Mural muse: SWIFF Light Box artist Brentyn Lugnan tells how he is amping up local pride through public art

Brentyn Lugnan is a Gumbaynggirr artist and Coffs identity whose work is featuring in SWIFF Light Box. Originally from Urunga, he returned to the Mid North Coast nine years ago after living in Sydney’s inner city, where he worked as graphic designer for SBS and an animator at the ABC. Brentyn is a featured artist at the National Aboriginal Design Agency and his public art appears across the interior of the Westpac building at Barangaroo, in Darling Harbour and throughout the foyer of Coffs Harbour Court House. 

What attracts you to creating large-scale art?

As soon as I’m painting on a wall, I feel a connection to my ancestors. I’m standing in a cave, next to the old mob, doing a painting with them. That’s the thrill I get doing my stuff on the walls. It’s an extension of my culture, my spirituality. I hate using all the clichés, but it’s true. I still get a thrill every time I walk up and start drawing on a wall.

What are you working on at the moment?

Gullumbilla Medical service I’ve 3 x 30m long piece for all of the windows for the building and their corporateware. And also spraypainting with youth during the summer holidays out at Bowraville. I just really enjoy working with the kids and making them proud of their town and feeling some connection to it. Bowraville is like a pretty dolls’ house, kids don’t relate to it at all and they’re starting to rebel against that. I just wanted to give them a sense of ownership and pride in where they live. With the painting, it seems to be working.

Do you think that’s what Light Box will do as well, give Coffs locals a sense of pride?

Absolutely. Public art stretches out your sense of belonging to a place. When we were doing the alleyways in Coffs with the spraypainting for November Reign with Ash Johnston, some people didn’t even know those alleyways were there before. Locals were discovering new places in their own town. (Pictured: Side of Headspace Coffs Harbour building, by Brentyn and fellow artists Ash Johnston and Yowa.)

How would you describe your work?

I’m a contemporary traditionalist. Or I’ve used the term “tradigital” before. I also call it “lines with meaning”. But really, I just call what I do Gumbaynggirr art. What I’m trying to do is establish a Gumbaynggirr style, because we lost it in the massacres, all of our art and our songs. So it’s sort of like I’m in the middle of a reclamation. That’s why I steer clear of the dots because I’m trying to establish an identity.

You mention the dots – a lot of people aren’t familiar with the meaning of the motifs and techniques in indigenous art. Can you tell us more?

When I talk about the dots, I mean that’s a particular desert style, using all the dots, and it’s what generally people know as “Aboriginal style”. Dot art is wonderful, but that desert style is from a particular location. Around here, on the East Coast, yes we do use dots but it’s usually for body ornamentation and ceremony. So whenever I use dots, they have that specific meaning, of something sacred. There’s also a lot of etchings on trees and lots of lines, and another technique called pitting – what you get on the rocks when you carve into stone. There’s also quite a lot of line work and animal depiction, the x-ray style showing the musculature of animals. With my animation and graphic design background, I’ve taken these old traditionalist techniques and I represent them in a modern way. (Pictured: detail from a painting in Brentyn’s Baaga Baaga Yuludarla (Nambucca Dreaming) series.)

What themes and stories are you exploring through your collaboration with the SWIFF Light Box artists?

I’m in the middle of a time of reflecting on being back on Country – moving back here to this region recently has brought about a huge change in what and how I’ve been painting and drawing over the past six to 12 months. The pieces I’ve put into Light Box really reflect where I’m at within that process at the moment. They’re very specifically from here – from Urugna and around this area.

It fits in well with Ash, who’s also incredibly local but so modern – and John Thiering meets us the middle with his sandpainting, because he’s using an ancient form of drawing but with modern techniques. It all slots together really nicely.

As someone with a long history in animation, what are you most excited about with bringing Light Box to Coffs?

To open up Coffs a bit as far as the arts go. We’re so lucky that the Mayor in Coffs Denise Knight is arts mad, this town has had lots of attention on sports in the past so it’s great to shift focus on arts, and to be part of that wave is a real thrill for me. To see my stuff at such large scale is always wonderful – especially when I don’t have to put in five days’ spraypainting! It’s more turning knobs on a computer. I love the impermanence of it as well – being able to put up these art projections at large scale, and then switch it off at the end of a night, I really like that, it makes it special. It’s ‘be there and see it right now, or you’re going to miss it’. There’s a real performance aspect to it.

*Interview by Louden Up Media