Raise, inform, present: the power of voice
Raise, inform, present: the power of voice
For Indigenous Australian artist Reko Rennie, one of the most powerful things to have is a voice. “Art is a vehicle to raise awareness, to inform, present an ideology, question something, or show something beautiful that has many sub layers behind it.” Vibrant colours, bold iconography and symbols from his Kamilaroi heritage proudly beam from canvases, alongside other equally captivating video work, sculptural pieces and vivid light projections on the sails of the Sydney Opera House. All of which explore Rennie’s family background, Indigenous rights and his understanding of identity; something horrifically taken from his grandmother. “That loss of language, dispossession of culture and identity and being victimised and traumatised because you’re Aboriginal” fuelled his journey to visual art as an effective communication tool and space to share what couldn’t be voiced by generations before him.
“Art is a vehicle to raise awareness, to inform, present an ideology, question something, or show something beautiful that has many sub layers behind it.”
At age 9, Rennie’s grandmother (like many young Indigenous girls and boys of that era) was taken away from her parents, never to see her family again. This was because of “the Australian government policy at the time, which moved these children to large farms that were basically slave camps. They wanted them to become more white and Anglicised.” She then went on to be adopted by a family in Queensland who insisted she perform domestic duties as their maid. “There’s a really awful history in this country that is yet to be resolved. For my generation, we’re passionate about declaring our identity and being proud of who we are. Because my parents and grandparents were denied that. If you declared pride in your identity, you were jailed, removed or taken off the street.”
Identity is shaped by multiple influences and having grown up in the western suburbs of Melbourne in a working class environment, Rennie cites this exposure to a raw urban landscape as another big part of his. Crime and people struggling to support their families was prevalent and being the 80s, graffiti (an early form of expression Rennie engaged with) became the instrument to convey frustrations. “I could rebel on the street and rebel against society.” Similarly, simple street text was one of his earliest memories of art; “naive, obscure handwritten political statements in white paint communicating union messages around labour and Aboriginal rights. I thought it was cool that someone wrote their name or statement. How powerful…I could do that.” And that he has certainly done in his text-lead and symbolic public art pieces that have sat atop buildings in Sydney (Remember Me, Carriageworks, 2020) and in Melbourne’s Federation Square (White Night, White Night Festival, 2016). Artworks and the public art medium that is available to all eyes, all experiences and demographics; free from discrimination, intimidation and fear.
“I’d love to see contemporary Aboriginal art hung next to European masters.”
Bringing these personal histories together, Rennie succeeds at being a key figure of contemporary urban Indigenous art; laying a foundation and platform for younger aspiring artists. A board member at Indigenous Australian rapper Adam Briggs’ foundation, he seeks to collaborate and support the next generation of talent. He also conducted workshops for at-risk children for a number of years, which “gave them a lot of satisfaction with two mediums; a spray can and a stencil. To share some simple skills I’d acquired from the street was a great way to show others you don’t have to be a prescribed artist to be considered authentic.”
Exploring different materials and mediums, his practice continues to evolve by making statements through traditional European marble and bronze, alongside artificial intelligence and new video work. Stronger representation in major global art events like the Venice Biennale (he questions the Indigenous presence) and greater international exposure are thoughts on the horizon, however what about the Australian national efforts to support Indigenous art? “I’d love to see contemporary Aboriginal art hung next to European masters.” With so much to be done, a step in the right direction would be to take Indigenous works out of the siloed institutional Indigenous side wing galleries, with Rennie leading the way.