Young Gumbaynggirr artist and activist Aretha Brown collaborated with Converse to create an environmentally-friendly mural that encourages conversation around urban Aboriginality, pays homage to First Nations Elders and celebrates Aboriginal history (Converse, 2021).
Aretha’s mural is located at the Converse Fitzroy store on the corner of Kerr and Smith Streets in Collingwood, Melbourne (Naarm Country). Her mural has become the brand’s latest edition to its Converse City Forests series, an initiative employing local, young artists to create urban murals in select cities around the world using Graphenstone air purifying paint (Converse, 2021).
This eco-friendly paint imitates photosynthetic organisms, such as flowers and trees, that transform carbon dioxide into oxygen through absorbing UV light from the sun. Essentially, this technologically advanced paint absorbs atmospheric pollutants via a chemical process that is activated by UV light (Graphenstone, 2021). This particular mural absorbs enough air pollutants to plant the equivalent of 128 trees in the bustling inner-city of Melbourne (Converse, 2021).
Aretha decided to work with Converse on this project due to their values of supporting local young artists whilst being mindful of their environmental footprint. In her filmed interview with Converse (2021) for the campaign, Aretha informed them:
“In my mind, Indigenous rights and environmentalism go hand-in-hand. For example, making sure that elders and their knowledge is passed down and looking at Indigenous histories to explain sustainable methods for our future and looking after the land, only taking what you need, and those kinds of philosophies are very similar.”
Converse believes that through Aretha’s artistic vision and message and the purposeful placement of the mural in this highly visible area of Melbourne city, it will provoke dialogue amongst daily passersby. The hope is that in provoking dialogue through, not just Aretha’s mural but all murals created by these young creatives globally, it will lead to a public call for progress for a more equitable and sustainable future.
Aretha's mural features the artist’s iconic monochromatic style and draws on a multitude of themes. It celebrates Aboriginal matriarchs, pays tribute to the integral role of elders as a pillar for Indigenous communities, while also acknowledging the role young mob play in keeping Indigenous culture alive within modern urban life (Fashion Journal, 2021). In an on-site interview with Fashion Journal (2021), Aretha talked further about her mural serving to reclaim Collingwood and Fitzroy as a “cultural hub” for mob:
“Collingwood has historically been a big cultural hub for Indigenous people. A lot of mob live in the city and that’s what I’m trying to represent,” Aretha explained. “I’m just trying to think about Indigenous urban identity and not the narrative that all mob live in desert communities. Eighty per cent of mob live in city or regional areas, and we don’t really get to look at that shared identity a lot.”
Since Elders are some of the most important members of the First Nations community, Aretha sought guidance and yarned with local Elders Uncle Jack Charles and Wurundjeri Elder Annette Xiberras during the process of the mural. Elders are particularly significant in their roles of handing down tradition, language, culture, history and knowledge of their Country (NIT, 2021).
At only 20 years old, Aretha has made accomplishments well beyond her years, from her speech to crowds of thousands at the 2017 Invasion Day rallies, to her role as the youngest and only woman Prime Minister of the National Indigenous Youth Parliament in 2017, to her art that hung on the walls of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in 2019, to her constant discourse on Indigenous rights. There’s no doubt she’s as multifaceted as she is talented, and uses this to share her message (Fashion Journal, 2021):
“I just think, how can I get across my politics to so many different people? What’s going to be the most accessible way [for them] to understand what I’m saying? For some people it’s painting, listening to my speeches, or reading interviews and for others it’ll be through the comedy I write...If you can take something from any of the things I do, that’s good enough for me.”
Through Aretha’s artwork, activism and support for youth organisations, she aims to break barriers and educate ‘whitefullas’ on Blak History. Resultantly, as a part of Aretha’s collaboration with Converse she designed a limited edition t-shirt, featuring the message “Teach Blak History.” The t-shirt was a huge success and sold out overnight! She explained to NIT (2021) about this choice of product:
“T-shirts are such a good mechanism for activism because I think for a lot of whitefullas out there they want to know how to get involved with mob but don’t want to overstep their boundaries or make mistakes...Investing in something like a shirt or merchandise is a really great way to be involved and help. For mob, it’s a cool shirt to have and be loud and proud but also it offers allies that ally-friendly opportunity to be part of it.”
Since education is a vital aspect to Aretha’s creative work, one hundred percent of the proceeds were donated to the National Indigenous Youth Education Coalition (NIYEC) (Converse, 2021). NIYEC’s work aims to mobilise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth to drive a new education ecosystem and to promote the message to “Teach Blak History” in Australian schools (NIYEC, 2021).
“I only finished high school around two years ago, my experiences was recent but there was no Aboriginal history taught. There was literally nothing … there are so many problems that extend out of that including that absence of knowledge...I’m very much of the belief that we can’t have talks about Treaty, for example, or even start those conversations unless people are educated...I’d be scared if we ever did a referendum about Treaty whilst a lot of white Australians know literally nothing. It all starts in schools.” - Aretha Brown, 2021
Like Aretha, we hope to one day see Blak History being taught in Australian schools. Through children being educated on Australia’s truth of colonisation, they will be able to develop a respect for diversity and Indigenous culture. That is why Yarn Marketplace is dedicated to supporting our community partners in their initiatives to keep Indigenous culture alive through education and to close the gap in learning outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.