Maintaining the oldest living civilisation - The revolutionary Indigenous art of Ryhia Dank.

Meet the Artist November 27, 2023

Ryhia Dank is a Gudanji/Wakaja woman and Indigenous Australian artist residing from the remote Indigenous community of Borroloola in the Northern Territory. Taking up art full-time during COVID, Ryhia runs her own successful fine art and design studio under the name nardurna (pronounced NARD-NA) that continues to go from strength to strength. As prolific as she is talented, Ryhia has collaborated with Google, Pinterest, Officeworks and her latest collaboration, Cotton On Kids.

Scrolling the seemingly bottomless nardurna Instagram account feels like it has been there almost as long as the image-sharing platform itself. And yet this vast collection of traditional iconography set out in bright contemporary colours has all come about in just three short years. A lifetime’s worth of work for some, it is clear that Ryhia Dank is an artist on a mission. Heritage and culture are pivotal to all artists’ practice, but in Ryhia’s case, the stories of her people and the place they come from are her practice. Even the name of her company, nardurna, which means ‘woman’, is derived from her people’s Dreamtime story. “I chose this name as our big story is central to the three women who created our place. Women are especially important to Gudanji people.”

Describing herself as a cheeky and creative child, Ryhia’s first foray into the industry was a path more familiar to most creatives these days. “I was a graphic specialist for IKEA,” she recalled, “Then I was working corporate as a promotions manager. My schooling made me think that if you're doing art full-time, you're a struggling artist. I think it's hard for a lot of artists to get out of that mindset. But you can be big. You don't have to be a small business if you don't want to.”

Timelapse of Ryhia's piece for National Aborigines' and Islanders' Day Observance Committee Week.

Living in Darwin with the intent to move back to Melbourne, when suddenly the pandemic began, thankfully, Ryhia chose to remain in the Northern Territory(thanks to mum and dad for thinking COVID was going to be different). It was here her art journey began. Painting small pieces for friends, Ryhia put them up on Instagram and “it just went crazy.” It was Ryhia’s partner who saw the business potential for her work, although it was her grandmother who had to give Ryhia her blessing before she could start painting full-time. “Within my family, only certain people can paint. You have to know the stories and the songlines and have lived experiences out on Country to paint and to tell these stories. I painted a piece called Burn Off and asked her if this was okay to pursue. I told her that I'd be selling my work, and she said, ‘Yes, go for it.’”

From here, Ryhia has produced a huge catalogue of work for brands across the country and internationally in a short space of time, making her one of the most prolific commercial artists in Australia. “Art doesn't feel like ‘work’ for me. It takes me back to Country, to family, and that's how I have been able to create so much. It's never been about producing for others, it's always been for me. I do work a lot. 70 to 100-hour weeks are normal to me, and weekends aren't really a thing. I honestly believe if you love what you are doing, then you will find success, whatever that looks like for you.”

One of Ryhia's artworks translated to a pattern for Cotton On Kids swimwear

Starting out with paint on canvas, it wasn’t until Ryhia tried out Procreate that she saw the potential in combining traditional art techniques with digital tools. A client requiring digital versions of her work presented the perfect opportunity she needed to try out Procreate for the first time. “The process was so easy and fast, which was really exciting, especially after years of the usual, slow graphic design software. It was the simplest thing I had ever done,” she chuckles. “I created seven seamless patterns that night because I thought it was just amazing. My experience from uni of creating a single seamless pattern on other software was that it took forever. Procreate is now my go-to for digital art. My iPad Pro is always at arm's reach, and as soon as I have a thought or feel creative, Procreate is the first thing I open.”

This modern yet traditional approach to creating art flows through to Ryhia’s use of colour in her works. “My granny used to sit down to paint and mix colours from what surrounded them, like making ochre from rock or clay. And now I do almost the same thing but on an iPad. The colours I work with tend to depend on how I am feeling during the creation of a piece. Sometimes, they are strong and bold, and other times, they are light and soft. Those colours always reflect more than what meets the eye because they come from me and my immediate surroundings.”

Using digital tools to produce traditional art was a logical progression for Ryhia.

In addition to embracing digital tools for creation, Ryhia has also been able to take full advantage of digital media’s reach to a wider audience. While a painting on a museum wall is seen by a limited audience, that same work on social media opens the nardurna brand up to potentially millions of more eyes. “Bringing my traditional stories into the modern world, I think it has to be digital. Hopefully, this is something that helps keep them alive for our future generations.” With these traditional stories sourced directly from Country that Ryhia feels such a connection to, Procreate has one more advantage most digital platforms do not. “If I'm feeling I need more inspiration, I just go and sit at the beach to work. I went on a recent trip back home to the Gulf of Carpentaria. It’s remote, and there is no reception there whatsoever. Taking all my paints and canvases would've been difficult, but with my iPad, I can sit down next to the creek and just draw. It's that flexibility that I love.”

The blending of the old ways with new influences to create something completely fresh and original has set Ryhia’s work apart and seen brands lining up to work with nardurna. This obviously comes with a large degree of cultural sensitivity, as Ryhia rightly points out, “With Indigenous art, you're not just buying a pretty picture. It's a story. It's a songline. It's art, and it is thousands of years of history. I just make sure I research a brand's values to know what they've done in the past and where they are coming from. All of the brands I have worked with have given me full creative freedom. My art is me, and they have understood that. I love that I have been able to share my art with so many people. It's a tool I use to remind others that we are the oldest living civilisation in the world.”

Ryhia hard at work in her Queensland studio.

It's exciting to witness Ryhia bringing her culture to life in revolutionary new ways. She is part of a proud new generation of Indigenous Australian creatives sharing their culture with the world through digital means. The energy and sheer volume of her work seem almost impossible until you understand the incredible motivation behind it. “My old people are why I'm here. They have done a lot for me and struggled as they went through so much. It’s the least I can do. I still feel like I need to do more for them, and I'll always feel like that. I'm constantly wanting to make them proud and to make sure I'm helping them maintain our Country, our stories and keeping our language alive.” With such purity of purpose and intent, wherever Ryhia's journey takes her next, we’re sure it will be a success.

Discover more about Ryhia Dank’s storytelling and work on her website and Instagram.

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