Stolen generations survivor Sandra Hill is on a mission to heal and connect Australians through art

'My Little Sacred Sites': Sandra Hill was a key artist behind the Wadandi Boodjarra mural on the Margaret River Main Street. Picture: Nicky Lefebvre
'My Little Sacred Sites': Sandra Hill was a key artist behind the Wadandi Boodjarra mural on the Margaret River Main Street. Picture: Nicky Lefebvre

"People can say 'stolen generation', and it's just two words. They don't think about what that implies. They have no idea what the person has been through because they're not relating to it."

Wadandi elder and artist Sandra Hill has lived in WA her whole life, but her experience growing up here was starkly different to the experiences of the majority of Australians.

At the age of six years, Sandra was taken from her mother, and would grow up between an orphanage and a foster home, a world away from her family, culture and land.

Sandra and her siblings were living with their mum in Point Samson near Karratha when a policeman showed up at their house. Their dad was away on conscripted army service.

"He said he just wanted to take us for a ride in his big four wheel drive," she said.

"I remember watching mum out the back of the car, we were waving to her. She just fell to her knees. That's how I remember her."

Sandra and her siblings, aged four to eight, were put into a cell at Roeburn police station. The cell door was left open at first.

"We did a runner. I had my younger sister on my back, and our older sister Barbara carried our little brother on her back, and we started walking back to Point Samson on the main road.

The police caught up to the kids, and shortly after, they were on a plane to Perth, where they were put into Sister Kate's, a home for "half-caste" children. Aboriginal kids with lighter skin.

Sandra and her siblings were not the only ones to have been taken from their families. The whole brutal process was legal in Australia from the early 1900's to the 70's under the 1905 Aborigines Act.

Sandra and her siblings with other children at Sister Kate's Orphanage. Picture: Supplied.

Sandra and her siblings with other children at Sister Kate's Orphanage. Picture: Supplied.

Under the Act, authorities could take Aboriginal children away from their families, for the simple reason that they had "white blood".

At Sister Kate's, the children were often abused. Sandra recalls witnessing other children being sexually abused by the 'housefather', herself being starved for periods of time and being force fed milk despite being lactose-intolerant.

"It was the worst, torturous, disgusting place."

Throughout her early life, Sandra re-calls that the strongest pain came from the resistance of her white foster family and community to accept her as one of them.

"We were in a family but we weren't part of the family. It was, 'this is my Aboriginal foster-daughter'. Nobody wants to be called that."

For Sandra, the true extent of her exclusion became clear to her in a recent trip to her old primary school in Gwelup.

"There were bricks that families had paid for and had their names engraved on."

Sandra and her sister Barbara who had also been fostered, were not named alongside their foster family. Instead, the brick showed only the names of the three foster siblings she'd grown up with.

"It tore my heart out."

At school, Sandra and her sister dealt with constant racism from other children, but one comment from her art teacher stuck with her.

"He said, 'one day you could be an artist. Keep working at your art Sandra, you could be an artist'.

"It was the only positive thing that I could hang onto. Because we were made to feel so inferior by the white community."

Sandra did go on to become an artist.

She has won multiple awards and is well-known in the Australian art scene. Her art works have sold for tens of thousands, and have been shown all over the world.

With 53 public art pieces around WA, it's unlikely any Western Australian has not seen one of her artworks at least once.

She's worked on the BHP Billiton waterpark in Elizabeth Quay, the Capel police station, the red-tailed cockatoo mural on Margaret River's main street and many others.

"I call them my little sacred sites," she said.

In 2015 Sandra became a finalist in the West Australian Indigenous Art Award and was awarded the People's Choice Award.

In 2017, she was one of the 30 Indigenous artists who were selected to be a part of the National Indigenous Art Triennial, with her art covering a wall in the National Gallery of Australia for six months.

Two of Sandra's artworks are currently in the Ever Present exhibition in the Art Gallery of WA, a touring exhibition showcasing 80 of the finest indigenous artists in the country.

Double Standards: A mosaic of images by Sandra Hill juxtaposing everyday life in the 1950s and 1960s between white and Aboriginal Australians. Picture: Supplied.

Double Standards: A mosaic of images by Sandra Hill juxtaposing everyday life in the 1950s and 1960s between white and Aboriginal Australians. Picture: Supplied.

After it's stint in the Art Gallery of WA, the exhibition will tour Singapore, Tokyo and Seoul.

'Double Standards' is a piece that highlights the disparity between black and white Australians. It was bought for almost $50,000 by the National Gallery of Australia.

"The union jack is all messed up because that [colonisation] was the beginning of the end for a lot of our culture and belonging," Sandra explained.

Her other work, 'sKIN deep', was bought by Wesfarmers for more than $43,000. It shows that Aboriginal people can be many different skin colours.

"I got sick and tired of people saying 'how much Aboriginal are you," she said.

Speaking about her artwork, Sandra's tone is one of pride. "I'm glad they're recognised. They're gonna travel the world," she said.

Sandra is currently working on a cultural heritage display in Balingup, showing what life was like for First Nations people during pre-colonisation and post-colonisation times.

"I want to show that we're still cultural people... it ends on a positive note that we're not gone, we're not dead, we're still here, we're still practising our cultural traditions.

"I've come home."