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Remember Me by Reko Rennie
Photograph: Zam WImberleyRemember Me by Reko Rennie

The story behind Kamilaroi artist Reko Rennie's 25-metre 'Remember me'

Written by
Stephen A Russell

For many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and their allies, the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook's first landfall at Kamay Botany Bay is at best fraught history, at worst the beginning of a terrible and bloody war for survival.

When Carriageworks commissioned artist and Kamilaroi man Reko Rennie to come up with a large-scale work in response to this difficult day, he knew exactly what he would not do.

"On April 29, I choose not to celebrate the arrival of colonial invaders and the dispossession of our land," he says. "Instead, I want to acknowledge the original inhabitants whose lives were changed forever on this day, as well as affirm our survival, and reiterate that sovereignty was never ceded."

The new work, spelling 'Remember me' in bold red neon 25 metres wide by five metres tall over the Carriageworks entrance, is beyond powerful in its searing simplicity. In an accompanying video, Rennie elaborates that when it came to choosing what he did want to say, his grandmother sprang to the forefront of his mind. A member of the Stolen Generation, she was forcibly taken from her parents aged eight. "Put on the horse and cart, never to see her family again," he says.

Noting that it's a tragedy shared within the family histories of far too many Aboriginal Australians, he says he wanted to honour them, and her, with the work. "They were displaced, and enforced, and enslaved. And so I thought about that child… and it's about remembering them."

Rennie says the full horror of what happened to his grandmother hit him when he became a father. "One morning you're not going to see them again, ever. For me, that was a huge fire, and I used to get very sparked up about it. And now I take those opportunities to make work about that situation."

Seeing loud and proud political messages daubed in white paint on walls in the late '70s and early '80s fed into Rennie's early engagement with graffiti. It was a subversive beginning echoed in the strength of his contemporary work. "Those images really stuck with me about the power of having a voice through art," he says.

He hopes for a future where Australia will not be scared of Aboriginal citizens having a voice. 'We just want the rights and respect that we're entitled to, and it's not that hard," he says, "but it actually is."

What better way to honour his grandmother, and all Australians like her, than with this neon beacon lighting up the sky in their memory?

Want more politically charged art? You can check out early photography by Destiny Deacon here.

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