Pass the Mic: Amplifying First Nations Stories with Aboriginal Art Co
Amanda Hayman and Troy Casey are the local couple behind creative agency Blaklash creative. Their impressive resume has seen them deliver a host of creative projects which amplify the voices of First Nations artists within the community.
In 2019, they co-founded the Open House retail space in West End, which has become an eclectic cornerstone of Vulture St, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander items curated by Troy and Amanda available alongside a selection of locally-made gifts and a vintage clothing range. Last year, they took over the ownership of Indigenous clothing label Magpie Goose and opened Aboriginal Art Co, a gallery and retail space in the heart of Brisbane’s Cultural Precinct.
Ahead of AAC’s 6-month anniversary, we spoke to the powerhouse duo about establishing the gallery, and their hopes for its future.
What do you love about your jobs?
Amanda: We get to work with a lot of artists and community. All of our work is collaborative, so it has a beautiful community spirit with it.
Troy: All the projects we do are about supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. It goes two ways: it’s allowing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to express their culture, and the broader community to engage with it. And whether it’s an event, an activation or a public artwork, all the outcomes we create are about opportunities for the economic gain of Aboriginal people, so employment or project work.
I think it’s important that you mentioned that economic side of things. More businesses and creative enterprises seem to want to foreground Indigenous voices in their work these days, but they aren’t always as dedicated to compensating those communities adequately.
T: Right – being paid appropriately, not taken advantage of.
You see it when there’s a competition for an artwork run by a large corporation or a footy team or whatever, who use the artwork and sell stuff with it. It’s not fair [to the artist]. For us, it’s always been important that when we work with artists, art centres or communities, they operate like a business as well. Without appropriate or sustainable income, those businesses and communities suffer.
When you talk about creating those positive outcomes, are there any recent highlights that come to mind?
T: One of the really beautiful things about Magpie Goose, our clothing brand, is that the artists who design the textiles have their stories shared throughout the community through wearable art. When people buy the products, royalties are fed back to the community. For the Kalamburu collection, we licensed designs from a women’s centre for when women could go for workshops and refuge. One of the ladies bought a fridge and a washing machine with the money she’d earned through the collaboration, and she was saying that she’d never had both of those whitegoods in her house working at the same time before. It sounds so simple, but things we take for granted aren’t always easily available in those remote areas. It’s small things like that which make the work we do feel important and special.
Walk me through the process of deciding to launch the Aboriginal Art Co space?
A: After the success of Open House, we wanted to create something similar that was more focussed on Aboriginal Art, with slow, handmade products that have a real artisan feel. The artists we curate into the space have the hands of the maker involved in these works.
T: It’s more of a gallery than a shop, and it was also born out of the desire for people to come and access authentic and ethically sourced Aboriginal art.
The federal inquiry into fake art has found that 80% of Aboriginal-looking products out on the market aren’t made in Australia, and one of the reasons we think that exists is because there aren’t as many places where people can go and know they’re buying the right thing. We wanted to provide consumers with a safe and trustworthy place to come and talk about Aboriginal art, to ask questions and know that it’s authentic, and that the right amount of revenue is going back to the artist, the art centre or the community where the work came from.
People want to look for stuff that’s sustainable, ethical and meaningful. We’re still kind of finding our feet and navigating it, but we have big dreams for the gallery. We want it to be a place that’s celebrated by the Brisbane community.
“Worrwurr – Dhuduthudu (Owl Carving)” by Djul’djul Gurruwiwi, from Northeast Arnhem Land. The piece is made using renewable wood painted with pigments from the earth.
What are the other core values that you govern the space with?
A: Caring for country and being sustainable is important.
T: Relationships of reciprocity. Trust?
A: Yeah, and integrity.
T: It sounds very utopian, but all these things are intrinsically linked to the way First Nations communities existed prior to colonisation. There’s this idea that if we all work collaboratively as a community and respect one another, you can actually live in a harmonious society.
What are your favourite new additions to the gallery?
A: We’ve just received some woven fish nets, little guppy nets made by an artist named Delissa Walker. She’s a Kuku Yalanji woman.
“Large Guppy Catcher” by Delissa Walker, made from locally foraged black palm.
T: They’re not in at the moment, but they’re on their way in the post and I’m looking forward to unwrapping them: we’re getting a series of pieces called Lorrkons, which are like totem poles from Marrawuddi Art Centre, which is in Kakadu National Park. They’re beautiful ornamental pieces, which are really amazing.
A: I’ve also just put up some Goenpul woodwork which is made by Uncle Dale Ruska over on Minjerribah (Stradbroke Island). He’s an older retired man who creates all these beautiful one-off pieces from fallen trees on the island. The grass tree ones are really special.
They sound it!
So, the gallery is located in Brisbane’s cultural precinct, next to GOMA and QAG. Why is it important that AAC is a majority Aboriginal-owned and -operated gallery occupying physical space outside those traditional art institutions?
T: The Art and Aboriginal Art industries have been dominated by non-Indigenous people making decisions about it and making money off it for far too long. We set up the gallery as a not-for-profit in order to go against the grain of what a commercial gallery sets out to do.
At the same time, there’s a sense of credibility that comes with being inside the cultural precinct, and being connected to larger institutions. They’re the state galleries, so I guess working with them provides us with a bit of street cred…
A: I think the Aboriginal Art Co building is so beautiful, too. It’s an old, kind of colonial-looking building and it’s heritage listed, because it used to be a bank. When you look at other institutional art galleries around the country, they’re in those old colonial buildings, with the pillars out the front. This building is kind of perfect for us, because we get to reclaim a similar space within the city area.
T: I mean, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and the Art Gallery of South Australia are both in those similar types of buildings.
A – And Cairns.
T – Cairns, too. They all have those similar looking facades, so [the Aboriginal Art Co space is] a nice contrast. Instead of it being a non-Indigenous led institution, there’s an Aboriginal-owned gallery inside that space, which is really cool.
“Water Ties” hand-painted bowl by Casey Coolwell-Fisher, a Quandamooka woman of Minjerribah (Stradbroke Island). According to the artist, the swirls in the artwork represent the water that surrounds her people. The outer thin line signifies their boundaries and the dots represent the resources provided by natural water supplies.
Zooming out just a little bit, I’d like to touch on our broader political landscape at the moment. The news feels noisier than ever, with Covid-19 taking up most of the conversation. A lot of social discussions we were having before the pandemic seem to have lost some of their amplification. How can we continue to foreground and amplify Indigenous voices and perspective in the community?
T: I think you’re right. Covid has certainly dominated that space over the last couple of years, across news and various platforms. It’s hyper intense right now, and it’s taken over all the channels we use to communicate. Before the pandemic, it felt like a lot of socio-political conversations were coming to the forefront, around refugees, climate change, First Nations voices — all those things that finally felt like they were more than just bubbling away below the surface.
Youth climate justice saw 10 thousand kids turn up in the city to protest, and Covid has restricted some opportunities to do that in a public setting, which does feel more powerful. We’re engulfed by social media, so posts about it just feel like another post, whereas seeing people come out in force for things really shows that change.
But maybe it’s just resting for a little bit. I think it’s important that people continue to try and stay informed on issues that still exist. We’re still seeing incarceration and deaths in custody; the rates continue to increase, they haven’t slowed down, despite #blacklivesmatter and those big moments. I think it’s important that people don’t forget that those things exist outside the covid-land we live in at the moment.
Just before we wrap up, I wanted to mention that after spending a big chunk of time stalking your Instagram, I’m totally obsessed with your beautiful baby boy. How do you hope raising him amongst all this art, and within this awesome creative network, will inform his sense of identity growing up?
A: He was lucky enough to just dodge Covid! He was born in December 2019, so he was passed around a lot before Covid hit. He’s our little poster boy, he’s very much a part of the business, he’s in the office three times a week!
T: I just want him to be proud of who he is and where he comes from. I think one of the things that’s really awesome about being surrounded by creatives and the arts is that there are lots of people who have open minds and different ways of doing things. You’re exposed to all kinds of people — whether it’s race, religion, sexuality — and we hope he just sees it all as really normal. The more opportunities and people we can connect him to, the broader his mind will be and and the broader his sense of opportunities for the future.
I would be really happy if he grows up as a really inclusive person who hopefully, maybe, loves art like we do. I think it would be hard for him not to!
Troy and Amanda are currently developing a workshop and public program for Aboriginal Art Co, which will be launched later in 2022. After 6 months in business, they hope the future of the gallery sees its doors open to more and more people, and continue to create opportunities to lift up Indigenous artists and storytellers to share their stories with the community.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.