Aretha Brown has an impressive résumé that belies her 22 years. Artist. Youth activist. Former Prime Minister of the National Indigenous Youth Parliament (the youngest ever, and first woman to hold the position). Brown was the first Indigenous Australian artist to create a public mural in New York City, and in 2019, founded a street art collective 'Kiss My Art' that champions young women and non-binary artists; reclaiming public spaces and acting as a living cultural exchange of traditions, histories and storytelling between Indigenous and non-Indigenous members. She's also been selected by sportswear juggernauts Champion as one of their six global Creators with Purpose.
For Champion, their ethos to 'Champion What Moves You' has always been about a more holistic output; using their brand as a platform for cultural exchange, and to empower and inspire their community to create a better tomorrow. Their collective of 'Creators with Purpose' are individuals that redefine the concept of being a 'champion' from noun to verb; estranging it from victory, and instead coupling it with the pursuit of meaningful, positive impact.
Brown, who grew up in Melbourne's Western Suburbs, is a creator whose artistic practice has always aligned with a higher purpose. RUSSH spoke with Brown about her how her artistry and identity as a queer, Gumbaynggirr woman intersect, her relationship with streetwear and the Champion brand, and how she celebrates and continues to empower emerging Indigenous, female and non-binary artists through her work.
How would you describe your personal style? Does your artistry and work influence this?
Eclectic Naarm-core [laughs]. Think Jackie O – if she was Aboriginal and 5'4. Just kidding. Probably jeans and tees most days while I paint.
The 'Kiss My Art' collective is an incredible initiative with such an impressive focus. Now four years since its inception, how do you hope to see this celebration of young women and non-binary artists continue, and how can we contribute to championing these creative minds and voices?
I think respecting and being understanding of artists, especially young artists, is the first step. And that comes from recognising that being an artist as a 'real' job in the first place.
Just because it's something we enjoy, and that comes naturally, doesn’t mean it doesn’t also require lots of hard work, time, and cause the same inevitable burnout you would get in any other profession. Being an artist means you work for yourself in a sense, and because of that you don’t have work hours. You don't clock off on a Friday and come back on Monday – you are always learning, taking inspiration, and exploring ideas. You are on all the time.
'Champion What Moves You’ aims to redefine the concept of being a champion. In work and play, what do you champion?
I champion freedom of expression. And someone that has always encouraged me to do that was my grandma Aunty Jan Brown or “Nanny Brown”. She unfortunately passed away recently – but we were incredibly close. Her story of growing up in Australia and being a child of the Stolen Generations has always made me want to champion women, especially young First Nations women to be able to say what they want when they want it.
You’ve spoken before about the way that your identity often guides your work – was this always an intentional choice, or something that evolved naturally?
No choice. I'm Indigenous. No matter what I do I'm politicised. Whether I like it or not, unfortunately.
What’s your relationship with streetwear and the Champion brand? Is it something you’ve worn your whole life, or come into in recent years?
Growing up I was the champion of Kmart. Nowadays, I really love streetwear and always joke with my friends that I’m a “closeted hypebeast”. I think as an artist who makes large works, Champion’s streetwear lets me wear clothes that give a lot of movement. I also like things that are comfortable and breathable that I can also get paint on [laughs]. Overall, my style is pretty ambiguous and doesn’t fit into one kind of gender. Think that is indicative of my own relationship to gender and expression as well.