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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

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Aretha Brown

In conversation

by Rebecca Ray, 3 July 2023

Aretha Brown in front of her New Shakahari Wall Mural Commission at La Mama Theatre, Carlton, 2023 Mark Mohell
Aretha Brown in front of her New Shakahari Wall Mural Commission at La Mama Theatre, Carlton, 2023 Mark Mohell

Wrapped around the construction hoarding of Melbourne’s Collins Arch precinct, Aretha Brown’s 190-metre mural honours the late Uncle Jack Charles and celebrates First Nations history, knowledge and empowerment. Painted in her signature playful graphic style of figures and symbols, it’s difficult to miss. But then Aretha has never been afraid to make her presence known.

Born and raised on Wurundjeri Country, Aretha made a speech at the 2017 Invasion Day rallies in Melbourne to an estimated 50,000 protesters – at the age of 16. She was the youngest ever Prime Minister of the National Indigenous Youth Parliament, and her first painting, Time is on our side, You Mob, was selected for the 2019 Top Arts exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria while she was still at school.

Now 22, Aretha is well-known for her large-scale public murals (53 so far). Together with her team of young women and non-binary artists – the Kiss My Art Collective – she has painted murals on walls, hoardings and shipping containers across the world, from Melbourne and Sydney to the UK, India and Indonesia.

Rebecca: Can you tell us when you first started painting murals?

Aretha: I started in 2019, with my first big mural at Footscray Station down in Melbourne. Footscray is my community, it’s like the western suburbs – very similar to Sydney where it’s a bit rough around the edges, but very diverse with a real spirit that can’t be bought or compromised like anywhere else. It’s my favourite suburb so it was a lot of fun to do it there.

I really hate looking back on my first mural to be honest. I always tell the girls at Kiss My Art Collective that you are not going to like every single one, especially at the start. You learn with practice and experience. Now I love my work.

R: It’s interesting to see your evolution over time and which elements have continued throughout your practice. Where did your interest in murals and street art come from?

A: It’s pretty embarrassing, but I got into street art because this boy I liked in high school really liked it and because I grew up in the western suburbs, everyone does a bit of tagging or graffiti. It’s a big part of street culture, and I was like, ‘I really want to impress this boy. I want to do street art.’ I started doing it with my friends and it was just so much fun but looking back on it now, I was exploring Country.

I had, and still do, such an explorative fascination with urban environments. I remember going to lots of abandoned buildings when I was younger and these big, beautiful industrial spaces had been reclaimed by the environment. As a young Aboriginal person living in the city, that is me exploring Country. We don’t have waterfalls in Footscray or land or Country as a lot of mob would know it, so for me exploring urban environments was how I explored Country.

R: I grew up in the city and can relate to that aspect of urban Indigenous identity, especially as an Islander. I’m interested in the way that street art, particularly when it’s done by mob, reclaims and decolonises public spaces.

A: For me, my work is about reclaiming space and I decolonise by literally taking up space. It comes in two parts. The first part, which is the work itself, exists in a space where people walking past can see it and go, ‘Yeah, Aboriginal art.’ The second part is actually making it with my crew. Back in 2019, I formed Kiss My Art Collective which is made up of all femme people, women and non-binary folk. So, the actual making of the work is just as important as the final result because it’s all of us young women of colour – most of us are Indigenous – painting these works together. There’s about 25 of us now, but it’s just growing so much. The coolest thing about my Collective and the thing that always makes me the happiest is when girls will come and paint with me and then they’ll go on to do their own murals.

R: Absolutely, collaboration is such a significant part of anti-colonial practice. A reoccurring motif throughout your murals is the star, can you tell us a bit about that?

A: I really love stars. They represent the cosmos and in a real ephemeral kind of spiritual sense, the Dreaming. Stars are just important, they’re always evolving. But at the same time, they also represent patriotism because on most flags, there’s a star. For me, it’s a way to think about what patriotism, nationalism and Australian identity means to me.

R: What about some of the other symbols you work with, such as cars and buildings?

A: I like to draw what I see around me. It’s authentic for me to draw power lines, buildings, trains and train lines because that’s literally what I see on Country. I think I’ve drawn an emu or kangaroo a few times, but I don’t paint geckos or turtles. People always ask me to put animals throughout the work but it’s inauthentic to my experience. I’ll drive up to Geelong and I might see a kangaroo but I’m not going to be out here drawing koalas if I live in the middle of Fitzroy North. Because again, it’s always about showing urban identity. It just sucks that there’s this idea that for Aboriginal artists, it has to be earthy colours. It has to be native animals. I’ll put a dog in because I see dogs everywhere, but that’s it.

R: I often think about the perception of Aboriginality existing within a temporal and spatial state, and how problematic that can be for urban identities.

A: There’s an expectation that for work to be real spiritualism it has to be about the Dreaming or an ancient time. I want to draw what’s right now or if anything, into the future – a Blak futurism with UFOs and aliens.

R: I’m really interested in Temple of Boom at NGV International, where you worked alongside other Melbourne-based contemporary street artists.

A: I feel very lucky to have been in that space, I had just turned 22 and was so much younger than everyone else. They were all very experienced Melbourne street artists. I was a little bit like a duck out of water but everyone was so lovely. I got to have some really awesome conversations with some old grafers from back in the day, but they’re all colourists, so we just had to work out how we were all going to fit in the space.

I’ve always been a monochromatic artist. People talk about my usage of black and white, like ‘wow, it’s such a unique style, it’s such a choice’. Honestly, the only reason I started painting in black and white is literally just because I was so broke. I could only afford black and white house paint from Bunnings in bulk. I couldn’t afford to go out and buy a hundred different Matisse pots, so I had to get really creative with how I was going to tell stories. I feel that if you have too much freedom as an artist, it can be overwhelming. If I had all those colours and every single material I needed when I first started painting, I wouldn’t have built a style that I like. If you are walking and you see a black and white, bold, striking thick work, it can be more eye-catching than the really colourful work because we are not used to seeing that contrast so intensely. It doesn’t really occur anywhere naturally like that.

I’ve always wanted to do a floor artwork so Temple of Boom was great. I think it’s all been walked over now, which is kind of sad, but that’s street art for you. I know it’s not going to last forever, most of my works only last a few days before they get tagged anyway.

R: Street art is quite ephemeral in nature isn’t it?

A: Oh yeah, totally. Everyone thinks I’m crazy because I’m so heavy on documentation, but I’m like, your work will sit in a gallery with a security guard for weeks and it will be air-conditioned and the room will be tempered and climate controlled, you’ve got fire alarms. Mine is just out in the raw. So, I get to do the work, get all my photos and then know it’s going to get destroyed. I kind of like that, the fact that white fellas can’t really own it. I get commissioned to do stuff, so it’s almost metaphorical in that no one can own Aboriginal land. White people don’t own Aboriginal land. You can own your property, but you don’t own the land. It’s the same with my art. You can commission the work and I’ll do the work on the wall, but it’s not going to last forever because you don’t really own it.

R: I like that metaphorical aspect of your work, it’s really powerful in terms of sovereignty. Tell me about the pop art references throughout your practice.

A: Growing up I always loved Keith Haring, he’s like my hero. I just love pop art so much. I love Basquiat but I’ve always loved Keith Haring more. The thing about Basquiat is he’s amazing, but he was always so earnest, so serious whereas Keith Haring was the opposite, there was a real playfulness to his work. I always like to put a little bit of humour in my works.

But at the same time, everything’s influencing me all the time – the TV shows I watch, the conversations I’ve had. Something as small as a song could be influential. I’ve made a few murals about bad breakups, and the whole queerness thing. I try to take from every part of my world and put it into my artworks. I think influence can also be gained from what’s not influential. I know that sounds weird, but for example, I go to a really white art school right now, and there’s no other Aboriginal kids and I don’t even have an Aboriginal teacher. So, it’s culturally unsafe. We don’t have a written language in the European sense, art and painting are how we tell our stories. I’m influenced by the fact that there’s a lack of thought or care and that angers me and becomes an emotion I use to paint with.

R: I can resonate with that experience, particularly at university – there was nothing about history or sociology that had Indigenous perspectives or engaged in any type of decolonial activity. Lastly, let’s talk about the sitters in your murals. They’re figurative portraits, are they of specific people?

A: It’s a good mix to be honest. It’s mostly Elders and ghosts. I also really like having abstract figures that anyone could see themselves as. You can tell that some of them are women, but for the most part I like everything being genderless with my figure work. I love drawing the spirit world, so I do lots of skulls, ghosts, hairy men and all that spiritual stuff that mob love. Mob love ghost stories. It’s part of our culture, modern ghost stories.

However, with Elders, I feel like they’re the only people in my mind who are deserving of such public works and if I’ve got an opportunity to do a big painting – I want to do an Elder. No one else is putting up Elders anywhere, it’s literally street artists who are doing the job of politicians in terms of giving them public recognition. These Elders are significant and lovely, kind people
who deserve recognition. Look at all the gammon, Captain Cook, Phillip and Burke sculptures all around our cities. They’re not artworks. They’re political statements. I think street artists are having to take over that and push against those sculptures and for me, Elders have always felt like royalty.

For locations of all Aretha Brown’s murals visit


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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

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