Leah Umbagai Australian, Worrora, b. 1973
Raised by Donny Woolagoodja and Mildred Mungulu, Leah demonstrates a great love and understanding of her culture in her artwork. She produces breathtaking Wandjina images and pictures of the constellations Seven Sisters and Wallungunder, son of the first Wandjina, Idjair, whose spirit lives in the Milky Way in the shape of an emu.
In addition to being one of the Kimberley's top basket-ballers, Leah juggles her art with the care of her young son Folau and her work as an Executive Councillor for Mowanjum and the remote Larinyuwar outstation, where she spends a considerable amount of time.
Leah has always possessed a conspicious artisitic talent - she was awarded the prestigious Marlene Bruce Art Award for Kimberley Aboriginal Art at the age of just 20. Her work is keenly sought and represented in many collections throughout Australia. Leah commenced practicing as an artist at a very young age. "I was small when I started painting with my Grandmother (ElkinUmbagai). She brought me up and then she passed when I was five years old." Leah then went to live with Mildred and Donny Woolagoodja. Leah likes "being around the older people". "I liked the stories my grandmother and grandfather used to tell me, passing on the law of our country. They didn't teach me they passed on the stories, telling me the significance of each animal and the way to live life." Leah's grandfather used to take her to the cave sites. "He taught me about the land, water, rocks. Janet Oobagooma was also teaching me what I needed to learn about our culture. We walked seven hours a day looking at the caves. When you are there the spirit speaks to you. It is glad you are around. Some places can be interpreted and in others I wonder what they are saying. My passion for painting is from these experiences." Leah continues, "My passion for painting is also from my relationships, my clan and my country and also in my dreaming. I dream when I am in my country. In my dream, my grandfather and grandmother gave me a song or dance. I say no I want to paint. I believe the spirits show you things through dreams. I can have a dream before I paint."Leah's totem is the freshwater barramundi. Leah explains, "It is my ungud, my dreaming. It belongs to the story about Ungud (the snake). In traditional storytelling ungud is given to the father or grandfather through dreams or as a living animal to the parent. When the child dies the spirit returns to the animal. What is taken by the earth is given back. If you have a special animal you cannot eat it. It just doesn't taste right, to sort of eat yourself." Leah represents her culture through painting stories about the son of the first Wandjina, Idjair, whose spirit lives in the MilkyWay, Wallununda, in the shape of an emu. It is said that the Wandjinas were sent by Idjair. The painting contains images of the snake, turtles and crocodiles, the whole of creation, and represents the dynamic forces between the spiritual and physical worlds, desire and law, procreation and ethical codes of conduct. Leah explains, "I got a grilling for this painting (Wallununda). I saw it in my dream. I told them the elders that I dreamt the story and they then said it was ok. The spirit spoke to you through your dream.' She adds, "You are not supposed to draw this story. Others can't draw this. You can only draw what you are allowed to tell in your country." In regards to her art practice Leah says, "As a painter, I'll try anything. I sketch, draw totems and landscapes. Living in a Western way, I can combine both ways. At first I didn't like using ochre on canvas. The traditional way is to use it on clay, slate or bark. It is awkward to change this traditional way of painting but the paintings I am working on now are ochre and look better, look nice." Leah likes to draw animals and stories and she confides that she will only paint her tribal Wandjina from Worrorra country or all three Wandjinas together, representing the Mowandjum community. Leah started painting at home. At school she "practised all sorts of skills, learning to sketch, screen print, make etchings. Art was always there. Norval, the art teacher at Mowanjum Hall, encouraged me even more. My real passion for painting is influenced by my culture." She encourages her son and other young relatives to paint by drawing with them. "I draw cars, cartoons, draw stuff they play with and show them how to draw faces. We do paintings together. I look at stuff and I can draw it. I tell them everyone has their own way of looking. We are all different." What does Leah like about painting? "When I paint, I can have a million people shouing at me and I can't hear a thing. I am in the space. I love painting. Painting and even a song or a dance is connected to who you are otherwise it means nothing." Leah was born in Derby Hospital. She attended kindergarten at Mowanjum Pre-school and completed high school at Derby District High. Entering various competitions and exhibitions and armed with determination Leah maintained a constant focus on her art and its relevance to her traditional culture. She was awarded the prestigious Marlene Bruce Art Award for Kimberley Aboriginal Art at the age of 20. During the 18 years Leah has worked in the Mowanjum Art and Cultural Centre, assisting with all aspects of gallery management. Leah is currently studying community management. "I have worked in so many areas but now I will actually have a certificate to prove it. It's a good achievement for my community. You need to know the Western way before you can get something done. I would like to have my own business one day."