Gumbaynggirr activist Aretha Brown is getting her message out there, no matter what

Photography by Trudi Treble
Words by Jasmine Wallis

The artist has teamed up with Converse to create a powerful mural.

On a surprisingly warm autumn day, I head up north to the Converse Factory Outlet in Fitzroy, Melbourne for a new Fashion Journal assignment. As I arrive, there’s a group of young people posing and laughing for photographers. But they’re not modelling the latest Converse drop, they’re helping Gumbaynggirr artist Aretha Brown paint a massive mural on the side of the Converse building. 

Always a champion for young creatives, the iconic shoe brand has collaborated with its global All Stars community to create urban murals in select cities around the world. Called City Forests, the initiative isn’t just about creating beautiful murals to add some colour to the city streets. Each mural is also created using Graphenstone paint. Developed to mimic the same scientific process as photosynthesis, the paint uses UV sunlight to absorb harmful pollutants. 

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Converse’s intersecting values of supporting young artists and being mindful of their environmental footprint is why 20-year-old Aretha decided to work with Converse on this project.  “They could’ve got anyone in here to paint, but they chose someone local and you can’t get more local than an Indigenous person,” Aretha laughs.  “I think environmentalism and Indigenous rights go hand-in-hand. If you look at both of them, you can see they’re the same thing; looking after the land, being sustainable, looking after elders and traditional knowledge sources.” 

Painting a large black-and-white mural in her signature style, Aretha’s design draws on multiple themes. It recognises the integral role of elders as a pillar for First Nations communities, celebrating Aboriginal matriarchs in particular. The mural also acknowledges the role of young mob and how Indigenous culture exists within modern life, and Aretha hopes it will challenge Indigenous stereotypes.

“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,” she explains. “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.”


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A post shared by Aretha Brown (@_enterthedragon_)

When Aretha isn’t painting murals, she’s busy speaking on panels, being a voice for Indigenous rights and – in a new outlet – writing comedy. She’s now supported by manager Grace Dlabik, but has been in the public eye since she was a high school student, when her speech at the 2017 Invasion Day Rallies caught national attention. She was later named the youngest (and only woman) National Indigenous Youth Prime Minister.

Aretha knows her purpose (remarkable for a 20-year-old), and is passionate about sharing her message, no matter which format she uses to deliver it. “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.”  

One of her latest mediums for education is apparel. As part of her creative works with Converse, Aretha has designed a limited edition T-shirt with profits going towards youth-led organisation, the National Indigenous Youth Education Coalition. “Their whole thing is getting Indigenous history taught in schools. That, and education reform, is what I’m centred around. It’s a very simple message – to teach Blak history. And it goes full circle, so when you scan the QR code on the [Converse] mural it takes you to NIYEC’s website. It’s a big old community,” Aretha smiles. 

While Aretha is painting a mural over just a few short days, and tells me she’s about to jet off to speak in Canberra, I ask her what her favourite part of being a busy, multi-faceted artist is.

“Taking up space as a young, Indigenous woman. It’s such a privilege to be able to do that and also to be an artist that’s pretty young. I think I take that for granted sometimes. I’ve worked in hospitality for a very long time and I’ve recently quit that to take on my art full-time. Not a lot of people get that opportunity, so it’s a privilege to get to do this so young.” 

Aretha’s T-shirt is now available to purchase from Converse retailers and online here. Learn more about the Converse City Forests initiative and artists here.

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