Queensland College of Art graduates Jenna Lee and Rachael Sarra are stepping into the spotlight with new work that celebrates their culture and challenges preconceived notions about Aboriginal art.

The close friends and former classmates produce thought-provoking works that span painting, printmaking, sculpture, jewellery and fashion – and the art world is taking notice.

Connecting to culture

Rachael is making waves on the local art scene. Her work was recently projected onto the William Jolly Bridge as part of the Brisbane Art Design Festival and can be seen on Brisbane City Council buses to celebrate NAIDOC Week.

A proud Goreng Goreng woman, Rachael uses her work as a way to connect with her culture.

“My work really celebrates my cultural background – Aboriginal people have always been very artistic, and we share our culture through art and storytelling,” she said.

“I grew up off country, but I’m still connecting with it and exploring my identity.

“I’ve always known about my heritage and celebrated it and I’m starting to learn more about the language and customs.”

Creative entrepreneur

Rachael has just launched her own business – Sar.ra – creating fashion, jewellery and stationery featuring her paintings and prints.

“For a long time I didn’t even have a website – I would just post stuff on Instagram, and it was easy for people to connect to my work,” she said.

“I always wanted to run my own company, and it looks like it’s all happened overnight, but it’s been a long journey.

“I worked for design agencies like Carbon Creative and Gilimbaa before I stepped out on my own, and I learned a lot along the way about bringing together creative and business sides.”

“I love doing something different every day – this allows me to bring together my passion for art, fashion and design.”

Rachael’s work will be showcased later this month at Open House, a new gallery space in Fortitude Valley for Indigenous artists.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity -I’m excited to step out on my own and figure out what I want to say,” she said.

“I think of my art as providing an optimistic conversation that shifts people’s perspectives on Aboriginal culture and art.

“I love using bright, high energy colours and my work seems to have a way of drawing people in.

Rachael, who graduated with a Bachelor of Design in 2013, said her time at the QCA had taught her that art could be a powerful force for change in society.

“Looking back at my time at the QCA, it was phenomenal,” she said.

“I don’t think I’d really considered the power of my culture before I went to uni, and I learned so much about socially responsible design, and how to be a positive force creatively.

“Art and design are such powerful tools and a strong vehicle for change.”

Art and identity

Fellow QCA graduate Jenna Lee is a mixed race Larrakia, Wardaman and Karajarri woman whose art explores cultural identity and language. She recently won the Dreaming Award at this year’s National Indigenous Art Awards, which recognises outstanding emerging artists.

“I’ve spent the past decade working as a commercial artist and designer, so it is amazing to be recognised for my personal artistic practice,” she said.

“I’m a queer, mixed race, Asian, Aboriginal woman and my work is an outlet to explore all of those overlapping identities.”

Jenna is using the $20,000 prize money from the National Indigenous Art Awards to undertake a research project in the UK.

She is working with a collection of Aboriginal artefacts at the renowned Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which will inspire a series of new artistic works – a process she calls “artistic repatriation”.

“These objects were taken long ago, and are now sitting in boxes and drawers thousands of miles away,” she said.

“By allowing artists to respond to these objects, they are given new life.”

The project will culminate in a group show at the Museum of Brisbane, curated by Jenna and featuring work by a group of young, Indigenous artists from around Brisbane.

“I’m hoping to link three other young, female Indigenous artists to their ancestral objects, currently held in museums in the UK and Australia,” she said.

“It will be my first time as artist-curator. I like the idea of collaborating with other artists and sharing my research.”

National recognition

Jenna was recently a finalist in the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award and the John Fries Award. Alongside her burgeoning art practice, she has also carved out a successful career as a designer with Indigenous creative agency Gilimbaa.

Jenna interned at Gilimbaa while completing her studies at the QCA, and she has worked her way up to a senior designer role. As part of her work at the agency, Jenna’s designs were incorporated into the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games Australian team uniforms — an experience she describes as “mind blowing”.

“They chose elements of my artworks to feature on the uniforms worn by athletes and volunteers, and they also reproduced the artwork on a lapel pin and special collectable coin produced by the Royal Australian Mint.

“I was blown away – it was a massive opportunity for me.”

She credits her studies at the QCA for teaching her to dream big.

“The degree at the QCA had a big focus on socially responsible design,” she said.

“My time there really shaped my thinking about how art and design can make a positive contribution.”