“It was such an honor to spend a couple of days with Binna, someone that is so passionate about what he does and where he lives. I think that all of our dreams are to do what we love, make that our job and make that our life, whatever our culture and beliefs are. "
Binna (right) teaches Dan (left) traditional painting methods and explains how he uses inspiration from the natural landscape in his artworks as the two sit on Cooya Beach
As Daniel James (Dan Flying Solo), now 33, stepped into the light gallery space of Janbal Gallery in Mossman (a small settlement in Port Douglas in North Queensland, Australia), his eyes jumped to a vast red canvas depicting two black lizards — their bodies intricately laced with Earth-colored lines, dots, and squiggles. Small canvases featuring mosaics of detailed dot designs adorned the walls and hand-painted boomerangs lined the tables.
Aboriginal artist and owner of the gallery Brian “Binna” Swindley showed Dan around the gallery, telling Dan about the traditional indigenous communities in Queensland and the inspiration behind his work: the Kuku Yalanji country, its animals, the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics Rainforests. He explained that the gallery was named after his mother’s Aboriginal name, Janbal, which also means Blue Quandon — a rare blue rainforest berry found around Mossman Gorge and the Daintree area.
“The pride in his voice that his gallery was 100 percent Aboriginal owned and operated didn’t go unnoticed,” Dan wrote in a blog post on his website. “That afternoon he shared not just his stories with me but his culture.”
Left to right: A student paints during Binna's workshop; examples of Binna's smaller artworks
In 2016, Dan had briefly visited Uluru — a grand sandstone monolith sacred to the Australian people — while traveling throughout Australia with his family. There, he was first exposed to the land’s aboriginal culture and history.
When he received the opportunity to create a short documentary for Lonely Planet on anything in Australia in 2017, he decided to focus on the region’s Aboriginal culture, specifically on traditional art produced in Queensland. He wanted to use the platform he had been given to share the culture of Indigenous Australian people, and emphasize how integral traditional practices are to their identities.
According to Dan, often many tourists who visit traditional art workshops aren’t as interested in learning about the culture and simply want to spend an hour or so painting a didgeridoo (an Aboriginal wind instrument) or a boomerang as a souvenir.
“It was really important to me that everything I experienced, that we filmed, and that we talked about was authentic and a true representation of the culture and people of the Kuku Yalanji nation,” Dan said, “rather than an adapted westernized version where people have piggybacked off someone's culture to turn it into a tourist experience.”
After exploring Janbal Gallery, Dan visited Mossman Gorge in the Daintree Rainforest (the oldest tropical rainforest in the world) where he took a Ngadiku DreamTime walk. After a traditional ‘smoking’ ceremony to banish bad spirits, an indigenous Aboriginal guide led Dan along the rainforest’s paths while telling him about the history of the land, traditional plant uses, and the Creation Stories of the Ngadiku people.
Left to right: A guide at the Dreamtime Daintree Walks plays traditional music, a path through Mossman Gorge, a traditional smoking ceremony to banish bad spirits before the walk
The following day, Dan met up with Binna and the two walked down to Cooya Beach — one of the inspiration points for Binna’s artworks. As they wandered along the vast stretch of sand gathering local leaves, berries and crab claws, Binna pointed out insects that tasted of lemon and crabs scurrying between the lush greenery of the rainforest and the aquarine water above the Great Barrier Reef.
When the sun began to set, the two walked into the mangroves (which reportedly had alligators). While spearfishing for sand crabs, they talk about their families, their childhoods and the history of the Kuku Yalanji people. Dan said it felt like they had been friends for years since they were able to be so honest and open with each other.
“Everybody that I met and spoke to [in Queensland] was so proud of their part of the world, their connections to the land, their family, so it was really nice to be in a place where people were so open to talking and sharing with you,” Dan said. “People are so proud, and rightly so, of their ancestral roots.”
Dan and Binna then walked back to the sand and laid out their canvases. Dan painted a small picture with miniature dots while Binna painted a crab claw coming out of the ocean bordered by designs inspired by mangrove plants.
“It was such an honor to spend a couple of days with Binna, someone that is so passionate about what he does and where he lives,” Dan said. “I think that all of our dreams are to do what we love, make that our job and make that our life, whatever our culture and beliefs are. If more people can find a way to do that and if we as a human race respect and appreciate cultures and history, we can make the world a much better place.”
Dan said that unfortunately, monetizing ancestral traditions for tourism is one of the easiest ways to preserve them. Although he believes that shouldn’t be the case, he said that tourism can remain authentic if governments ensure that the people of local communities are treated with respect and remain in control of Binna walking with his spearfishing spear how tourist operations are run. .
“Everybody everywhere, in every part of the world, wants to protect what matters to them, how they've grown up,” Dan said “It's very easy to lose that because the modern way of the world isn't geared up to preserving things; it's geared up to consuming and selling.”
According to Dan, Binna said his culture depends on how he lives in the present, (including his interactions with tourists) as much as it does on how he lived 40 years ago or how his elders lived before him — in that sense, his culture could never become touristy. Dan said that he thinks it’s really amazing how Binna was able to turn his passion for art into a business that supports him while at the same time, exposing people to Aboriginal Australian culture.
The painting Dan completed while at Cooya Beach, inspired by a crab claw
“I was guilty of thinking of nations as one group - that everyone is the same and everyone thinks the same,” Dan said. “It was important that Binna kept trying to get across to me that these are his Aboriginal beliefs, that this is his place in the world right now. His view on what his culture is is not necessarily going to align with what someone down the street believes.”
Dan’s trip to Port Douglas and his interactions with Binna changed how Dan views storytelling and how he approaches traveling. Before he visits a new country, he now researches the histories and the cultures of the local people. Once on the ground, he tries to find ways to experience native traditions authentically while supporting community owned businesses. In addition, when he returned to his home in the UK, he became more aware of how many diverse groups lived in his country — how many different languages, customs and viewpoints there were right near his hometown.
“Visiting Port Douglas was a massive experience for me that shifted my mindset of what tourism is and how tourism should work and how cultures and communities should be respected going forward,” Dan said. “It made my traveling experiences so much richer.”
An aerial view of Dan and Binna walking along Cooya Beach