Profile: Damien Shen

While Damien Shen was on a two-week trip exploring Australia’s major galleries, it occurred to him that art is about telling stories.

While Damien Shen was on a two-week trip exploring Australia’s major galleries, it occurred to him that art is about telling stories. “Creating art is not just about technical ability, it’s about the story and it’s also about how you express the story… if you can pull all those things together you can reach the next level,” Shen explains. To reach the next level, Shen is looking at his own story and drawing on it in his work. As he nears 40 years of age, Shen is approaching his practice with a newfound maturity that wasn’t available to him before. “It’s been such a rapid progression,” he says. “It was almost meant to happen this late. If it happened any earlier I would have been too immature.” Shen (who originally studied illustration before moving into graphic design, running his own business for eight years, and most recently working in Aboriginal health) set off on his trip of art discovery a little over 12 months ago. “The goal was to soak some stuff in and basically what came out of it is a better understanding of what it means to be an artist,” he says. At one point during his trip, while standing in front of a work by Vernon Ah Kee at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, Shen asked himself, ‘Can I still draw?’ (he hadn’t for 10 years) and, ‘Can I get into a major gallery one day?’ He was so inspired and eager to see if he still had it, he immediately bought some art supplies and enrolled in a drawing course with David Jon Kassan at Robin Eley’s Art Academy. In the midst of the course, Shen’s Aboriginal grandmother passed away and he started considering his family history – he is Chinese/Aboriginal – and decided he wanted to document it. From there things happened quickly for Shen. He started drawing again, held his first exhibition (Drawing on the Heroes Who Shape Us at the Adelaide Festival Centre’s Artspace Gallery), and won the NAIDOC South Australian Artist of the Year award. Through documenting his family history, Shen found a connection with the audience. “Family orientated stories are very powerful… people can always identify with something. Everyone has their battles and stories and struggles and triumphs. My family has had incredible struggles but there is also the other side of the spectrum in terms of triumphs and role models. Most families aren’t too different to that.” Shen is exhibiting in Placement, Displacement, Replacement, part of this year’s OzAsia Festival. Curator Daniel Connell assigned each artist in the exhibition one of the words to consider – Bindu Mehra ‘placement’, Hemant Sareen ‘displacement’ and Shen ‘replacement’. “The notion of replacement I connected with was returning something to its rightful place. That’s important from an Aboriginal perspective,” says Shen. It’s particularly relevant for Shen because a lot of the remains of his Ngarrindjeri ancestors were taken overseas for research and Shen’s uncle, Major Sumner, had been involved in delegations to bring some of the remains back, returning them to country. “I’m really interested in the idea around the repatriation of Ngarrindjeri remains. Why the remains were taken and how they were taken.” The next 12 months are already shaping up to be busy for Shen with exhibitions on the horizon and plans to delve further into oil painting. “My goal is to educate myself and educate others in an artistic way that challenges me and feeds my soul as I create it.” If Shen continues to feed his soul through art it’s only a matter of time before we see his work hanging in major galleries. Placement, Displacement, Replacement Nexus Multicultural Arts Centre Saturday, September 11 to Friday, October 10

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