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A Conversation With Artist And Former Youth Prime Minister (!) Aretha Brown

Studio Visit

Aretha Brown has had a massive four years. The 20-year-old Gumbaynggirr artist has been in the public eye since she was in high school, when she made a prolific and impactful speech at the 2017 Invasion Day rallies. Since then her art practice and her activism have progressed side-by-side, and today she’s one of the leading young voices for First Nations people.

Jingili and Mudburra writer Bridget Caldwell-Bright sat down with Aretha last week to talk about her art practice, her feelings around this time of year, and using ‘humour as a weapon of resilience’.

26th January, 2021

‘Time is on our side, you Mob’ (2018) by Aretha Brown – completed when she was in high school!

Aretha creates her pieces at a studio in Naarm (Melbouren). Photo – Jamie Wdziekonski.

New work from a group exhibition ‘Slime and Ashes’ at Westspace. Photo – Nynno Bel-Air.

New work from a group exhibition ‘Slime and Ashes’ at Westspace. Photo – Nynno Bel-Air.

Aretha with a new commission for a client. Photo – Nynno Bel-Air.

Her large scale mural works (and even some paintings!) require a ladder to reach the top. Photo – Jamie Wdziekonski.

Aretha in front of a previous commission. Photo – Jamie Wdziekonski.

A large scale mural in her signature black-and-white, figurative style. Photo – Jamie Wdziekonski.

Bridget Caldwell-Bright
Tuesday 26th January 2021

‘I think it’s amazing I already have such a platform at such a young age, it just goes to show the steps that my elders and my leaders before me have taken for me to allow me to get to this position so early in life.’ – Aretha Brown.

Artist and proud Gumbaynggirr woman Aretha Brown has accomplished more than most 20-year-olds. She was first publicly recognised for her speeches at Invasion Day rallies in Naarm (Melbourne) in 2017, and her passion and desire for change has been inspiring to say the least. ‘It’s time for white Australia to sit down and just listen, just once, to what we have to say,’ she proclaimed to a crowd of tens of thousands. At the time she was just 16.

Aretha took to the stage to make a statement: that for too long have Aboriginal people been talked about, rather than talked to. She has continued to work to change this narrative, through her activism and community work, as well as her creative practice as an artist.

Later on in 2017 she was invited to attend the National Indigenous Youth Parliament, which brought together 48 young Indigenous people from across the nation to discuss ideas in a model parliament. Here, she became the first female elected as ‘Youth Prime Minister’ in the program’s history, and in the last four years has since gone on to be one of the leading young voices for First Nations people across the country.

Born into a family of creatives (her mum is an artist and her dad is a musician), it’s no surprise Aretha also has established herself as a talented painter and visual artist. She’s known for her distinctive graphic artwork, often painted on a large scale. Her perspective as a young First Nations woman is intrinsically embedded in everything she creates. ‘My culture is always going to come through in my work and I don’t try too hard, I try to let it come naturally’, she says. So far her work has been featured in exhibitions at the NGV Australia & The Ian Potter Centre and West Space, and it’s only just the beginning.

‘It’s hard to believe I am only 20 with such a platform already’, she tells me over the phone, after discussing what her plans are for the future. To say that this young person has a bright future would be an understatement.

Hey Aretha! How are you feeling around this week?

Aretha Brown: I find this time of year is always so strange. Invasion Day always falls right in the middle of summer where everyone’s on the beach, enjoying the sunshine, going on holiday and trying to relax, and then halfway through you have this day that doesn’t sort of fit in with how everyone else is feeling around you. It never feels great and I feel like I am always hypersensitive around this year with all the stuff that I am exposed to in terms of news reports around things like deaths in custody, people’s general miseducation as well as just the daily racism that isn’t necessarily overlooked throughout the rest of the year, but I guess it’s the sort of stuff that we become used to. And then at this time of year, it all hits at once.

You mention miseducation or having to educate as something that can be quite triggering around this time of year. What do you mean by this? 

AB: I suppose what I mean is that it can be really hard to navigate. When I’m having a tough time and want to vent or get something off your chest, you’re not able to do that and just have people understand and accept it. You’re also having to educate because there are so many people that just don’t understand what the day means to us. You can’t just say to someone ‘I’m feeling this way’ without having to say why or explain what the day means personally.

What do you wish people would do more of to show their allyship? 

AB: It all comes down to practical measures in a lot of ways, which I find to be most effective. I think a lot of it is also common sense, checking in on your First Nations friends and family is always a good idea, regardless if you are non-Indigenous or not, just checking in with them around this time can mean a lot. It doesn’t even have to be this huge gesture but something small like a text to say, ‘Hey how are you feeling, you’re in my thoughts around this time etc.’ is more than enough. Because a lot of people treat the day as a mass funeral, it’s a really sad day and there is a lot of grief involved, so I think when people treat it as such is really important. I think just treat your First Nations mates in a way that you would offer anyone support after grief.

Showing up obviously by attending rallies and events if you’re able to is also a really practical thing to do on the day. However, a big thing for me which is something I always talk about on my Instagram is changing your bank. It might sound like a really strange thing to do as an act of allyship but at the end of the day if we want to help Indigenous communities around Australia and also our climate crisis, then changing your bank is a really practical and helpful thing that you can do.

In understanding that mob and our connection to land are so inextricably linked you’re helping both aspects by doing one really simple thing. A lot of people don’t realise that where their money sits might actually be funding fossil fuels and the destruction of land across communities, which is obviously something that banks don’t tell you.

You’re often referred to as an activist. Is this a term you align with? Has the term changed for you over the years? 

AB: It was never a position that I appointed myself, it was always something that people labeled me which I have always sort of had a bit of an issue with. I guess in understanding that most Indigenous communities are matriarchal and exist with female leaders, and the idea of appointing one person the control and power over a whole community is such a colonial concept. So I have always had a bit of a problem with that term because it’s not something that I would ever call myself. For me it’s always been a student before anything.

A lot of my work with The National Indigenous Youth Education Coalition (NIYEC) is about changing curriculum within the education system in Australia, and so my position and status as a student as well as an Indigenous person is the most important thing for me because my experience in high school and further education has been so different to a lot of peoples. So I guess I would refer to myself as a student, artist and filmmaker now that I have just completed my first short film. So it definitely does change and evolve a little bit over time too.

Your community work is obviously going to intersect in a way with your creative practice, but how is culture or identity embedded in your work? 

AB: I don’t really have to try too hard, no matter what I do, it is going to be an Indigenous artwork. Which is both a beautiful and strange thing to think about at the same time. I am always going to be labeled as an Indigenous artist, my race is always going to be the prefix so I really don’t have to try too hard to embed my identity in my work. I think subtly is also a beautiful thing in a lot of aspects.

I am very proud and self assured of who I am and my position, but at the same time I find it hard to reject being pigeonholed into one aspect of my identity whether that be artist or activist, filmmaker. My culture is always going to come through in my work and I don’t try too hard I try and let it come naturally.

How would you describe your creative practice? 

AB: I suppose I would just say that my work has a sense of humour, which is really important to me. This short film that I have just completed is a comedy short, which is something I would really like to explore next. I think by virtue of being an Indigenous person, people assert a level of seriousness to my work and it takes people a long time to be like, ‘Oh this is actually really funny’. And I feel like I try to take the piss in a lot of my work. You know, I’m 20 years old, I’m a very light-hearted person and making people laugh is something I really want to explore next.

My last project was just bedazzling a bunch of stuff, so not taking things too seriously is really important to me. Even sharing memes and things on my Instagram, I always have joke with my friends about how people still think that there’s a level of seriousness and they make the assumption that because I am Indigenous there has to be a level of darkness or heaviness. But I really find oppressed groups to be some of the funniest people in the way they tell stories.

Humour is such a weapon of resilience so I think Indigenous people have such a unique way of telling their stories through jokes and cracking each other up and it’s something that we really stand out in. I take a lot of influence in my work from artists like Tony Albert, who I find to be really funny through his work.

What are you currently working on?

AB: I have been doing murals and painting for a very long time, which I love, but I think I have been doing the same thing for a while now it is time to expand and move on a bit.

I am really enjoying my writing and exploring comedy through other avenues like filmmaking. Bringing these characters that I have been painting into a more 3-dimensional world through other art practices has been exciting too, so I am keen to see where that goes.

What are you looking forward to or hoping to achieve this year? 

AB: I think it’s amazing I already have such a platform at such a young age, it just goes to show the steps that my elders and my leaders before me have taken for me to allow me to get to this position so early in life. I always have to acknowledge those before me, uncle Gary Foley, just thinking about some of those people that wouldn’t have been able to get an education or a job like my Grandma, but because of those sacrifices and the steps that they’ve taken, I get to be where I am today. That’s not to say that young mob today don’t have our own struggles, but you can’t deny it has been made a lot easier by those before me. So just being really grateful for that and going forward always acknowledging that in my work.

Other than that, I am hoping for more exhibitions, filmmaking and comedy! Oh and working on getting my license this year.

You can keep up with Aretha on Instagram here.

Bridget Caldwell-Bright is a Jingili and Mudburra writer and freelance editor based in Melbourne. She has worked on projects with Scribe, Allen & Unwin, Hardie Grant, Pantera Press and The Lifted Brow. She was also previously co-editor for Archer Magazines First Nations Edition and managing editor for Blak Brow, a Black Women’s Collective edition of The Lifted Brow.

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