Interview with Shannon Brett, curator, photographer and fashion designer

Shannon Brett is a descendant of the Wakka Wakka, Budjula and Gurang Gurang clans, positioned in the state interpreted as Queensland. She creates and designs artworks indicative of her experiences as an Aboriginal woman living and surviving in modern, urban Australian society. Brett is technically trained in fashion design, graphic and web design, music production, animation, theatre and film.

Brett also holds a Bachelor of Contemporary Australian Indigenous Art; Fine Art and Photography from the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University. She utilises her skills to encourage art and expression of culture via her work as an educator and curator. Ever aware of the silencing of Aboriginal voice in racist society, she is driven to present Indigenous artists stories as those of dire importance to the greater community. She delivers art workshops and collaborates with textile artists within Indigenous communities. Brett designs fashion collections with the artists textiles for eventual shows, sale and distribution so as to raise awareness of the artists stories and abilities. 

Her experience as a graphic designer, photographer and marketing manager have finely developed her curatorial skills and she is confident to deliver large projects nationally and internationally. Focusing on issues that matter to her first and foremost, which are the survival, integrity and humility of her people; Brett will continue to advocate for her culture with art as her vehicle.

Hi Shannon, thanks for taking the time to talk with us today!  
Your experience within the arts is so extensive and varied, incorporating many different areas of practice including design, photography, animation as well as arts management, curatorial work and education. What is your earliest memory of wanting to be involved in the arts and how did you first start out in the industry?

Hi Jess! My earliest memories were that I was always surrounded by art. It was all I really knew so it was just a natural progression for me to work within this industry. I remember when I was about 8 years of age drawing all of my clothes in my primary school exercise books in many different combinations. We lived in the desert and I didn’t have many clothes but I was a dreamer…drawing helped me escape boredom, I guess. My father was an unbelievable drawer. He graduated as a graphic designer in the sixties and became a draftsman who later worked as a town planner and creator of font. As a child I would continuously admire his incredible collection of pens in special clear acrylic cases and his ability to draw with such fine skill. When we moved to Cairns, he worked as a commercial artist for a small printing company. He built their darkrooms when I was about 12; this began my love for photography. I spent most of my high school lunchtimes in school darkrooms developing black and white photographs. Dad’s mother, my grandmother, was an oil painter and my mother was always doodling in notepads.

I was working in fashion when I was 19 and was spotted drawing/doodling by a London fashion designer who later took me under her wing. I suspect she had her eye on me because I loved to push boundaries with my own personal style and also the fact that I was continuously drawing. She taught me about fashion design from the very foundations. It was bloody hard work but I never gave up, my every day ending in sweeping piles of fabric from the workshop floors. I think she was the one who presented me with the gift of serious work ethic. I weigh everything against those early days.

In the following years I impressed my father by studying graphic design but I eventually left my life as a commercial artist to attend art college, the rest is history. I am an artist and arts worker – I’ve reached a point in my career where I just want to assist good artists with greater platforms. It’s my gift back to my culture.

Having such a varied portfolio of work how have you managed to balance your work as an artist, designer, artsworker and educator? What is the role that is most important to you within this broad spectrum of practice?

The role that is most important to me is being an influential mother. I believe in leading by example, so everything I do, I ask myself how this will benefit my family particularly culturally. My family consists of three people; myself and my two sons – so it’s vital that I get it right as our next generation approaches. I focus on a balance of work and home life (lots of late-night admin) and although there are many jobs that I would have loved, I have come to terms with the fact that I was always going to have to make sacrifices for my children as their happiness is my top priority.

Aside from being a parent – I am an artist. I don’t believe that my work as an arts worker/educator would have been truly validated if I was not an artist. As an educator of artists, I want to show artists that I know where they are coming from, I have been there, I have felt the frustrations and I have had the knock backs. I used to think that being an artist was a curse because I couldn’t escape it, even if I tried. But over time I have made my peace with it and it’s evolved into a career. I find such joy in being with artists, there’s a special bond that we all share. It’s like a tremendous desire to create and educate, communicate and force change.

You currently work at the Griffith University Art Museum and previously with the Museum of Brisbane, as well as pursuing your own arts practice and fashion line. Also, you have worked extensively throughout regional Queensland particularly in the Cairns region with intuitions such as Umi Arts, Yarrabah Arts & Cultural Precinct, Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, Kickarts Contemporary Arts Cairns, TAFE North, JCU Cairns and more! What sort of work did you do within these organisations and how did this inform your knowledge of regional arts and your later career trajectory?

I love to learn and I am just so passionate about art and culture so it became the norm for me many years ago to say YES to jobs that would provide me with new skills, especially if it meant working with fellow Indigenous peoples. I am fairly energetic, I was usually rolling out two or three projects consecutively when I was an independent so the work was quite varied. I like to combine the skills that I have to create pathways for new artists and to improve their abilities and profiles within industry.

If you ask me what sort of work I do within these organisations? I would answer teamwork. I really began my interest in curatorial work out of frustration; a frustration that occurred many years ago. I had noticed that sometimes Aboriginal peoples were not being represented in a way that I felt they should be and that carpet baggers were growing in numbers (racist whitefellas making money out of Aboriginal people completely unethically). So I decided that I had to step up and put my own practice on hold, to be there for mob if they needed me (especially if language was a barrier) and to advocate where people needed it. To talk the talk that I learnt in the city and bring it back to the bush and then back to the city again. To bridge a gap for artists in community who deserved to have their work shown interstate and internationally.

Working in communities helped bring me closer to my culture but also helped me to understand my formal education and how I could skill share with really talented artists and make their voices louder.

Do you think your current work as a curator has been influenced by this regional experience and how can ‘big city’ artsworkers best support regional practitioners?

My work as a curator emerged out of the frustrations that I have with racism, there’s not many mob out there representing mob (Indigenous curators building exhibitions for Indigenous artists) and the group of us that are doing it are working hard and just so proud to give voice to this most wonderful culture that should be celebrated. We’re up against it – especially the internal racism that we experience from our non-Indigenous peers. You’ve got to have thick skin to do this, that’s for sure.

I recommend ‘big city’ artsworkers go and spend a couple of months living in community and working hands-on in an art centre. There’s nothing more rewarding than getting to know talented artists and just what they are dealing with to have their work shown from such remote regions. I am immensely proud to support artists in these regional areas. It’s been a wonderful journey.

What do you see as some of the current opportunities and challenges facing regional arts practice, particularly within Indigenous communities?

Opportunities: There are many and funding regionally is quite impressive when art centres and groups are working hard at it.

Challenges: Racism and lack of health care.
Not everybody understands the daily challenges in community and just how hard artists are working to have their work shown. I understand artists of all nationalities nationwide are attempting to have their work shown but challenges regarding remote housing and health care (mental and physical) severely impact the trajectory of artists practices who may be simultaneously navigating racist intimidation. Tackling racism is a weight that no-one should have to carry.

Your fashion line ‘Lore’ has recently just been featured in Vogue magazine. Congratulations! Can you tell us a little bit about how you started the label, your ethos behind it and how you collaborate with Indigenous Art Centres and Aboriginal artists to design the textiles utilised to create your garments?

I created LORE after a few years on the fashion show circuit, designing for Aboriginal art centres. I was working in art centres by day and designing garments at night in my own time and it quickly became evident that the garments were in great demand. I was advised that I should go it on my own which was a dream that I never thought would eventuate.

So I finally made the decision to create my brand, but I also wanted to have the wonderful textile centres that I knew and loved along for the ride.  I experienced unbelievable backing from the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair who understood my vision of creating a business plan that supported artists and their stories and also myself as a designer – it’s a win win.

Shortly after LORE had its reveal, it was everywhere, and it really does have a life of its own. I like to think that the fabrics are another way of communicating just how precious our cultures are and I hope that people who purchase my garments understand that the label is wholly Aboriginal. My new line will comprise new fabric designs and garment designs by me and will most probably be revealed to the public towards the end of this year.

Thanks for chatting with us Shannon! We very much appreciate the time you have taken out of your busy schedule and good luck with your future creative endeavours.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.