A healing gift from life’s journey

Painting has proved more than Les Ahoy’s gift. It has been one of the best medicines in his battle against prostate cancer, a healing and an escape from the rigours of recent chemotherapy.

It has also helped bring reconciliation, for himself and for a broader community.

The end result is a wondrous work of art that takes pride of place on the wall of the Day Treatment Centre.

There was hardly a dry eye in the house when the Lake Macquarie resident delivered his painting ‘Cancer affects us all’ last Thursday during National Reconciliation Week.

The large format canvas uses a Western desert dot painting style to depict people’s life journey before and with cancer. At the centre – surrounded by those who have been and those who are yet to come – are patients and staff at Calvary Mater Newcastle and the Day Treatment Centre.

“When I started painting this I thought it would be about me,” an emotional Les said.

“But the focus shifted very quickly and I realised it was not just about me. It’s about everybody,” he said, reflecting the theme this year for National Reconciliation Week.

“It’s about the patients in the Day Treatment Centre and the staff, and their interactions with us. It’s not just about us who have cancer but about our friends and family who are affected, and the staff who are also affected.”

“Thank you Sarah for striking up the conversation,” Les said to the unit’s former acting manager Sarah Scudds. “It is your painting now and it’s your story.”

Sarah said the whole unit had been excited to receive Les’ painting.

“It’s so special for us because this is specifically painted not just by one of our patients but it’s about everybody and it’s about here (the unit). That’s very, very special.”

Amid the calming blues and whites and aqua chosen for Newcastle’s coastal position and the Awabakal people, are figures representing staff. Ironically, they are purple which, and unbeknown to Les, is the colour for chemotherapy.

Many will find themselves in the painting, just as Les has done.

“I have good days and bad days, but its life. I take it as it is and make the most of the time I have left.

“Our culture says that we are all on this earth for a purpose, and when your purpose is completed it is time to go. Whatever my purpose is, it’s getting towards the end.”

Understanding his culture and passing it on to the young men of the Nganyawana clan in his native New England region has been one purpose.

“The other is telling my truth. That was a promise I made to my Nan, to tell the truth of our history.”

One day he went to a presentation by a prominent Aboriginal woman at his home-town university. It was more of a lecture, and a confronting one at that. The largely white audience came away feeling guilty and with no greater understanding.

“I went home and told my Nan about it and she said, ‘see all those people she lost today, well it’s your job to get them back’.

“That was my promise to Nan all those years ago.”

He’s being keeping that promise of reconciliation and hope ever since – through art, through stories, through heritage, through speaking his truth, and through his own presentations, which he gives with his partner, Maree Simon.

“We are all custodians of the country,

so we all have responsibility

for caring for country.”

An initiated Elder and cultural knowledge holder of the Nganyawana Clan Group belonging to the Northern Tablelands region, Les is a descendant of King Billy, the leader of Aboriginal clans in that region in the 1800s.

His family has their own stories of the Stolen Generation and forced removals, which in Les’ case go back generations to a great, great, great grandfather who was Chinese and was forced to leave Australia – and his wife and four children – when officials found out he had secretly married an Aboriginal woman.

Les grew up on the ‘Silver City’ Aboriginal reserve at Armidale, so named he says because the humpies were made of scraps of corrugated iron scavenged from the town’s rubbish dump next door. It wasn’t an easy life.

In his talks, Les tries to build understanding of Aboriginal life before contact with white settlers. He doesn’t want to make non-Aboriginal people feel guilty, “but it does make them realise that they are the beneficiaries of the past and as beneficiaries, they have a responsibility to contribute to a better future”.

“When we do our acknowledgement of country, we also acknowledge the non-Aboriginal people of today and those that are in the room because they are custodians too. We are all custodians of the country, so we all have responsibility for caring for country. It puts the onus back on them to do their part.

“It’s not a black thing, it’s everybody.”

He’s been reading an article on one of his uncles of late. “At the end of it he says: ‘The earth is my mother, and when I die I am going to go back to my mother. You will one day die and will come too, so what are you doing now for mother?’

“That’s the essence of custodianship.”

“Reconciliation is a tool to build better relationships

and closer relationships between all cultures,

not just Aboriginal cultures.”

And reconciliation?

For Les it is about the embracing the uniting of both Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander and non-Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander cultures to create a united Australian culture that embodies equality and fairness in a shared society free from racism.

He doesn’t think it is such a big ask.

“We all live in a culture and we all practice different aspects of our culture. Reconciliation is about learning about other cultures and their different practices, and respecting those practices.”

“Reconciliation is a two-way process that has to be participated in – it’s an active and physical participation. That’s where true understanding is.”

It is also a universal thing.

“Reconciliation is a tool to build on better relationships and closer relationships between all cultures, not just Aboriginal cultures.”

It’s also a part of his quest to keep his Nan’s promise alive.