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Speaking and teaching, like writing, about your work, give you an opportunity to reflect on one’s practice. The opportunity to speak at the 2019 Woodford Folk Festival gave Vernon and I the opportunity to think about where we are with Dark and Disturbing as well as where we want to be.

Dark and Disturbing is a niche curatorial project that is driven artistically by Vernon, and in management and execution by me. the project draws on Vernon’s history as a tshirt screenprinter as well as his conceptual practice as an artist who deals with themes like the interrogation of race in Australia.

I framed the discussion around a few key points:

Why?

Knowing “your why” is a first step in starting any project or building a business.

For both of us, Dark and Disturbing is about disrupting White Australia’s understanding of itself, particularly around race. We do this primarily through the design of the shirts. In 2015 we also curated a space at Cairns Indigenous Art Fair with proppaNOW’s Gordon Hookey.

Gordon Hookey’s Terra-ist, Cairns Indigenous Art Fair 2015.

Vernon made the point though that the work we do must be accessible to ordinary blackfellas – hence the price point and where we sell – Musgrave Park at NAIDOC Week, Meeanjin Markets, etc.

Process

Occasionally we experience tension between what we can do artistically and what would make ‘good business sense’. This is an ongoing tension that over the years isn’t necessarily getting easier, but we manage to work through.

What does success look like?

Vernon has always talked about the difference between having a critical and commercial practice. He argues that it’s essential for artists to have a critical practice – this is the work that doesn’t sell, but it does to the work of asking the hard questions. Having a commercial component where you create works that will sell enables the artist to live.

Positioning

When you start and people like your work and are ready to engage, they often want to take your business in directions you had not thought of. Sometimes this is great – you see an opportunity and you go for it. However, sometimes you need to remain true to the vision and need to stay within your lane.

Dark and Disturbing is NOT a fashion label. The designs are not slogans. Each design can take years to execute – first in its conceptualisation and then in execution. Some of the designs will also appear as artworks in Vernon’s installation.

As tempting as it might be (and believe me, it’s tempting), we don’t have the designs on mugs, bookmarks, cushion-covers, etc. There will be opportunities to expand from just tshirts, but we are definitely erring on the side of caution before we move too far from the

We had some great questions from the floor, including cultural appropriation by Aboriginal artists of other Aboriginal art styles, the role of the design studios in continuing to push romantic notions of what Indigenous design should look like, and how we need to take some responsibility for this.

We love talking about Dark and Disturbing and it’s so great to see that the designs resonate with so many people from all walks of life.