Reko Rennie is an interdisciplinary artist who explores his Aboriginal identity through contemporary mediums. He talks about his beginnings including being impressed at an early age by the work of Howard Arkley.
In the mid 1980s in Footscray in Melbourne's western suburbs I was already listening to hip-hop and break dancing. Like many other kids who were born in the 1970s, the book titled Subway Art by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant was my inspiration to start writing and doing graffiti. I think I was in year 7 or grade 6, about 85 or 86 when I stole a copy of the book from the local library in Footscray.
It was definitely an eye-opener, seeing all those trains and beautiful colours on panels and walls, and that really resonated with me. It was just an extension of the subculture I was already in, so it felt like a natural progression. Also around this time I was already noticing older writers who were bombing the lines I rode on and painting walls, and this was something that also certainly influenced me. It was graff that really provided an outlet to express myself through spray paint.
I could always draw and paint as a kid, but found it very boring painting landscapes. With graff, it was different. Graffiti opened up the creative process for me.
It was the late 1990s when I started thinking about the skills I had acquired through graff and making artworks that were different and not just text based. This was also a time when I had been in a little trouble and needed a break and so I started looking at my own identity and family history.
I was really lucky that through my family connection to the Kamilaroi people of New South Wales, I was able to look at traditional designs related to my family and blend these designs with my urban upbringing. I was also very conscious politically and interested in my family history and what had occurred to Aboriginal people in this country. Art provided me with a voice.
I think the artist who had a real impact on me when I was younger was Howard Arkley. When I was doing graffiti, I remember seeing Howard Arkley’s Shadow Factories. I was probably around 14 or 15 at the time. This work really blew my mind - I was like fuck! This is something I could create because technically it was a lot like doing a piece in graff, the background imagery was filled in with various colours and a black line, like a final outline was placed on the shapes to tie everything together. So that certainly inspired me to create my own works on canvas and years later that’s what I did. I love the colours and imagery from Warhol and pop art, as well as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. I always liked that these guys started out making work on the street and went from there. Past Melbourne (graffiti) writers have had an influence on me as well as the whole New York City scene of the 70s and early 80s; artists like Dondi, Kase2, Futura, Mare, Dero and many more.
There are many experiences that have kept me on the path of making art, from my own determination and aspiration to create, to my family and then you only have to remember the injustices Aboriginal people encountered to put things in perspective.
As a teenager, I was a little disruptive in class and this one particular time always comes back to me, now that I’m making a living as an artist. It was in high school, around 1991 and an art teacher called my artwork "shit" in front of my class. It is something I’ve never forgotten...I wonder what he’s doing now.
I’m proud that I never went to art school and studied art. Instead I studied journalism and worked as a different type of writer! I soon realised that this was not my passion and in 2009, I quit full-time employment at The Age and went full time as an artist.
I’m very driven to make art, it’s my passion and as I have a lot to say and create, I’ve always been very determined. When someone says I can’t do something, then that just fuels my desire to create even more. Lately, it’s become a lot easier for me to share who I am and let my guard down a little. I feel more comfortable sharing works that are personal or relate to a particular time in my life.
My work is evolving and I believe that’s something we must do as artists. I’ve gone from spray painting to stencils to screen prints to bronze to neon and back again. I think there’s definitely been some progression, as I don’t have to steal my spray paint anymore.
There have been many enlightening moments throughout my development but just being invited to paint and work with Aboriginal communities and show other kids how to paint or how I create is always satisfying. Sharing art and being invited internationally to create or collaborate is always amazing. The best feedback is always from my daughter - she will let me know if the work is good or bad!
Graffiti definitely belongs on the streets but it’s also great to see it in places like MOCA and the Cartier Foundation or other institutions, as this provides access and informs the wider community about the sub-culture and justly acknowledges graffiti as an international movement. But it also really depends on the type of work that is showing in the gallery and the context it is in. I don’t believe graffiti will lose its power or meaning. It is here to stay. People said it was a fad in the 70s and 80s and decades later we see graffiti all over the world and the younger and older generations still doing graff. For many, it’s about rebelling, expressing themselves and sharing an identity, so I don’t think that’s going to stop.
I’ve never forgotten where I’ve come from and where I’ve been. There have been many ups and downs and every experience has taught me something important. I’m very determined and when I set my mind to doing something, I know that what ever happens, I at least had a go. And that’s how I kept painting and creating years ago, I made incremental plans of what I wanted to achieve as an artist and little by little it has happened.