activist and artist noni cragg on family, history and engaging with her indigenous heritage

By drawing on ideas of belonging, location, beauty, and connection to the land, the young artist's portraits explore cultural and racial identity.

by Ingrid Kesa
20 May 2016, 3:15am

Photography Nick Garcia

Noni Cragg's canvases are alive with colour, intricate pattern work, and personality. Her representations of native flora and fauna are so bright and vivid you can almost smell the eucalyptus leaves. Of Aboriginal and Irish descent, the Australian-born inner-Sydney artist uses portraiture as a way to connect to her Indigenous heritage and community.

Growing up, Noni's family—particularly the older generations—didn't talk much about their past; decades of culturally embedded oppression is hard to unpack. However she's proud of her mother for making it her aim to shed light on this side of their lineage. After Noni completed her degree at the National Art School, the artist began wondering how her own work could serve as a bridge to her own history. She realised she could use art not only as a way to connect to this side of herself, but also as a means to create positive change and elevate fellow Aboriginal young people. "I was disappointed by how large media and advertising outlets had—and continue to have—an apathetic attitude towards the recognition of, or even the existence of, the Indigenous community," she tells i-D. "This massive imbalance in representation prompted me to think about how I could challenge negative perceptions and expectations of the Indigenous community."

Drawn to strong people who inspire those around them, Noni surrounds her subjects with totems of the flowers, plants, birds, and animals that are native to their ancestral lands.

Using a dotting stick to apply oil paint onto the linen or canvas, she incorporates symbols such as waterholes and meeting places into her work, citing Minnie Pwerle, Judy Watson Napangardi, Barbara Weir, and Emily Kngwarreye as some of the artists who have inspired this aspect of her practice. By drawing on ideas of belonging, location, beauty and connection to the land, her portraits explore cultural and racial identity.

Noni attributes some of her creativity to her immediate family. Her older brother, David, is also a skilled artist and they have exhibited together in a handful of group shows since finishing high school (the most recent being From a Distant Land at Ambush Gallery). "Our mum is very talented in the garden, specialising in succulents and cacti," she adds.

Clearly occupied with the concept of home, the Sydney local adds that she's currently feeling a renewed love for her city. "It's exciting to me how collectives, curators, artists, and galleries are actively seeking to address an art community that has severely lacked diversity up until now," she says. "Platforms like The Ladies Network—who exclusively promote female artists—have brought a much-needed breath of fresh air into how work is exhibited." Atong Atem and Abdul Abdullah are two contemporaries she admires the work of, and hopes to add to her own collection in the near future.

Beyond her art, she's exploring additional ways to engage with her community through activism. Partnering with friends she recently launched a project called The Rough Period, which provides care packages for homeless women on their cycles. The idea was formed when Noni saw a post on Facebook of a handbag filled with pads, tampons, perfume, wet wipes, deodorant, toothbrushes, chocolate, tissues, moisturiser and various other hygiene products, along with a paragraph asking readers to consider the difficulties homeless women face when they're on their periods. "I reposted the image asking if any of my friends would like to start making multiple packages like this and handing them out before the Christmas holiday period in the city," she explains. "The post got a great response online and I started collecting donations." Over the last few months they have distributed care packages to homeless women across Sydney.

Looking forward, things are bright for the 24-year-old artist. Having exhibited work at some of Sydney's well-recognised galleries including China Heights—and with a solo show, Sun + Water at The Tate Glebe, under her belt—our guess is she's just getting warmed up.



Text Ingrid Kesa
Photography Nick Garcia

noni cragg