Artist Q & A with Damien Shen
Term: 2 Year: 2021
Damien Shen is a South Australian man of Ngarrindjeri and Chinese bloodlines. His artistic practice is embedded in histories, revisiting the people, places and stories that shape the world he occupies. Shen constantly pushes his practice into different mediums – his content remains relevant to contemporary Australian issues around race, history and politics.
As a child, how did art first manifest itself to you?
I had a good imagination and was able to occupy myself with drawing, which I really enjoyed. My parents were a great influence; my mum was a documentary street photographer and my dad was an architectural draftsman who used to help me when I got stuck trying to draw certain things. I loved drawing and would get fixated on different subjects like dinosaurs, robots and sharks. My grandad was a paper merchant too, so there was always plenty of drawing paper in the house.
Can you recall a cultural experience or artist that you connected with first?
It wasn’t so much an Aboriginal cultural influence that kicked me off. Quite a lot of it was influenced through my dad. He collected fantasy art magazines, featuring artists like Boris Vallejo and Frank Frazetta. I then got into Californian Pop Surrealism, Mark Ryden and artists of that ilk.
What was your experience of art at school?
I did a lot of drawing in primary school and was embraced and supported for my ability in art – it was part of my validation amongst my peers. I used to love Mad Magazine and started doing caricatures and making my own Spy Vs Spy comics.
What are the main themes and ideas in your work, and does art have a grander purpose?
My main themes involve history of family and my mum’s relationship to the mission she was born on, and the broader histories of the mission and the Ngarrindjeri People in Raukkan – including the theft and repatriation of ancestral remains. Some work is about documenting, some is about making a statement. I’ve done a lot of work about personal identity; what does it mean to be me. Starting from the Aboriginal perspective and then bringing in my Chinese history and looking at the overlap. There can be a political aspect of making work and I also see it as an opportunity to make a contribution to history.
Do you think creative inquiry is innate or can it be nurtured?
I really think it can be nurtured. In the past, I used to think that technique and the art of making was the most important thing. Now I think the art of thinking is the most important thing. There is also an aspect of mentoring that is critical to nurturing your practice. You need to have people around you to guide you.
How do you begin making of a body of work?
It’s always based around a theme. For me it’s a reasonably planned out approach. I ask myself, what is the story I am trying to tell, and what works do I need to make to tell that story. As Josh Homme says, “I only move at the speed of inspiration”.
What is drawing to you?
It is an extension of who I am as a person, a process developed over many years, a way to tell stories. When I was a kid I used to struggle putting down what was in my head onto the piece of paper. But, over the years you develop enough technical skill to be able to translate that thinking as deliberate marks on paper, and that just comes from a lot of practise, a lot of trial and error. Then, when you have the freedom in your technical ability to create anything you want to create, you can then focus on the storytelling.
Nic Plowman (Zart Education)
in conversation with Damien Shen