Interdisciplinary artist Reko Rennie’s most recent work, Remember Me, was unveiled on National Sorry Day a few weeks back. Its location, in Fitzroy’s Atherton Reserve, is significant – the suburb has formed the urban heart of Aboriginal Victoria for almost a century, and this park was a place where members of the Stolen Generations could reconnect with family. Representing men and matriarchy, kin and culture, Reko’s sculpture is a tribute to those forcibly removed, including his grandmother who was taken from her home, aged eight.
We caught up with the artist in amongst moving studios and preparing for his next show at the Sydney Contemporary Art Fair to talk art, family, and identity.
You grew up in Footscray with your parents and sister as well as your paternal grandmother, who came from the Kamilaroi people of northern New South Wales. Can you tell me a bit about what it was like to have such a close and constant relationship with Julia, and how she taught you about her culture?
I feel very fortunate to have had that special time with my grandmother, Julia. Nan – as she was known to me – instilled the importance of culture, love and respect. She taught me to be self-sufficient (I learnt how to cook at a very young age), tough but fair, and respectful of all sorts of different people.
My sense of identity and its importance came about through learning of the devastating trauma she and many other Aboriginal children and families experienced as a result of the government’s removal of children. When a member of your family is dispossessed from their homeland and denied their culture, language and identity, you must ensure this is never forgotten.
After your parents separated, you chose to live with your mother and sister – you’ve said it isn’t a child’s job to look after their parent, but that’s what you felt you had to do. How do you think this experience informed who you are – and your own approach to parenting Mila?
Being a father is an extraordinary responsibility and privilege; my experiences as a young child enabled me to give unconditional love and support. Eva and I are here to guide Mila as best we can, and I know that Mila is more compassionate, strong and wise than I was at her age.
I think the most important aspect of our approach to parenting is to be present, emotional and physically; to share a sense of humour; and ensure Mila feels loved, no matter what.
You enjoy being busy and ‘prefer to be flat out,’ working in the studio up to 16 hours a day. How do you balance your practice with family life, in particular parenting a teenager – you’ve said that Mila is outgoing and adventurous, and you’ll always be a protective Dad!
It’s interesting to look back at the last interview I did with The Design Files as those crazy hours were my normal for a long time. But that sort of regime isn’t sustainable for anyone who wants to lead a healthy and balanced life. I recently had to re-evaluate my schedule and the amount of time I was putting into my practice – I now try to be a bit more measured, take time out in the evenings and sit down with the family. I feel I’m at a better place with my work as a consequence.
As parents, we all have different ways of doing things, and fatherhood for me is one long learning phase. Trying to balance family, work and commitments is a tough gig for any self-employed person, but it’s working now and switching off from email and devices in the evenings certainly helps.
Last year, you completed your most ambitious project to date, Visible Invisible on the site of the soon-to-be-completed Lyon Housemuseum Galleries. The Olympic swimming pool-sized work combines elements of graffiti with Kamilaroi iconography, and like all your work, it is deeply connected to and informed by your Aboriginal identity. How have you instilled this sense of connection and pride in Mila?
Every project I complete, in particular, the OA-RR video work I exhibited at the Venice Biennale last year and the Remember Me Stolen Generations commission, is an extension of my culture and identity.
Since she was a baby, Mila has been connected to the Victorian and Kamilaroi community. She acknowledges her identity independently and that has come from her being proud of her heritage and seeing the work I do and hearing about our history before and after colonisation.
Can you give us a glimpse into how your days start and end with Eva and Mila?
Lately, I’ve tried to fit my work activities into normal daytime hours so I can be there for the after-school activities – I make sure I’m home to get Mila to her soccer practice and drama classes. In the evenings, we walk our two dogs, go to the park for a kick of the footy, then cook dinner together.
Moving across time, what kind of adult might you like Mila to grow into? How would you like her to remember you to her own family?
Mila is a very independent young teenager who I know will develop into a strong, free-thinking woman. She’ll be able to pursue whatever she wants to in life, and already has such varied interests – marine biology, performing and singing. I look forward to seeing where she takes them!
I would like her to remember me as a loving and supportive dad who always did his best to make her laugh and keep her safe.
Activity or outing
Watching our dogs Tara and Paddy at the park.
Café Di Stasio.
Book, film, or show
We have a family tradition of watching 80s movies like The Goonies.
Place to travel
We head to Wye River when we can and love the Northern Territory. We spent a couple of weeks in Italy earlier this year.