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BLOODSPORT: The Art of Reko Rennie

20 September 2022

By Mahmood Fazal

“I don’t want to go back and try to recreate esoteric practices or cultural practices because it would be fake. I come from an urban city environment. But what I do have is connection to that country and permission to use these symbols. I don’t need some kind of academic institution to qualify me or my work.”

- Reko Rennie

Risk the riots tonight for the real fights.

In remembrance of our crowd flushed

Out of these systems.

Recline the firm folk black lore.

from ‘Immemorial Conservative’ by Lionel Fogarty

Surrounded by Reko Rennie’s work, you can almost forget that you’re in a white cube gallery. The walls are bombed in repeating neon shapes that command attention. The paradox of camouflage patterns bursting with colour is part of the artist’s work shedding light on the underbelly of Australia.

When Reko Rennie speaks, everything is on the table. Shaped by a street upbringing, the 47-year-old Kamilaroi artist’s narrative is a contemporary hard luck tale. Exploiting contemporary media from paint to film, Reko’s expansive practice traces who he is, from the hustle of Footscray back through to the memory of his bloodlines.

The artist’s latest work is the eight-minute film Initiation_OA. In the work, Reko winds a classic Monaro with ACAB numberplates through the corridors of a neon-lit Melbourne. Fittingly, ‘monaro’ comes from an Aboriginal word that means higher plain. A Kamilaroi song, written by soprano Deborah Cheetham, underscores the images:

Beginning here

The Morning Star your silent companion

Where are you going?

An ancient song will hold you

As you fly now to your shining dream.

Where do you come from, man?

I grew up in the West. I was born in Footscray. I grew up around Sunshine, Footscray and then moved over to the southeast around St Kilda. Things changed a fair bit when my parents separated. I went to school at Maribyrnong High. I moved out of there in ’89. I’ve always had links out West –  in Broady and Faulkner. The whole mix.

Were there a lot of Koori brothers there?

Nah, there wasn’t. A lot of my dad’s friends were Italian, Greeks, Croatians, Turkish and Lebanese. When I grew up there were mainly European immigrants, and then refugees and immigrants from Vietnam. People were coming to these areas because they were the cheapest. We were moving around a lot. My father taught martial arts for 30 years.

What do you think you absorbed in that environment? Melbourne was fucking dangerous in the late ’70s and ’80s.

I had my mother, an Aussie battler who grew up in Hampton and comes from nothing, you know, housing commission and all that. My mum used to take us to gardens, to the Yarraville park, to the Melbourne Museum and the National Gallery because it was free. My family had no money.

We spent a lot of time in these places. A lot of hours. It lodged something in the back of my mind. As a young teen, there was this explosion of breakdance and Beat Street came out. It was a big thing in the West. We had a little breakdance crew, Twilight City Breakers or something. I ran into one of the guys recently and we were laughing about it. We’d put these little breakdance shows on for school and we’d put our tags on a piece of cardboard. Years later, tags started going up around the area.

I remember going to this pinball place called Pinpoint in Footscray and there were full-on drug dealers there and slick 450SLC Mercs with mags, tracksuit gangs dripping in gold, and we’d be in there playing pinnies. We were just young kids trying to hustle. I started noticing the graffiti going up, Footscray Boys was all over the walls. And then, one day I saw Subway Art at Footscray Library. I ripped off the cover and stole it.

I remember it – Subway Art was the bible of graff culture. Writers would carry it in their backpacks. Some had like dodgy photocopied versions, I spoke to ARMED and NACK about these blown-out black and white copies that had been photocopied a million times. It’s been called the most shoplifted book of all time.

It blew my mind, seeing this variety of colour, expression and identity. Just taking your spray can and putting your name on a wall – you realise that you’re one of many other writers. You’re part of this community. And seeing work from people like (PUZLE) and NASTY.

Legends of street culture. They were giving the streets a voice in the art world.

Eventually, for me, something started changing. I looked at combining my narrative with the narrative of my grandmother. I heard bits and pieces of her lifestyle, about how she was forcibly removed as a young girl and enslaved on pastoral stations to work for rations. The abuse was horrific. There was systemic racism and totally horrific abuse of these young Aboriginal kids. I didn’t experience any of that because I was just this olive-skinned kid who fit in in the West. I was accepted. I remember being in class and they’d say, “What nationality are you? Where are you from?” And I’d say, “Aboriginal Australian.” They’d say, “Nah, nah, you’re a wog like us.” I was accepted into the crew with the boys. Out West it was like ‘spot the Aussie’.

Do you remember going back to your country?

It’s Walgett in New South Wales, where Charles Perkins did the Freedom Ride and all that. My great uncle, my grandmother’s brother, was a well-known identity, Reggie Murray. Reggie was an activist. Right up until the ’60s there were curfews for Aboriginal people on the streets. That’s why they did the Freedom Ride. Black kids weren’t allowed in the swimming pool. It was a very racially divided town. If any blackfellas are on the streets after 6pm they go to jail. My uncle broke that curfew and he’d just bash the cops all the time. They’d arrest him, thene’d come out and smash them again. They got sick of him. There’s a long line of activism and fighting for rights.

I remember when I was 13 years old, my father took us up there with my grandmother because he was investigating where her brother was. Her brother was taken away from the family when they were kids. He escaped the mission. So my father reunited them after 50 years apart – he was waiting in the same town. That was my first introduction to my ancestral home. It blew my mind, coming from Footscray to this rural place in the middle of nowhere with heavy poverty and unemployment. It was the beginning of a long connection, going backwards and forwards, hearing about how people were enslaved on their properties. I wanted to know why that happened.

Was becoming an artist the game plan?

Not really, man. I was always interested in cars. My father wanted me to become a lawyer. He programmed that into me, he wanted me to be a criminal lawyer. I just wanted to have wealth and money. I wanted to get out of where I came from. I think that’s what graffiti is about.

It’s like escapism, about creating these beautiful portals in a shit place.

Totally. I could actually draw and I had technical abilities. My dad put me in some oil paint school when I was about 13 years old. I made a few oil paintings. Ripped off a Cézanne. I thought about doing art later on and my old man said, “Mate, the stats are against you.” To be a successful artist you need to really think about having a proper day job.

For many years, I worked as a labourer. I was part of that mentality, just getting wasted. A few things happened. I could have easily done some time if things had gone a different way. I realised I had to educate myself, so I went back to uni. When I was 25, I got accepted into a journalism degree. Finished that and got a cadetship at Prime News in Wagga. I had a kid with my partner, Eva. At the same time, I was doing a bit of art and looking at my family narrative. I started putting stuff up in the streets illegally, doing stencils.

When you say family narrative, what do you mean?

I was fired up about what had happened to my grandmother. I wanted to be vocal about it, hence why I decided to go into journalism. I felt I could have a voice in mainstream media. I was naive because at the end of the day those positive Indigenous stories don’t sell papers. I got a job at The Age. I got all these amazing skills but at the same time, every night, I was painting little canvases. I thought my work was okay and more importantly, I was getting a lot of satisfaction and joy out of this creative outlet, a lot more than what I was getting from journalism. One took over the other, and then I got accepted into a residency in Paris, in 2009.

Was that the tipping point?

Yeah. I thought, “Do I keep going as a journalist or do I pursue art full time?” I made the call with my young family and we never looked back, man. I had fuckwits telling me I can’t do it. I didn’t go to art school. I was probably a bit cocky thinking I could actually paint and draw. I had the Western suburbs fight, when you come from nothing and people tell you that you can’t do something.

I felt the same way. People telling me I was too ambitious, or I’d never be taken seriously in the media because of my background and family.

Man, I couldn’t afford Art Forum because it was like 20 bucks. But I could afford a coffee at the National Gallery of Victoria. So I would go there and take the books off the shelf, write down all the galleries, the curators, the assistant curator, and then go home and email these people. I was probably sending out 40 emails a week, all over the world, trying to just introduce my work and get a few bites. That’s how I got some of my early Paris shows.

Was there particular work that cut through?

People just started seeing this contemporary narrative: spray paint on canvas. At the time, there was no urban style, no Aboriginal contemporary works that came from a graffiti background. I started applying motifs and themes from the community to the art that I was raised in.

There was one of early work, from 2011 – I’m looking at it right now. It’s a spray can that also looks like it has a shield and there’s a diamond pattern. It’s like a message stick of the time, used when moving beyond tribal boundaries as a form of letting other communities know that you have right of passage. A lot of people were saying that to be considered an authentic Aboriginal artist you have to be doing dots or stuff from the past. I don’t want to go back and try to recreate esoteric practices or cultural practices because it would be fake. I come from an urban city environment. But what I do have is connection to that country and permission to use these symbols. I don’t need some kind of academic institution to qualify me or my work.

It’s a colonial mode of thinking that further classifies or pins your work down within the dominant cultural paradigm.

Totally. I’ve always been down with this anti-authority thing. It comes from graffiti. It’s why I have ACAB on the Monaro plates. It all comes down to run-ins with cops when I was younger – I’d be put in a cell and told not to hang myself. They knew that I was of Aboriginal descent so they smashed me with their leather gloves on and told me not to fall asleep. This is all just in ’95. Like many other blackfellas and members of our communities, we have a lot of trust issues with authority. 

Was there a moment where you felt like you had overcome the odds that are so violently stacked against you?

I think it was when I got into a residency at the Cité [Internationale des Arts] in Paris. One of my heroes as a kid was Howard Arkley and I knew he had done the same residency. I was making some work, going to Berlin and down to London, just having a crazy time with other artists. The moment I came back there was all this interest in me and my work. For some reason, it just validated me as an artist. At the same time, I’d done a series of works that had been picked up by the Art Gallery of Western Australia, which was one of the most prestigious institutions and collections to get my work into. They really got the graff connection. It started opening up doors.

What did you learn from the residency?

I was very fortunate to see how people hustled on the streets and absorbed those principles – knowing what your market is, what you’ve got, how you’re going to get it out there and who’s going to help you.

It was my first time ever traveling overseas. I was like 34 years old or something. In Europe, I saw a real appreciation and respect for the artistic career. Back home, there’s a bit of a trend thing with art, and certain curators will only select certain artists that are showing at particular commercial galleries. So there’s this hierarchy and bullshit that goes on. The tragedy in this country is that the right individuals don’t always get the right opportunity. I was invited to show work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Lyon, France – you have Jan Fabre’s retrospective in one room and I’m doing wall paintings in another room. I was painting 45 metres of a wall in camo. I thought, “I’m actually here.”





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