Ahead of his first solo exhibition, star footballer turned painter Gavin Wanganeen reflects on his journey of self-discovery and the playful competition that awakened his artistic side.
Art and football might seem worlds apart, but they have their similarities. Hours and hours go into preparation and practice. Sleepless nights are had before big events, be they an opening or a final. Each cultivates fiercely competitive and dedicated communities vying for glory and adulation. Then, of course, there are the spectators, each with their own subjective, perhaps backseat, critique of what they witness.
All considered, perhaps it makes sense that a professional footballer would hip-and-shoulder his way into the art world as Gavin Wanganeen has done.
His move into painting would come as a surprise to many. It’s not the traditional post-AFL career trajectory of coaching, commercial sponsorship or opening a Toyota dealership. His start as a painter came naturally, thanks to the elemental force of competition.
“It started back when I was playing footy for Port Adelaide,” says the Brownlow Medal winner. “A few of us Indigenous boys got together, and we come from different regions, so we started talking about Aboriginal art. One of the boys, I think it was Daniel Motlop, and he’s from the top end up in Darwin, he said, ‘Oh, top end! We do the best Aboriginal art!” and us, the South Australian boys said, ‘Nah! We do!’”
It was on. The group decided to stage an impromptu art competition. Each would put together a piece of art and let the other Port players decide on whose was best. Little came of those lofty ambitions and big words, says Wanganeen, and the competition petered out.
“I don’t think we mentioned it again,” he laughs, “There might have been a little bit of a discussion about, ‘Have you started yours? I’ve started mine.’ I think Peter Burgoyne said, ‘Yeah I have,’ but I didn’t believe him.”
Wanganeen, however, had put paint to parchment.
“I got a really big canvas, and I only made a start, just did about one-20th of the canvas. I rolled it up and put it away, because it was just taking too long.”
It was years later when that fateful, rolled up canvas was unearthed by Wanganeen’s wife, Pippa.
“She unrolled it and said, “Oh, this looks alright. That’s unfinished, though. Who did this, Gavin?’ I said, ‘I did that’ and she said, ‘Oh great, well can you please finish it?’ and she got the whip out and I finished it. That was my first piece.”
It’s an impressive first work. One that football and art fans alike might be surprised to know Wanganeen completed. Yet after a quick look at his subsequent works, his talent is obvious, and a clear progression his style is equally clear.
“Once I finished that I started getting some good compliments on it,” he says. “I started my second piece through a bit of inspiration that came from a shooting star I saw with Pippa over at Port Victoria on the Yorke Peninsula.
“I enjoy painting,” he continues. “It gives you a sort of release. You just go into a zone, a different area, a different state of mind, all those things. Also on top of that, I’m lucky because it helps me learn more about who I am and my culture, and my mum’s family – about her connections and her stories, which I’m learning more about.”
Culture and family are crucially important in Wanganeen’s work, and a clue as to how he has successfully made this transition.
“I’ve had family members who had painted. I’ve seen relatives paint over the years. My sisters’ paint and my mum’s done a bit – a few pieces over the years. Every time I paint it reminds me of who I am and where I come from and my Indigenous ties.”
This journey of personal discovery has been important for Wanganeen, not just from an artistic perspective, but in his own understanding of the Kokatha Mula people’s culture in his ancestral land north of Eyre Peninsula.
“I’ve already been told some amazing stuff already that I’m not allowed to share,” he says “I’ve been privileged enough to hear it. I’ve been learning about things like the stories around the night sky, all the Dreamtime.”
Asked whether those stories make their way into his work, Wanganeen is modest and says much of what he’s painting at the moment comes from very personal experience. But others would beg to differ.
“My cousin, who is an initiated man, he believes strongly that they [the stories] are tied to those paintings. That’s been quite amazing to get your head around that. Just to think, is there something deeper going on here?”
Taking cues from his family, and the prodigious work coming out of the APY lands, Wanganeen’s style is filled with light/dark contrast and vibrant colours.
“I really have a keen interest and love drawing my eye on a lot of different works,” he says. “Especially up in the APY Lands and places like Amata. I really love their stuff and the way they use their colours. They’re definitely starting to add a lot more bright colours to their work.”
Wanganeen’s wife interjects, adding the family influences come from close to home too.
“I think as well, you’ve probably been bombarded with pink, having had three little girls in three years, so you’ll notice he uses a lot of pink in his work. We all could have something to do with that,” she laughs.
Asked how his work has been received in footballing circles, Wanganeen says that “people have been a little bit surprised and taken aback”.
“Some people have said, ‘Nah, you didn’t do that, did you? Surely not.’ I get that all the time, but they’re just used to seeing me run around on the footy field. But I think they’re starting to take me a bit more seriously now, which is great.”
According to Wanganeen there is one final similarity between art and football.
“I think your creativity comes out. People have said that I played creatively, and that it comes natural. I suppose when you’re starting to paint you feel like somehow you’re just creating things, and you’re doing it, but you don’t know how you’re doing it. In a way, it just happens.”
Willunga Gallery Presents Gavin Wanganeen
Eileen Hardy Room, Hardys Tintara
Monday, November 21 to Monday, December 5