Former graffiti enthusiast, now internationally exhibited artist, Reko Rennie was one of two fellowship recipients at the Australia Council’s National Indigenous Arts Awards.
In 2015 the fellowships focused on visual arts and provided financial support towards a major project.
In 2015 the multidisciplinary artist unveiled a six-metre aluminium wall work in the Pallazzo Mora at the 56th Venice Biennale, as part of the Global Art Affairs Foundation exhibition, Personal Structures: Crossing Borders. He has also shown internationally in Paris, Berlin, Italy, Jakarta, Shanghai and USA.
Reko received no formal artistic training but as a teenager discovered graffiti, and through it expressed his Kamilaroi identity using traditional geometric patterning drawn from his community in northwestern NSW.
Reko will use that same vividly coloured diamond patterning in his Fellowship project, along with a crown symbol and the Aboriginal flag. His goal is to hand-paint a 1970s Rolls Royce with this multiple patterning of symbols.
‘The crown, the diamond and the Aboriginal flag, are presented as an emblematic statement about the original royalty of Australia,’ says Reko. ‘The crown symbol is both in homage to my graffiti roots and also pays due respect to Jean-Michel Basquiat, but most importantly symbolises sovereign status, reminding us that Aboriginal people are the original sovereigns of this country.’
The 1970s Rolls relates to the period he was born and a vehicle he remembers as once being driven by wealthy pastoralists. He plans to also customise the interior by screen-printing diamond shaped patterning on the leather and carving texts such as 'Always was, Always will be' and 'Deadly' into the wooden panelling.
‘This draws on the traditional Kamilaroi practice of carving, from which my family roots originate, and pays homage to the tradition of tree carvings for which the area was known.’
Once fully 'Blackfella' customised, the Rolls will be filmed in various locations near the western NSW regional towns of Tamworth, Coonamble and Walgett, where Reko’s grandmother was born. His project involves shooting the vehicle doing burnouts on local land in the shape of diamonds.
The painted Rolls and accompanying multi-channel art video will be shown next year by Melbourne’s itinerant visual arts exhibitor, blackartsprojects, and in regional galleries.
Reko says he is both honoured and humbled to receive the Australia Council Fellowship, which he describes, along with being featured this year in the Venice Biennale, as a highlight of his career.
‘When I received the news, naturally I was very excited but also proud that I have received the opportunity to make a work that makes an important statement. It means I can take risks and make larger scale works and test different mediums that normally I wouldn’t be able to do.’
Reko is also currently working on a large-scale painting for a group show at the Art Gallery of South Australia in October and will be exhibiting new work at Sydney Contemporary Art Fair later this year.
His work continues to draw on the striking colours, codings and street-art style he used as a graffiti artist in Melbourne's west. He remains keen to provoke discussion about Indigenous culture and identity in contemporary urban environments.
No sleep till Dreamtime, for example, was a huge, brightly coloured and metallic geometric installation at the Art Gallery of NSW, taking its cue from the Beastie Boys single, No sleep till Brooklyn.
'In this work I merged traditional Kamilaroi diamond-shaped designs, hand-drawn symbols and repetitive patterning to subvert romantic ideologies of Aboriginal identity,’ Reko said. ‘My work often references the hip-hop and graffiti subcultures that were influential on my artistic practice in my formative years.’
His interest in the patterning of crowns, diamonds and Aboriginal flags was evident also in his exhibition of acrylic and gold ink work, entitled Royalty, at Gertrude Contemporary Studio in 2013. That same year he also created a huge 15 metre high abstraction of diamond motifs to greet visitors to the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, for the exhibition, My Country: I Still Call Australia Home, Contemporary Art From Black Australia. He called his work, Trust the 2%, alluding to the percentage of Aboriginal Australians.
‘I am very proud of my identity. I am proud because, for so long our people were dispossessed and dislocated for declaring their identity, so it’s very important to me to acknowledge who I am. And through my work, I have a voice. Art can be a very powerful tool to raise awareness or make a statement or present an idea.
‘More than 25 years ago, I was using a can of spray paint to express my identity on the street and beyond. Now I have any medium at my disposal to express myself whether it is a neon work, bronze sculpture or a simple spray can, I just have more choices now.’
Reko Rennie though is still a dab hand on a wall. As part of the City of Sydney Streetware Program in 2012, he covered a key building in busy Taylor Square, on Oxford Street, with fluoro-pigmented paints, applying again the geometric diamond markings of his Kamilaroi people. Across the front of the building, his neon text read ‘Always was, always will be’. It may have been a temporary work but in this urban context the meaning was clear – this always was and always will be Gadigal country.
'To be considered an authentic Aboriginal in this country, you've got to be black, illiterate, walking around the desert and painting dots,’ says Reko.
‘Too often we get lumped into a very mono-singular culture, and we're not.
‘What I think is exciting is the diversity of mediums, where Aboriginal people have the freedom to talk or express themselves without inhibition and fear of reprisal.’
As for young artists starting out today, Reko encourages them to be confident and to give it a go.
‘Exhibiting at the Venice Biennale was something I had wanted to do many years ago and I was laughed at, at the time.
‘It comes down to self-belief, determination and a strong will to prove others wrong. And if someone says you can’t do it? Use that as the fuel to continue and keep on going. That is what I have always done.
‘And remember there’s nothing wrong with having a dream or fulfilling a desire. It’s just finding like-minded people to give you advice or help on the way, and there are plenty out there.
‘There are many influences in my life, from other artists, to community leaders, to family. But it is my partner and daughter who have given me the support and freedom to pursue this crazy journey of being a full-time artist.’
Tune in to the live stream from 6pm AEST 27 May to watch the National Indigenous Arts Awards 2019.