Australia

From surf to the sky: Torres Strait Islander artist paints education as the future

Zachary Bennett-Brook credits the 1967 referendum for progressive Australian acceptance of Indigenous culture, but believes there is still a long way to go.

Half a century ago Australians voted to remove two references from the Constitution, which discriminated against Indigenous and Torres Strait Island people.

Today, up-and-coming artist Zachary Bennett-Brook - whose work has garnered international attention - says the 1967 referendum has helped develop an "overall acceptance" of Indigenous culture.

“I feel over the last 50 years Australia has taken great forward steps due to the Indigenous referendum to achieve reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia,” he told SBS World News.

“However I feel improvement can still be made to close the gap.”

Education the answer

The 26-year-old says the gap can only be completely closed with education.

“With education for all both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people we can learn from each other to achieve reconciliation to create a positive community and overall Australia,” Mr Bennett-Brook said.

“Don't get me wrong, there is always room for improvement, but overall I think it has been a positive change and because of this I feel it has assisted me in being able to share my work throughout Australia with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people but with people all over the world as well."

His art business, Saltwater Dreamtime, is a fusion of his two great loves - the ocean and his culture. His designs now feature on everything from surfboards to football shoes, and have brought the Torres Strait Islander international acclaims.

Mr Bennett-Brook said it is a way for him to honour his heritage.

“All my life I've painted and been creative, and then growing up I thought I'd look into my Indigenous background a bit more, being Torres Strait Islander, and born in Dharawal country here in Wollongong, I went 'let's find out a bit more about my culture and the arts in that',” he said.

“And that really interested me, and from there I just progressed and moved forward with my art and do what I do now with contemporary Indigenous art."

Indigenous artist referendum anniversary
Zachary Bennett-Brook's designs appear on surfboards, clothing, and products. His business is attracting international interest. (SBS)
SBS

Mr Bennett-Brook initially struggled to break into the Indigenous art scene with his works on canvas, so he started painting on any canvas he could find - including old surfboards.

His work impressed the locals on the New South Wales south coast and lead to a collaboration with surfboard manufacturer Cool Change.

Owner Jayson Squires says he makes the boards, then Mr Bennett-Brook paints each piece, and the pair split the profits 50-50.

"It opened my boards up to a whole other side, a lot of the boards now are being bought as artworks, functional art,” Mr Squires told SBS World News.

“It's opened it up from just boards for surfers to boards for kind of everybody now. And every board that Zac's done, that we've done together, no two are the same. Everything is one of a kind."

Mr Bennett-Brook's art also appears on socks, board shorts and even budgie smugglers. His growing client list includes Harley Davidson, Tag Heuer, and local cafes and hotels.

READ MORE

Mr Bennett-Brook believes it is a way to connect Australians.

"So just pretty much bringing together the Indigenous and non-Indigenous community,” he said.

“We also have the surf communities, and there's art lovers, so it's really just about bringing sort of everyone together, having those positive vibes, and just really appreciating what's going on, and having mutual respect for each other."

His dreams are now moving from the surf, to the sky.

"I'd like my artwork on a Qantas plane one day," he said.

"Every four years I think it is, they get a different Indigenous artist and they do a special range on a plane. And I just think, my stuff is bright, vibrant; I'm bright, vibrant, young.

"I could just see it in the sky. It'll happen. Yeah, that's the next step."