True words … true story: my journey through the visual arts and working with communities

True words … true story: my journey through the visual arts and working with communities

HIV Australia | Vol. 12 No. 3 | December 2014

By Arone Meeks

My name is Arone Meeks, I am a Kuku Midiji man from Laura, Cape York, Far North Queensland. Here I’m going to talk about my creative pathway and journey through the visual arts, and how this work interconnects with health promotion, HIV, and working with communities.

My name is Arone Meeks, I am a Kuku Midiji man from Laura, Cape York, Far North Queensland. Here I’m going to talk about my creative pathway and journey through the visual arts, and how this work interconnects with health promotion, HIV, and working with communities.

Most of my creative and academic training was a combination of Western style art and traditional art practices. I received my Bachelor of Arts in Sydney, and further training on Mornington Island, Yarrabah under the teachings from my Uncles and my Grandfather.

After graduating from art school, I soon discovered the mainstream art world had a very limited ideal about Urban Indigenous artists. Our artwork was not deemed Black enough to be considered ‘traditional’ and not white enough to be considered ‘mainstream’.

Arone Meeks, Spirit Ark, 2008, linocut, limited edition 35, 90cm x 150cm.

Boomalli strikes up

During the late 70s and early 80s, many urban-based Aboriginal artists were struggling to gain public recognition for our work. In response to this lack of engagement from mainstream cultural institutions and galleries, many Indigenous artists self-organised and began staging our own exhibitions.

Held on the fringes of the art world, these early exhibitions, such as Koori Art ’84, held at Artspace in 1984, and Urban Koories, held at the Willoughby Workshop Arts Centre in 1986, showcased works from artists now recognised as pivotal figures in the first wave of Australia’s contemporary urban Indigenous art movement.3 This included artists such as Avril Quaill, Gordon Syron, Euphemia Bostock, Jeffrey Samuels Fiona Foley, Michael Riley and myself.

In the spirit of cultural resistance and the celebration of self-expression, Boomalli – the first Australian Indigenous Artist’s collective – was born. Boomalli means ‘to strike, to make a mark, to fight back, to light up in the languages of the Kamilaroi, Wiradjuri and Bundjalung peoples of New South Wales.2

Boomalli consisted of ten Aboriginal artists: Tracey Moffitt, Avril Quaill, Fiona Foley, Jeffery Samuels, Fernada Martins, Euphyema Bostock, Bronwyn Bancroft and myself. We produced work across a variety of mediums, including painting, photography, video, textiles, mixed media and more. This rich body of work showcased the true diversity of our artistic expression and smashed stereotypes of what Australian Indigenous art could be.

As one Boomalli member puts it:

‘My work is about me having a voice, and having a right to speak, and not being affected by those…who say you can’t do this and you can’t do that.’ 3

By the late 80s, the mainstream art world had well and truly began to take notice of what we were doing.

In Australia, my work was shown in locations including the Australian Embassy, Coo-ee Aboriginal Art Gallery in Sydney and in various group shows including Boomalli and others, all of which sold well. Over an extended sojourn of four years, I created several solo exhibitions and worked in locations including Paris, South America and the United States.

Throughout this whole period, I was in a relationship that began when I was 19 years old and still at art school; this relationship lasted for nearly 20 years. Together, we travelled the world, visiting countries including New Zealand, the USA, the UK, Europe, as well as a particularly influential time for me as an artist spending six-and-a-half months in India. My experience of travel contributed a huge amount to my vision of my art-making and where I might develop and explore new symbology and language in my work.

HIV steps into the frame

On returning to Sydney, it became apparent to my partner and I that we needed to find a new setting, and the Blue Mountains became our new home. This was a wonderful time and a great location for me to create and grow; but on the horizon, my friends, lovers and mates – most of my art school buddies – were getting sick and fading away … literally. HIV had stepped into my life.

In 1984, my partner went in for a blood test. It came back positive. There was little information available about HIV at this time, and the TV ads were just scary. Despite the use of AZT– the only available treatment for HIV at that time – the health of HIV-positive people just got worse; and then people started dying, including my partner.

There was not really much reason for me to stay in the Blue Mountains alone. I moved back to my home town, Cairns, to join my family and spend more time with my community, and to connect with Laura, my traditional Country.

The reason I am telling you this story is because during this time I became quite self-destructive. My work became very dark and then I stopped painting for nearly a year. I was thinking, ‘Why? … Why would anybody want this dark moody stuff?’ Well, it was a surprise to have an exhibition in Sydney and sell the lot! It proved to me that I was not alone, and I wasn’t the only one going through this.

Mentoring, teaching, sharing and listening

Today, I have a partner of 14 years, a fellow artist from New Zealand. I regularly have solo or group shows. I still do public art, and write and illustrate children’s books. But my passion of the last four years has been one of sharing the skills, knowledge and stories of my arts practice with Indigenous and non- Indigenous communities. This is done through mentoring, teaching, sharing – and me listening, learning and creating an environment that nurtures and cares about culture, community and self-expression.

In Cairns, I work with the 2 Spirits program at the Queensland AIDS Council. The program has two offices (one in Cairns and one in Brisbane) and is involved in a range of activities across the state. These include:

  • reaching communities with health promotion campaigns – by outreach, services and via mail order and online
  • providing peer education workshops and information forums for gay men, sistergirls and people living with HIV
  • social support groups in Cairns (Yupla Mipla Ahfla) and Brisbane (gar’ban’djee’lum)
  • information, practical support and referrals for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People living with HIV
  • outreach to community events and services, and;
  • supplying condoms and lubricant. Health promotion is vital for maintaining the health of our communities.

We engage the Elders, Indigenous sexual health workers, remote communities, and local Mob and explore ideas around sexual health to develop resources and conduct workshops. Using a ‘whole of community’ approach enables us to carry out this work without ‘outing’ people.

We attend many community events, including the Laura Dance Festival, Winds of Zenith, and the NPA (Northern Peninsula Area) Cultural Festival. These are the key opportunities to let communities know about our agency and what we can offer.

Doing this work is where I can use my art skills/practice to engage communities. This is where our culture comes into play, using song, dance and art. I now also teach in remote communities such as the Northern Peninsula Area, New Mapoon, Umagico, Injinoo, Yarrabah and Arukun. I have also written a five-year program entitled, Toward Self-Management.

We have successfully secured funding for the first three years, and this has led to exhibitions being held within communities and at major galleries, as well as community participation in outside competitions and awards.

I am also still doing solo and group exhibitions taking on commissions. Recently, I worked with a master kitemaker from China.

Collaborations with AFAO

My involvement with Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO) goes back many years. Recently, a special Indigenous edition of HIV Australia (Volume 11, Number 3: Respect and resilience shaping the response to HIV and STIs among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities) featured many of my artworks, including the front cover image.

In 2014, I was involved in the artistic design of the G’Day! Welcome to Australia Networking Zone – AFAO’s networking zone in the Global Village at AIDS 2014. The centrepiece of the G’Day Zone was a three by four metre couch modelled in the shape of Australia. The concept was collaboration between David Edler (ACON), AFAO and myself. David came up with the initial concept for the shape of the couch, while the black and white fabric design which covered the couch was taken from a two-and-a-half metre linocut work of mine entitled Spirit Ark.

The fabric and pillows used elements from another painting of mine, entitled Dry Reef – a work which talks about the coral spawning and the way coral, self-bleaches or grows a dead skin to protect itself, a process which happens every year so the reef can regenerate itself. Several posters of my work were used to decorate the G’Day Zone space, and each of these works has their own story.


1 Boomalli – the history. Retrieved from

2 ibid.

3 ibid.

Parts of this article are drawn from a presentation given by Arone Meeks in the AFAO G’Day! Welcome to Australia Networking Zone, at the AIDS 2014 conference in Melbourne, 22 July 2014.

Arone Meeks is an internationally-renowned artist whose work celebrates themes including country, nature, spirituality and sexuality.

His work appears in many national and international collections, both public and private.

A former member of the Boomalli urban Aboriginal artist’s co-operative, Arone won an Australia Council fellowship to study in Paris in 1989 and went on to exhibit throughout Europe and North and South America.

Arone is also a mentor in visual arts and regularly conducts workshops with remote Indigenous communities. He is also a Health Promotion Officer with the 2 Spirits program in Queensland.