Tamara Armstrong is an award winning visual artist based at Tamborine Mountain in the Gold Coast hinterland of Queensland.
Known for her layered mix of vibrant colours, tropical plants and geometric angles, she paints to understand her life and cultural heritage as she lives it, blending her innate love for colour and nature with contemporary perspectives of ‘connection’, to create visually bold and uplifting imagery.
We fell in love with her ‘Women of Colour’ series a couple of years ago. Her stunning portraits of fellow Australian Women of Colour and Colourful Women of Substance platforms some of the country’s rising stars across many fields, all connecting to their different cultures along the way.
Tamara took some time out from her murals and studio work to share some insight with us.
Can you tell our Boom Community about your connection to the Pacific?
“I have island blood running through my veins! I’m a Pasifika Woman, born here in Australia, another large island - to a Samoan/ New Zealand father (Now Australian) and fifth generation Caucasian Australian Mother. My entire life I have found myself drawn to island life, island culture and my island roots call me on a regular basis.”
How does it this show up in your daily life?
“Growing up here in Queensland, since 1982 with no clear way to define my mixed cultural identity, I have found it hard to articulate my identity when questioned on where I come from.
“It’s a question I get regularly from strangers, colleagues, friends of friends, fellow Australians basically.
“My extreme height (I’m 6’3 tall), my ambiguous facial features, and my natural ‘tan’ must confuse people, as I’ve found myself the part of someone else’s guessing game on far too many occassions, ‘What are you?’, ‘Where do you come from’, ‘What have you got in you?’.
“There’s no short answer and ‘Australian’ does not suffice, not for any single non-indigenous person living here.
“Anytime I find myself on an island, near the ocean, near tropical surroundings, tropical botanicals – I strangely feel at home. There’s a deep connection, that runs long and is hard to explain.
“I’m now simply referring to myself as an Australian Islander. I simply have no better way of putting it. This country is an island, I’ve grew up living not that far from the Pacific Ocean and I’m certain that my Samoan ancestors travelled far and wide, navigating their way via the stars, mixing my blood with the many island nations in the Pacific. It’s something I’m insanely proud to learn about and it is my art that connects me to this deep cultural part of who I am and where I’ve come from.”
What's it been like growing up with that connection to Culture in regional Queensland?
“The short answer is, lonely!
“ I’ve not seen myself reflected in my surroundings, I rarely bump into pacific islanders here on the mountain I call home, funnily enough we are a little too far from the ocean haha.
“But when I lived even further west as a young graduate art teacher in the small South West Queensland town of St George, I truly felt most at home with my few indigenous friends and students and it was the language of ART and ART making that brought my closest friend and fellow artist Tracey Campbell into my life, as well as her beautiful children Kaitlin and Matt.
“At the time I lived and taught in St George I’m pretty certain I was the only islander residing there, outside of a beautiful Tongan family who were hard working fruit pickers.
“Returning closer to my family home in Logan, I now reside in the Scenic Rim which brings me great natural inspiration, peace and a slow pace. Plus my studio looks out across the valleys and ocean to beautiful Minjerribah, Nrth Stradbroke Island, where I now attempt to escape to whenever possible, to fill my cup, be with my creative friends who reside there and basically just get constantly inspired.”
Do you have a favourite Samoan saying?
“My gorgeous fellow artist and friend and now Sis, Maryann Talia Pau has brought to my life a better knowledge and understanding of the Samoan language, something that I was not brought up with in our family home due to my Father’s personal reasons.
“If I had to choose one word it would be ‘Aiga’ which translates to family and extends to wider family, through both blood and marriage and even adopted connections.
“I’ve found my family in both those who I’m blood related to as well as those who’ve chosen me and vice versa. If 2020 has taught me anything, it is the love and appreciation for family. Family first and foremost.
“The phrase I’d have to choose as a favourite is one my sis Maryann regularly sends me and that is ‘alofa tele atu’ – which loosely translates to ‘Love you more.’ Saying I love you to people who mean most to me and even those who’ve I only had shorter but meaningful interactions with, is something I make a priority of saying in this short life.
“We are all connected and love binds us more so. When we say I love you to others, we say so much more. It’s also our love for ourselves reflecting back. It’s powerful.
My beautiful friend Paula Boo, a fellow maker and long time resident of Minjerribah, whose roots take her back to Lebanon and Canada, also has a large canvas that says ‘LOVE YOU MORE’ in her kitchen, because she two says it to her loved ones. It’s a beautiful sisterhood connection that exists in my world and I love these little things that bind us. Essentially the ‘islander’ connection of women in my life, and some who’ve not even met each other. Bizarre but beautiful.”
Is there an aspect of Island culture, be it dance, the arts, gardening or cooking, that you love the most?
“Impossible to answer this question with one answer haha!
“I’m all over each, and I LOVE this question, Thank you!
“My Samoan Nanna Lemoè Soatogi-Sio was an avid gardener, cook, dancer and lover of the Ukulele. An all round maker.
“All of these cultural activities and traditions are a way of life in the pacific island nations. To make is to be.
“I come from a long line of weavers, print makers, ceramicists, musicians, painters, dancers and very good cooks!
“My Nanna lived with us for a short time in the 80s and our suburban backyard in Logan never looked better. She had pineapples growing, she was weaving baskets and hats from the lomandra plants we already had and she taught my mum many family recipes including my favourite Pani Popo which is a delicious bread based bun drenched in sweet coconut cream. So unhealthy but serious soul food!
“Our neighbours on our childhood street were placing weekly orders for Nanna’s coconut buns and our kitchen was filled with beautiful island aromas and served in banana leaves. I wish I was older and had have learnt more from her in the kitchen.
“I feel like I’ve inherited her love of gardening though, and the rich red soil of my mountain home helps me in that department.
“I too love to cook (and eat) and getting into more traditional recipes is on my list, and always on the menu when our extended Samoan family who now live locally, manage to get together.
“Music and a love of music has always been present in my family home life, I’m actually getting back into playing the piano and learning the Ukulele is also on my bucket list.
“If I listen to the music of the islands I just cry every time. The language, the beautiful singing voices and the deep history of the songs get me every time. It’s like a pull on my heart muscles and it’s intense.
“One skill I am not all over is dancing! Haha, that’s another story. Didn’t get that gene. But again, love to watch any and all cultural dance from the islands. Many of my cousins who grew up in NZ learnt the dances and it blows my mind. That and the singing abilities in our family also fills me with great pride.”
How do you think your connection to Island Culture informs your creativity?
“Subconciously it has informed so much of my artwork and my motivation, I’m only now piecing it together now.
“My paintings and sketches and even my old practice with ceramics were like journal entries I can now look back at and see my cultural heritage pushing it’s way through.
“Hence my artwork and my desire to paint more fellow women of colour, has lead me to some of the most precious friendships I could have ever dreamt of having. I’ve found my sisters from different misters (and a few beautiful creative brothers as well) and I credit the making of my art and fuelling my creativity to these beautiful connections and people.
“The colours and patterns and joyful, relaxed vibes of island culture hugely power my aesthetic. From the dreamy sunset skies, to the natural greens and sand tone palettes of the dunes and vegetation, to the triangle patterns all through my works. It’s a real gift to have this passion for art that keeps me so connected to my roots, and further reveals who I truly am.”
Any famous creatives from the islands who the world should know more about? Either alive today or from history.
“There are some beautiful female makers doing their thing all over the world, and it the Pacific islands you’ll find most hiding away from the camera and any kind of fame. It’s often the men that get to shine!
“ But things are always changing and as we all know, there’s plenty of room for all of us to shine.
“My fave would have to be Maryann Talia Pau of the One Miliion Stars to end Violence project. She’s all heart and colour and goodness.
“Another shoutout to mega QUEEN Lisa Faalafi, the genius creative director of Hot Brown Honey, a cabaret act to end all acts. It’s feminism, activism, colour, culture and loads of decolonising goodness. I’ve followed her work from a distance and only recently discovered that were actually childhood friends! Totally small world.
“I’ll give another shout out to my GC sister from another mister who resides is beautiful Samoa, supporting local artists with her gallery and art and big creative soul, Nikki Mariner. Together with her partner Lalovai, they are a creative dream team of love and art and culture and family. Check them out. I was fortunate enough to get a few tattoos from Lalovai in my home studio, on one of their famous tattoo tours here.”
How did you start on the idea of your Women of Colour Series?
“The idea for my ‘Women of Colour’ series all stemmed from my first crack at the Archibald Prize back in 2016 when I learnt that no portrait of a woman or person of colour had ever won the then 91 year old prize!
“So I asked Yasmin Abdel Magied, all round amazing human, social advocate, engineer, author, mega brain, trail blazer if she would be my subject for my first attempt at the coveted prize.
“She said yes and the portrait was a huge awakening for me. While it didn’t get selected for the Archie, it was selected for two other notable prizes and I had to choose which one it would show in. I went with the Portia Geach Memorial Award, which is Australia’s most prestigious award for female portrait painters.
“After that, I realised I didn’t have to wait for the Archibald or any other art prize to approach the women that inspired me. I could make a series happen on my own and then I chose to donate 20% of each original to a charity of grass roots NFP that each subject nominated as close to their heart.”
What's been an unexpected joy of working on it?
“Learning of the many amazing women of colour in this country, who have defied the odds and gone their own way, defined their own story and identity and in doing so have helped create positive change in the world. Real change!
“The charities and NFPs they each nominated (for a portion of sales profits to go to) also opened my eyes to so many causes in our local communities that fly under the radar. There is so much we can do as individuals if we just ask, listen and learn. And fame and success can take a back seat to all of that. It’s the reward of making a difference that is the greatest joy for me.
If the world could adopt one aspect of Samoan culture, what would you love that to be and why?
“A love of family, taking care of each other – together - and looking after and respecting our elderly.”
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