these and I will only paint what I am taught,” Kiya explains. “This has never been about money for me and never will be, so to finally be able to design and craft a jewellery label that isn’t tokenism is so powerful for me.”
“If you had of told me a few years ago when I was homeless in a refuge that I would be accomplishing all of this I would have said no way,” she adds. “So, I hope anybody reading my story can gain strength from it and understand the importance of having a cultural identity.”
To coincide with the new collection, Kiya turned to her nieces to model the stunning pieces—as another means of celebrating Menang culture.
“Not only was it important to use Menang models but it was very important for me to use my nieces to show that the government’s assimilation policies never worked,” she says. “My father was disconnected from his culture and family, but I broke that cycle and reconnected with my biological family and built relationships with them so that now my children are growing up with their cousins in a community where they can rock up at any Noongars’ house in Albany and be welcomed.”
“I am a strong, proud Blak Menang woman and I want to celebrate our culture every chance I get, so this campaign has been so exciting to create. Also, my nieces—Hayley Brown, Angel Brown, Soyaray Brown and Kriccia Woods—are so stunning. Their beauty is what made this photoshoot so captivating.”
On top of her incredible works, Kiya is also one of the founding members of Trading Blak—a collective of Indigenous business owners across Australia who promote transparency and ethical practices among businesses trading in First Nations culture.
“My sister Jarin Baigent and I really want to focus on making positive changes in the business space,” she says.
As for what she hopes to accomplish next, Kiya says it’s about promoting awareness around her community.
“The Blak business community is very supportive and I think we have the power to make real systemic change and that is my focus right now,” she says. “I will always be working in my community fighting for change but as Aboriginal people, this is just what we do and I hope anyone reading this really takes the time connect with the Aboriginal communities where they reside and help us keep up the good fight.”
You can view Kiya’s incredible collections here.
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