Family and identity are at the heart of artist Damien Shen’s practice.
Who we are and where we come from are two of the most fundamental questions we ask ourselves. We can now send away a sample of our DNA, pay a company some money and, in return, receive a profile of our ethnicity and genetic heritage. For artist Damien Shen, knowing his family history and genealogy is not just about sending a piece of himself to an anonymous laboratory.
A Ngarrindjeri man of Aboriginal and Chinese descent, Shen’s family history and identity imbue his drawing and painting practice. He is driven by a desire to know his ancestors and has interviewed family and older generations who grew up on the Raukkan mission at the entrance to the Coorong. Shen has also looked to photography and genealogy mapping. In 1939, his great grandparents were photographed and studied by anthropologist Norman Tindale and through the archives he can trace five generations of his lineage back to the 1860s.
Shen was encouraged from a young age by creative parents. His mother is photographer Polly Sumner-Dodd and his father was an architectural draftsman. Shen studied illustration at university and then went on to be a graphic designer. His visual arts practice came later, as a way to tell his personal stories and understand his background. “I use the platform of art to educate myself about the issues that are most important to my family, culture and history,” he says.
His first suite of drawings in 2014 explored this genealogy and history, where he sought to create a visual representation of this family lineage. He has gone on to create distinctive portraits across drawing, painting and print-making. His work has quickly been picked up for exhibition, won awards and bought by collectors. With more than 60 solo and group exhibitions in the last five years, he is now represented by Mars Gallery in Melbourne with a solo exhibition coming this May.
Taking time out for development is important to Shen. He is being mentored by Perth-based curator Glenn Iseger-Pilkington for new work to be exhibited as part of TARNANTHI 2019. Shen says of this work: “We will explore the history of Empire-introduced societal frameworks and how they bypassed Indigenous leadership choices and degraded cultural systems.”
It is a powerful theme and Shen relishes the opportunity to explore with no predetermined outcomes. “I will spend time with Glenn to expand on the role and use of critical discourse within my practice, both in planning stages, while making new work, and in its review and critique.”
Guildhouse is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to supporting South Australian visual artists, craftspeople and designers to develop and maintain sustainable careers.
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