Some people call him the rainbow lorikeet because he flies so high over the water. When Otis Hope Carey is surfing, when he is in the ocean, he is home. Coming down a wave, down those blue-green walls, he seems to dance. An important spiritual symbol of the Gumbaynggirr people, the ocean – called “gaagal” in that language – and the country around it is where Carey came from and where he will go.
His parents first brought him to the beach, at Coffs Harbour, when he was a week old. The pro surfer, painter and father, now 32, has never really left it.
Carey is airborne too in his paintings, still flying across the water, taking the topographical view of the currents and tides and ripples. The work vibrates with movement, the paintings swell like the sea, like a breathing life force.
Out on the pro-surfing circuit, his quirky sense of style and his acrobatic board riding has attracted major sponsors, such as Billabong – for whom he does a range of “typical surf clothing” every year incorporating his art – and Longines watches. “Much like his art,” says Luke Kennedy, editor of the Australian surfing “bible”, Tracks magazine, “[Carey’s] surfing is very much an act of creative self expression but matched with the athletic ability of an elite gymnast.”
Carey has twice won the Australian Indigenous Surfing Titles, but it’s his artwork that’s taken him viral. In July 2019, it was seen and liked by 1.613m people when an enormous mural he painted for Chris Hemsworth’s Byron Bay mansion was Instagrammed by the actor.
The Hemsworth work, called Darrundang Gaagal (Thanking the Ocean), is Carey’s interpretation of a ceremonial dance and, with its black lines rippling across the wall, represents the power of stomping feet. Hemsworth had contacted him after seeing one of his artworks at the house of the foreman for his build, a good friend of Carey’s.
“I sort of mocked a few things up on Photoshop and showed [Hemsworth],” Carey tells Guardian Australia. “And then he sort of just picked that one up. It was his favourite. He is always pestering me for more art.”
Carey is speaking to Guardian Australia the week of the opening of his fifth solo gallery exhibition, at China Heights, in Sydney’s Surry Hills. Called Ngalunggirr Miinggi (Healing Spirit), the exhibition consists of paintings – including the eponymous work that was shortlisted for last year’s Wynne prize – and sculptures in a softer, more delicate palette than his previous works. Gallery director Edward Woodley describes them as “precise and elegant in the line work and dots. The uniting of the masculine and feminine elements.”
The art has come out of deep pain, says Carey. Painting the ocean is about healing; a spiritual act. “We hold beliefs around the ocean having strong healing elements. It is very recharging, even just going for a walk. Taking the kids down and walking to the water. I find a lot of energy from that.”
Carey always knew that he was different – that his whole, vast family was different. “Not because of my dark shade of skin but because of my outlook on life,” he says. “I am the only artist in the family but I define an artist as somebody who does something in a different light. I was always surrounded by those sorts of people. So, to me, it is like I was surrounded by artists growing up.”
His father is a well-known spear fisherman at Coffs Harbour; his Gumbaynggirr mother, a teacher. His grandmother narrowly escaped becoming a member of the stolen generations when she hid from Christian missionaries in the mangroves. His family managed to stay on country, he says, and his grandfather was one of the last initiated Bundjalung men.
Carey grew up fishing, catching mud crabs, spending time out on country. “It was a good childhood,” he says. “Nan had 10 brothers and sisters and Mum had 10 brothers and sisters, so we were always surrounded by family and culture.”
But there was a price to be paid for being unlike other people. A thousand tiny cuts every day, that culminated in an open, weeping wound.
“There was a lot of systematic racism, growing up with a black mother and a white father. Seeing my father getting treated differently for being with a black woman – all those little things add up. The thing with systemic racism – it is like shallow water, it’s deep water, and everything between.”
The consequence was that he arrived in early adulthood profoundly depressed. “I was depressed most of my childhood and I didn’t realise what it was until I was in my early 20s,” he says.
He picked up a paintbrush around 2015 to try to make himself feel better. “I was painting as an outlet for creativity and to sort of just get all that junk mail out and share some of my culture. It just sort of grew.”
His work is a combination of traditional symbolism and his own interpretation of that, told in an exaggerated, contemporary form. “I’m always pinpointing that feeling of my connection to my country,” he says. “I am trying to reverberate that with a paintbrush.”
After putting his kids to bed in the early evening, Carey says he sometimes finds himself painting until 2am, yet “it feels like two hours are gone … I am so invested. When I paint I just put so much of me and most of my energy and spirit into the painting. It’s a nice feeling that so many people can resonate with it.”
The works for Ngalunggirr Miinggi started soon after his beloved grandmother passed away. They are about her “going back into the ocean, knowing she is back home”. The red ochre in the work represents the dunes at Red Rock, near Coffs Harbour, where she was born. “It is feminine and soft … painted with grandmother love,” says Carey of the work.
She is there beside him when he is painting. “I am thinking of my grandmother hugging me,” he says. “It’s weird; sometimes when I am painting that body of work I can smell her next to me. She is not always there, but most of the time she is there.”
• Ngalunggirr Miinggi (Healing Spirit) by Otis Hope Carey is showing at China Heights, Sydney, until 13 March