Students help keep the Blak fire burning through art

Keira Jenkins |

Nathan Leslie teaches students how to weave in Carriageworks, Sydney.
Nathan Leslie teaches students how to weave in Carriageworks, Sydney.

A fire ‘burns’ in the centre of the Solid Ground NAIDOC exhibition, surrounded by a series of self portraits by students, to form a yarning circle.

Visitors are encouraged to walk through the fire structure, where they are invited to sit for a moment, to immerse themselves in the poems they hear and weaved works on display inside. 

Students from schools across Sydney have spent months working with Carriageworks’ Solid Ground artists in residence, Nathan Leslie, Shannon “Monks” Smith and Luke Patterson. 

An art exhibition.
The Solid Ground NAIDOC exhibition features a ‘fire’ at its centre. (Joseph Mayers/AAP PHOTOS)

Mr Leslie, a Gamilaroi and Mandandanji man, began his dance career in the late 1990s and is now an experienced performer but he has branched out into other art forms. 

Through the Solid Ground program, he has been leading weaving workshops with students at Chifley College’s Bidwill campus in western Sydney. 

“I always end my workshops with ‘don’t ever forget that you’re Blak, amazing and deadly and be unapologetic about it’,” he said.

Mr Patterson led students at Chifley College’s Dunheved campus through poetry workshops, while those at Alexandria Park Community School created self-portraits under the guidance of Mr Smith.

Students at Evans High in Blacktown worked with the Solid Ground team to design their own hoodies.

The exhibition includes all of these works and is a representation of this year’s NAIDOC theme, “Keep the fire burning! Blak, loud and proud”.

Mr Leslie said that not only did the artworks speak to the theme, the process of sitting with the students and creating each piece was representative of keeping the fire burning. 

“When we talk about keep the fire burning, it’s keeping that connection, keep looking after family, community,” he said.

“It means connecting, getting out, doing the work, showing up for our mob, holding space, connecting and just keep doing what our old people have done, what they’ve passed on.”

Producer Felix May said the program was much more than the process of learning to weave, paint or write poetry.

“For some of the kids, this is the only access to culture and arts that they’ve got,” they said.

“It’s more than an arts program, it’s a mentorship program too.”

Now with their artworks on display, May said many of the shy students who started the program at the beginning of 2024 have now become confident young people, who are proud of their identities and artworks on display at Carriageworks.  

“I’m so proud of all of them and I know they’re all proud of themselves too,” May said.

The Solid Ground NAIDOC exhibition will be on display at Carriageworks until July 14.