When you think of Indigenous art, what comes to mind? Is it beautiful cultural mindscapes in acrylic paint on Belgian linen, or a canvas painted on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands of what is now known as South Australia? Perhaps instead you imagine the shimmering crosshatched works in natural pigments on bark of Arnhem land, or rock art as old as the hills, or a sculpture made of tjanpi (native grasses) and yarn, or a sand painting, or carved wood, or an Albert Namatjira watercolour?
What about graffiti, neon signs, a video filling the longest wall in a gallery, or a gold Rolls-Royce? What about fluorescent, lolly-coloured paint, tags and camo?
When you think of an Indigenous artist, who do you picture? A person in the desert sitting on a canvas like a picnic blanket to paint it? Or do you see someone in a studio in a capital city? Kamilaroi man Reko Rennie is one of the most original and powerful artists working on this continent. His work runs the entire gamut of contemporary art, from street art and graffiti to video and even the aforementioned luxury car.
And despite the mainstream view of Indigenous art, Rennie’s work is clearly Aboriginal and strongly connected to our culture. The stories, paint and neon glow – the white walls of the gallery are made bright with colour. The white walls have been taken Blak.
I was first exposed to the full depth and breadth of Rennie’s practice in 2018, when working on a piece for the National Gallery of Victoria’s magazine about the exhibition From Bark to Neon. I was struck, even at the time, by the cultural continuity demonstrated by the works in that exhibition, seeing no firm distinction between bark paintings, rock art and Rennie’s neon; seeing in them, instead, a living culture evolving. I could not help but compare Rover Thomas’s Dreamtime story of the willy willy (1989) and Rennie’s Regalia (2015) – so unarguably were they both contemporary and classical at the same time.
Rennie’s work in particular cut though time straight to the dendroglyphs, the carved living trees, of the Kamilaroi people that once marked significant sites but were cut down and stolen by museums. These trees were sacred, their existence part of the Kamilaroi identity, and removing them was a wound to their culture that will perhaps never heal. Rennie was reviving them as marks, symbols and neon on the gallery walls, and thus restoring his culture and connection to Country.
All Aboriginal art, from the most apparently ancient to the most superficially contemporary, simultaneously belongs to both the modern world and to an ancient timeless culture. This revelation, as I worked to understand how ancient culture is expressed by artists in the contemporary world, was the beginning of an intense deepening of my own understanding about both time and art. All Indigenous culture is simultaneously ancient and contemporary, traditional and modern, and all Indigenous culture, regardless of whether the Indigenous person lives in the city or the bush, is still Indigenous culture.
The dichotomies that pollute so much Australian discourse – bush versus city, traditional versus modern, and the racist “real” versus “fake” Indigenous people – are to my understanding utter falsehoods.
Rennie personifies this. Regalia and later works reminded me both of the most modern – even postmodern – of urban landscapes (reminiscent of the 1982 film Blade Runner) as well as the rock art and carvings our people kept producing even during the long process of colonisation. The icons Rennie has rendered into neon – a Kamilaroi diamond, an Aboriginal flag and a Basquiat crown – have the feel of a tag, graffiti on a wall, and speak firmly of the artist’s identity as the Blak sovereign of the streets. In his hands, street art erases time and becomes the rock art of the urban landscape. Just as concrete has replaced rock. Just as the cityscape and alien trees have replaced the forests and river valleys.
This acknowledges that even the cities are Aboriginal land, that the streets might have been made by the colony but the land beneath them, the bones of that Country, remain Aboriginal. His work, no matter what the medium, screams the protest chant: “Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land.” He makes us consider where we are, whose land it is, and what it feels like to be away from Country.
I met up with Rennie in front of his gargantuan video installation at the 2022 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Free/State at the Art Gallery of South Australia, in Tarntanya. He has the charisma of a movie star yet is endearingly humble, and both those features show clearly in his video works. OA_RR (2016–17; the title stands for Original Aboriginal Reko Rennie) sees the artist driving to his ancestral Country and then doing doughnuts in red dirt, kicking up dust like a dancer, in a gold ’73 Rolls-Royce painted in what he calls “Kamilaroi camo” of hot pink and black. At times the tyre tracks on the red dirt look like a desert painting, and the clouds of dust threaten to absorb the car completely.
His return to Country in a coloniser’s car is a triumph.
In initiation OA_RR (2021), the artist is behind the wheel of a magenta ’73 Monaro as he tools around the western suburbs of Melbourne in the dark and artificial light at night. It’s a filmic piece, reminiscent of ’70s and ’80s crime movies, fast cars and bright lights, a bit of noir and a bit of rock’n’roll. After dark streets, lights, warehouses and industrial hardstands, the video ends with burnouts in a car park, smoke billowing into the Naarm night sky. It speaks of Rennie’s connection to the landscape where he grew up, off Country, and the doughnuts connect back to the gold Rolls in OA_RR.
There’s continuity at work: through cars, one upper class representing settler landowners and the other working class representing the artist’s own upbringing, but both a year older than the artist and both representing the freedom a car brings; through landscape, a reminder that the city is Aboriginal land as much as the bush is; and through history. Each work connects to Country and to family and history in different ways, moving us backwards and forwards through time. The city is new compared to the ancient land, but the artist went from there back to Country and back again. We find ourselves destabilised in the Aboriginal timeless time, the eternal now that W.E.H. Stanner, in his 1955 essay “The Dreaming”, called the “everywhen”.
Rennie drives the cars like a dancer, to a soundtrack of our lives, bringing his urban Blak culture, his dance, his song, into the everywhen. In OA_RR, the tracks left by the Rolls look like a petroglyph or a sand painting, tying us back to the pre-colonial art of our people. Visual art, story, song and dance are brought back together, as they are on every Indigenous community on the continent, as they always have been.
These works revive and renew culture, returning the artist to Melbourne, connecting the city where the artist grew up to the Country where he, in a manner of speaking, belongs.
And Rennie, frankly, looks bloody cool in both videos.
When these two works are viewed together, we are forced to confront that the working-class urban and suburban upbringing of many Indigenous people is just as Indigenous as life in remote communities. The Indigenous culture of people such as Rennie and myself, who grew up away from Country, are just as important and valid as the cultures of people living where their families have done so for 60,000 years.
This throws a particular work into our faces. In the inner suburbs of Sydney, not far from the gentrified suburb of Redfern, which was once a ghetto for displaced Aboriginal people, is Carriageworks. This was where trains were built and maintained. It is now an arts precinct where I have spoken at a number of festivals and where a set was created for the television series Cleverman. To the edge of Carriageworks, for more than two years, there was a giant neon sign, designed by Rennie, that simply read “REMEMBER ME”.
This is a searing reminder that all land on this continent is Aboriginal land, that many Indigenous people in Sydney have been displaced, that Captain Cook landed not far from there in 1770 (his only landfall in what is now known as New South Wales), that the First Fleet landed even closer in 1788, that the cities, like everything else on this continent, are on Aboriginal land, that the cities are built on someone’s Country and they might still live on their land, that the people from there are displaced and often no longer live on the land that was stolen from them in a process that started only 235 years ago.
There are Indigenous people in all the cities of Australia who were displaced generations ago by theft of their land. Other Indigenous people have lived on Country where a city now stands, and have been forced to endure the theft of their land and then the arrival of other displaced Indigenous people. There are more Indigenous people in cities than in remote communities.
This reminds us that our very existence, our very survival, is political. Our bodies are political because settler-colonialism is and has always been about our removal – our extinction. Any art that reminds us of Aboriginal survival is, in a genocidal colony, political art.
And on top of all the sociopolitical importance, all the storytelling and the inherent activism, through the “I am still here” statement inherent in all Aboriginal art, beyond the remembrance of our past, is one simple fact: Rennie’s work is breathtaking. Every work, from the most delicate to the most epic, possesses drama and an exquisite, often painful, beauty.
It’s easy to lose yourself in his art and easy to find yourself, to reimagine where you come from and where you belong. Perhaps the work will show you a path to decolonisation.
Rennie’s body of work, when considered as a whole, tells us we ignore urban Indigenous culture at our peril. A lot has been said about two-ways thinking, about learning to live in both worlds, as expressed poetically by a line in the Bangarra Dance Theatre film Spear: “A foot in each world and a heart in none.” Rennie personifies it and his work is exemplary, showing us how much power and cultural strength is gained by not being afraid to live, and even thrive, in two worlds. Those of us born there, in the space between the city and the bush, between Blak and white, become the translators, the people who can bring Aboriginal culture into the mainstream and help the colonisers understand.
It doesn’t just suggest to you that urban Aboriginal culture is still Aboriginal culture, connected to history, family land and ancient story – it screams it. In that way, our liminal position, which could perhaps be seen by some as a limitation, becomes a superpower. Artists such as Rennie are not “either/or” they are not lesser or lost, they are not removed from culture; they are displaced from land but make a new place for themselves/us. Blak urban artists such as Rennie are, in my opinion, at the forefront of defining what Australian art can be. They place Indigenous people right where we belong: in the cultural heart of the multicultural nation built on Blak people’s land.
The cover artwork for the October issue of The Monthly is an original commission by Reko Rennie.
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