Throughout 2020, visitors to Carriageworks, the multi-arts centre located on Gadigal land in the inner-city suburb of Eveleigh, will see the words “Remember Me” illuminated in vivid red capital letters above its Wilson Street entrance. The sign can be seen from quite a distance. This isn’t a regular billboard, though. Remember Me is an installation by Reko Rennie, the celebrated Kamilaroi artist and veteran of Melbourne’s street-art scene.
“I started thinking about a text-based work given that it’s an old billboard kind of site; [I wanted to create a piece that would] blend itself in billboard-type environments,” he says. “I’ve got a deep connection with the community and have done a number of public works in Sydney. It’s pretty much my second home. It was a real honour to have been asked to make a work [for Carriageworks].”
Remember Me, in Rennie’s own words, is simply about “acknowledging Australia’s original inhabitants and that sovereignty was never ceded”. The piece speaks to the devastating impact of invasion on Australia’s First Nations – and their resulting resilience and survival.
The use of red is a reference to the brutal massacres of Aboriginal people at the hands of white colonialists that mar Australian history. Red, the colour of both the land and the blood spilt upon it, signifies “the loss of culture and identity, and the trauma and abuse that Aboriginal people endured as a result of former government policies and the history of this nation”.
“It’s time that we remind ourselves of where we are, what we’re doing and whose land we’re on,” Rennie says.
An interdisciplinary artist who weaves stylistic elements of graffiti into his work, Rennie has long used art to explore his Indigenous identity. He’s exhibited around the world, including in the US, China, Indonesia, Italy and France. Diamond-shaped geometric designs – which feature prominently in Kamilaroi culture – are a recurring motif in his work. He often uses them in the background of stencilled depictions of Aboriginal warriors.
Another recurring motif is the phrase “remember me”, an entreaty for the viewer to reflect on the history, culture and suffering of Australia’s First Nations. Rennie started using it in street murals he painted in Melbourne in 2005.
“The first one was in Fitzroy, just off Scotchmer Street, which was traditionally a very Aboriginal area,” he recalls. Using a wall in a local park as his canvas, he painted the Aboriginal flag in its symbolic hues of red, yellow and black and then stencilled the words “remember me” across the centre.
“It seems like a general consensus that ... in urban environments, people are wanting to seek out more information and acknowledge the past,” Rennie says of his public canvases. “It’s so important that history is acknowledged, but a lot more has to be done.”
The Remember Me installation isn’t the first time his work has appeared in bright lights. In 2016, his distinctive red, black and yellow designs and a stencil of a spear-throwing Aboriginal man illuminated the Sydney Opera House as part of Vivid Festival’s Lighting the Sails: Songlines installation. That same year, he created a series of large-scale images that were projected onto Melbourne’s Federation Square during the White Night Festival.
Underpinning these works is Rennie’s desire to provoke discussion around Indigenous culture and identity. It’s a conversation that is slowly changing, thanks to the impact of outspoken activists such as Rennie and historian Bruce Pascoe, whose groundbreaking book Dark Emu draws on Aboriginal lore, archaeology and first- hand accounts from European visitors to refute the concept of terra nullius. But the lack of information in mainstream Australian education systems is a systemic problem, explains Rennie. “In school systems [the way we talk about Indigenous history] is slowly changing, but it’s still got a long way to go,” he says. “It’s now a mandatory syllabus to learn about Aboriginal culture and identity – but it’s a very tokenistic, stereotyped viewpoint that usually is offered by education. I think the syllabus needs to change in respect to learning about the country and identity.”
2020 marks the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s landing at Kamay/Botany Bay, a traumatic event in Aboriginal history that led to the colonisation of the Australian continent and the subsequent decimation of the Indigenous population. Rennie is outraged that the federal government spends valuable funds marking the milestone when there are Aboriginal people still living in conditions well below the rest of Australia, with limited access to health services and education. The policies of previous governments – such as the removal of children from their families and the erasure of cultural identity and language – amount to genocide, says Rennie, whose paternal grandmother, a Kamilaroi woman named Julia, was taken from her family when she was just eight years old.
“To say, ‘That was in the past and now we can all shake hands and move on’ – it’s just not right,” he says. More should be done to address past atrocities, he argues. “We’re seeing more happening in both black and white communities, but it’s got to really come from government.” He believes it’s “crazy” that government-appointed ministers oversee Aboriginal affairs. “Each state or territory should have a representative Aboriginal politician to talk about Aboriginal affairs and communities and issues.”
It’s these issues that Rennie wants us to contemplate as we consider his plea to remember Australia’s First Nations. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do in this country,” he says.
Remember Me is on at Carriageworks, 245 Wilson St, Eveleigh, until January 2021. Broadsheet is a proud media partner of Carriageworks.
This story originally appeared in print issue 21.