Indigenous culture the focus of Northerly SWELL

Each year, SWELL Sculpture Festival branches out from its Currumbin home in the form of Northerly SWELL, a concurrent art installation at the Helensvale Culture Centre. This year’s offering is by none other than celebrated local artist Ivan Lovatt, whose wire sculptures have seen him win many People’s Choice Awards over the years of SWELL’s main event. This year, he chose local Indigenous elder, artist and educator Luther Cora as his subject. We sat down with Luther, Ivan and SWELL Sculpture Festival Natasha Edwards at the unveiling of the portrait.

“I was honoured that they chose to approach me to do something like this,” says Luther. “SWELL is such a big event, and I’m always trying to think of new ways to expose Indigenous culture to Australia.”

The piece, entitled ‘Totem’, is a bust of Luther in traditional face paint with trademark black cockatoo feathers in his headpiece, representing the animal spirit, or ‘totem’ given to him by his family. I ask why the black cockatoo was assigned to him in particular, and he chuckles.

“Maybe because I’ve got dark skin and make a lot of noise! Or because I’m cheeky,” he laughs. “No, sometimes they don’t reveal those things.”

The technique involved in creating realistic portraits from chicken wire is nothing short of astounding, especially when it comes to “soft” detail like the feathers. Ivan has been honing his craft for years, however, and takes it all in his stride.

“Each piece demands its own techniques so if you don’t have those techniques you have to invent them,” Ivan explains.

“I like the idea that creativity is an inventive art. Trial and error. Things don’t always work but you end up going back to the drawing board, like the mad professor- I’ve been called that before! I’m determined. If I want to make feathers I’ll find a way, and then I’ll find a better way if I can.”

Natasha is utterly impressed by Ivan’s attention to detail.

“With the paint, it’s actually quite a tricky technique to apply paint to chicken wire and you only get one chance to do that as well, and he was able to capture that beautifully,” she says.

“The feathers were obviously a challenge to make chicken wire to look so soft, and Luther has a lot of hair and a beard, so to take that and capture the cheekbones and the gaze in the eyes, it’s quite a challenge.”

And it’s the eyes that have it, as far as Ivan is concerned.

“That’s the most important part, the eyes,” he says.

“With eyes you’re looking at millimetre differences to change the entire feel of the work. With the eyes mostly what I wanted to create was a feeling of pride and maybe an inner strength.

“I really like the Indigenous idea of being deadly, I like the way they use that word because it’s about strength, and that’s what I tried to capture in his eyes.”

As far as Luther’s concerned, Ivan has done a bang up job. I ask him what he wants audiences to take away from the piece.

“Firstly just that it’s great piece of art,” he says. “And hopefully they take the story from it as well, just knowing that we’re still here and we are the oldest living continuous culture in the world and we’re still practicing that today through the body paints and the style of dress we wear when we’re doing dance and culture.

“I’m only one person but I try to get out there and be an ambassador for all my people.”

Ivan feels grateful to have the opportunity to be part of that representation.

“I’m happy to work with Luther in a good spirit going forward,” he says.

“I really like our First Nations culture and I think it’s an asset to the country, I think we should all realise more how lucky we are to have that. I’m happy to be a part of helping that to happen.”

SWELL Sculpture Festival has been running for 17 years and has grown into a beloved celebration of all things innovative, gobsmacking, heart-wrenching and downright strange, offering national media coverage and a major award of $15,000, with a further $12,500 on offer for the smaller awards and over $25,000 in artist subsidies.

SWELL will connect people, art and place at Currumbin Beach from 13 to 22 September, and the Northerly SWELL installation is available for viewing now at the Helensvale Cultural Centre. Visit for updates.

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