Studio Spaces: Indigenous artist Andy Snelgar

Andy Snelgar sits at his workbench inside his art studio.
Andy Snelgar sits at his workbench inside his art studio.

Studio Spaces is a collaboration between the Manning River Times and the Manning Regional Art Gallery featuring artists from the MidCoast region. The project culminates with in an exhibition in 2018. Learn more here.

“Sometimes I work inside, most of the time I work outside but I always usually have a spot either in the shed or near the shed; and sometimes I have a log to work on.”

Ngemba carver Andy Snelgar can work anywhere to create his Aboriginal artifacts and that’s just the way he likes it. “More or less for me it doesn’t matter too much where I work. I can work wherever,” he said.

A year ago he converted a part of his backyard shed (located in the Manning) into an art studio. One of the reasons was to create a dedicated space and another because he needed somewhere to store his works.

Andy's workbench is set up to display his works as well as house the tools he needs when creating.

Andy's workbench is set up to display his works as well as house the tools he needs when creating.

“I’ve got about 10 pieces here now and you need 50 for a show so it’s a matter having somewhere to put those too.”

Andy’s works are immersed in culture and tradition and he is passionate about sharing and passing on the stories of his people for generations to come.

His interest in making Aboriginal artifacts, which includes spears, shields and boomerangs, started when he was a teenager.

Ngemba people live in western NSW, my uncle’s country and my ceremonial country as well so the stories I created and objects a lot of the time come from that country.

Andy Snelgar

“I used to travel out west to one of my uncles’s property where he lived in western NSW and we’d make spears and stuff like that,” he said.

“We’d walk through the bush and some of us would spear fish, so we’d be using these things as well, so they were items that had a use rather than art itself.

“Later on I kind of looked into the art and the stories in the objects as well.

“One of the first things I ever made when I was young was a fishing spear along with a few other things.”

Andy uses hardwoods and softwoods and a lot of his works have carvings on them that have significance to a lot of the stories and things he has been shown. “Ngemba people live in western NSW, my uncle’s country and my ceremonial country as well so the stories I created and objects a lot of the time come from that country.”

The chisel and tomahawk are two of the main tools he uses and some of his chisels have been adapted. 

“They’re kind of what traditionally we would have used like the wood, but a sharp rock or a stone or a bone attached to it as well makes it a carving tool.”

The process of carving can take some time. “That takes a couple of days itself. To get an object from start to finish, you could be working on it for a week I guess.”

Andy uses a lot of ochres and traditional pigments in his painting. 

One of his favourites is an ochre that gives a bright red/pink stain. “It’s in a rock and we crush it down. 

“I traded this with a man in western NSW near the South Australian border, past my country. I often try to get this one because it is a really good colour.”

He often trades boomerangs for ochre. “If you go out there you can do that. You can’t just go out there and take a bag of it. The right thing to do would be to ask.”

Andy also paints in resin, which he said are a little different to the ochre. “You’ve got to grind them up and then they get painted onto the objects and they create this dark red appearance on the objects. 

“They’ve all got a different colour and we use them a little bit differently when you’re putting them on the objects.”

Work space: A boomerang in the early stages of creation.

Work space: A boomerang in the early stages of creation.

An important and big part of his life is education.

“It’s something that you do as a part of your law or a part of your dreaming, your ‘Ngurrampa’, you pass on the teaching and talk to young people or anyone really about the importance of creating these objects and continuing that learning and that story. For me that’s really, really important. 

“I’m a teacher at a local school (as well as travelling to give workshops) but I also take our young people along to corroborees, meetings and gatherings and things like that and also to teachings in the bush about all of these objects and the creation of them and how they’re used. 

“So it’s something that I’m pretty passionate about and something I want to make sure that I pass on.

“My uncle talks about the relationship you had with everyone which means giving rather than taking away and expecting things. 

“That’s what I try and talk about when I do my art as well through education.”

In Ngemba country in western NSW, he said the traditional art endemic to that region is a lot of cave paintings and the figures and motifs that were painted in those styles on those walls were often dancing figures, fighting figures, and they hold a lot of stories that we can learn from.

“These stories are important and what we can recreate can help them keep going in these objects.

Tools: From stones, bones and chisels through to ochre and resin and more, Andy uses a range of implements to create his pieces.

Tools: From stones, bones and chisels through to ochre and resin and more, Andy uses a range of implements to create his pieces.

“These objects have been made for a very long time and their stories are very important to learn. They talk about why not to be greedy, why not to be angry, why not to fight or why you have to be generous and you have to give.”

Among the pieces in his studio are boomerangs, which are made in different sizes and used in a variety of ways including for dance, ceremony, as fighting sticks, shields and hunting.

“Boomerangs did have a particular place when they were used in corroborees, dancing and ceremonies.” 

He described how one of his fishing spear’s came together. “The prongs are bounded in there with either tree fibre like string or resin and then put resin over the top and then it’s sort of sharp. 

Andy Snelgar uses ochres, traditional pigments and resins in his work.

Andy Snelgar uses ochres, traditional pigments and resins in his work.

“It’s quite a light spear to use but thrown out of the hand or with a woomera your prongs might not necessarily spear the fish but if your fish goes in the prongs it is held.” 

He explained that across Australia men would use the spear and women would often use the fishing lines and hand lines. The ‘miru’ or ‘woomera’ is well known as a spear thrower but has a lot of other uses. 

“We throw our spears with it and it acts as a lever to extend my arm so I can throw the spear a lot further than I could just out of my hands, probably about three or four times as far actually, which is a remarkable improvement. 

“But it’s also a dish so I can carry objects in it if I need to. I can carry coals, hot coals and I can make fire with it. If I rub the very hard edge onto a soft wood we can make enough ashes to make a fire. It’s also a stone knife.”

Andy’s workbench inside the studio is where he can sit and have everything he needs to create. He also needs his work to be transportable. “I do travel a bit and do workshops, so a lot of it has to be transportable too because I need things to take and show.” 

He has a pencil case filled with carving implements, including bones and rocks. “It’s just got everything and I can transport it around, so when I travel to work I can grab all that.”