Australia's Rising Art Star: Aboriginal Artist Reko Rennie

We go inside the graffiti-inspired world of Aboriginal artist Reko Rennie.

Reko Rennie gave up a career in journalism to become a full-time artist seven years ago. The self-taught painter has fast become one of Australia’s rising stars and is turning heads with his contemporary paintings that fuse urban grunge with Aboriginal bloodlines. Rennie grew up in Melbourne’s western suburb of Footscray. Long before working for The Age and SBS as a reporter, he spent his youth tagging the streets with a spray can and cutting his teeth on hip-hop music.

The anti-establishment spirit of graffiti still pulsates through the core of his contemporary work, and at 42 he sees no reason to bite the hand that feeds this inspiration. While he’s no longer tagging, his art is his platform for this urban self-expression.

“I never went to art school, but my dad (Biggibilla Gummaroi) was an artist and I always grew up around it and appreciate it,” said Rennie, who works from his studio in Northcote. “But it was really graffiti and growing up in the western suburbs 
in the early '80s that inspired me too.”

“Seeing other graffiti artists making their mark around town and doing amazing things inspired me to pick up a spray can and try to write my name here and there,” continued Rennie. “Once I found I could express myself in this medium I felt connected. And after realising I could combine a narrative with my family history through mediums such as spray painting it made me want to 
do this full time.”

Reko Rennie sculpture at La Trobe Institute of Molecular Science, Australia
Reko Rennie's sculpture at the La Trobe Institute of Molecular Science (Courtesy Reko Rennie)

In 2008 he won the prestigious Victorian Indigenous Art Award and 
his profile as an artist began to swell.

He participated in various group exhibitions both internationally and in Australia—some of those include “Anonymous Drawings # 9,” Berlin; “Gulpa Ngarwul,” Koorie Heritage Trust, Melbourne; “Small Works 2008,” Brunswick Street Gallery, Melbourne; and the “Linden Postcard Show,” Linden Centre for Contemporary Arts, St Kilda.

When he quit journalism in 2009, he felt a huge sense of relief.

“It was quite depressing reporting on crime, cops and courts. It was constantly negative,” Rennie said. “At the time I was painting late into the night to keep up with shows and I found it all too much.”

Rennie took up an Australia Council residency at the Cite Internationale des Artes in Paris in the same year—where the late Howard Arkley has been before—and it got him thinking it was time for a career change. He hasn’t looked back and so far has exhibited all around the world from Europe to the USA. His work appears in collections at the Art Gallery of NSW, the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of Western Australia.

Last year he exhibited at the prestigious Venice Biennale in Italy and this year Rennie takes his work to Ecuador for another Biennale—an opportunity via renowned art curator Natalia Bradshaw (nee Ottolenghi).

Reko Rennie in Venice
Reko Rennie at the Venice Biennale, 2015 (Courtesy blackartprojects)

“I am heavily influenced by my community and family history and 
the Kamilaroi people I am associated 
in the north of NSW,” said Rennie. “I factor in the history of what happened in this region post-colonisation. The awful things that happened to my family members deeply affect me and I use a lot of the symbols and pay homage to them in a contemporary aspect.”

Rennie said it’s important for Australian artists to exhibit worldwide. A show in LA is scheduled for October.

“I used to fund my own trips 
when I first started and I would hit 
up different curators from galleries 
in order to show internationally,” 
Rennie said. “I had to work hard to break down those barriers and get my foot in the door, but it’s what you do if you’re serious about your art.”

Reko Rennie in Venice
Reko Rennie at the Venice Biennale, 2015 (Courtesy blackartprojects)

“Showing at the Venice Biennale was important and it is somewhere I would love to show again," continued Rennie. "It’s one of the really important places to exhibit as an artist. It opened up a lot of doors with other artists and curators who saw my work and could see I am a serious artist who wants to exhibit internationally.”

Rennie’s art merges personal identity and historical family values, his contemporary neon style is packed with influence. The geometric diamond shape that prevails in his work has been described as a type of coat of arms and it represents his indigenous heritage. The bright colours reflect his urban surroundings and together they make a political and personal statement.

“My art is about expressing my identity as a contemporary Aboriginal man in an urban environment,” said Rennie of his pop style art. “I found the best way to express myself and my art is always evolving.”