Chern’ee Sutton’s Aboriginal Art
It was a no-brainer for Chern’ee Sutton when asked if she would like to design artwork for the Women’s World Cup, but how does she bring her rich cultural heritage to life through her paintings? We find out from the Indigenous Australian artist
Chern’ee Sutton is an extremely proud Kalkadoon woman from Mount Isa, the peoples’ land in north-west Queensland. Chern’ee began painting professionally when she was just 13 years-old and since then the Indigenous Australian artist has exhibited across Australia, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore and London. Now 26, Chern’ee’s artwork embodies her ancestor’s culturally sacred stories in an optimistic and contemporary style, for which she has received several awards, as well as commissions for the 2022 Commonwealth Games Reconciliation Action Plan and the 2023 Women’s World Cup. We chat to this sought after Aboriginal artist about her passion for sharing cultural heritage through her work, painting with teenage siblings and her favourite football players
Glorious: When and why did you start painting?
Chern’ee Sutton: Since I was a child, I’ve been passionate about art and my culture. I’ve always loved being creative, but I started painting professionally when I was about 13 years-old. I was encouraged to enter an art competition and came first in the open category and it was that competition which sparked my passion for art in the professional field. That was 13 years ago now and I have had some amazing opportunities since. I never would have dreamed when I first started painting that I would be where I am today, or that I would have the once in a lifetime experiences. Art and culture is my passion and I’m very lucky that I’m able to pursue my passion as my career.
Glorious: Can you briefly introduce us to the art of aboriginal Kalkadoon people?
Chern’ee Sutton: The Kalkadoon people have used many different dots, lines and various styles in their art for thousands of years. I like to put my own modern twist on this ancient style because I am a contemporary Indigenous artist. Each dot, symbol and shape represents something different from rain, to the number of family members, mountains, travelling and people.
Glorious: Your art has a contemporary feel to traditional aboriginal art. What elements do you prioritise when creating your work?
Chern’ee Sutton: I like to combine two worlds with my artwork, my traditional aboriginal heritage and the bright vibrant colours and shapes of modern Australia, which creates something that is completely unique. I gather a lot of inspiration from everything that surrounds me, and I’m fortunate to have access to an unlimited amount of colours and paints. My people painted with what they had available to them, which was beautiful earthy colours and ochres, which I still like to use in my art.
But the main element of every artwork that I create, whether for FIFA and other corporations, or a commission, represents someone’s personal journey, and that is the storytelling aspect of my artwork. For the last 65,000 years, Aboriginal art has always told a story. FIFA’s piece, for example, represents their journey, their values, everyone coming together from around the world and the proud women who will be playing and representing their countries.
Glorious: What is your favourite work so far and why? Do you have any artwork that is special to you?
Chern’ee Sutton: There are a lot of pieces which are very special to me, but I’d have to say that one of my favourites is one that I created when I was about 14 years old when my career was just starting. It tells the story of the struggle of the Kalkadoon people against the first Paramilitary Force assembled in Australia, their fight for freedom and for their sacred land and the sacrifice they made. It is a very powerful piece and it is one that I’m lucky enough to still own.
Glorious: Do you have a message you want to share through your artwork?
Chern’ee Sutton: All my paintings are about a story that shares my beautiful and ancient culture and art. However, many pieces also represent reconciliation, which is extremely important for Australians as it brings everyone together and strengthens the relationship between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. It helps to heal Australia’s wrongs of the past, through education and opportunities so that Australia can have a stronger and brighter future. This is something that I’m passionate about and love to represent in my paintings. It’s amazing to see such a push towards an important issue, especially with many large organisations and sporting events incorporating aboriginal art, culture and businesses into their work.
Glorious: Recently, you produced artwork for the Women’s World Cup 2023 along with New Zealand artist Fiona Collis. How did it happen, how was the experience and what was the main consideration and your intention to show in the artwork?
Chern’ee Sutton: It’s such a huge honour to have had the opportunity to design the Aboriginal artwork for the Women’s World Cup, and of course, when I was contacted by FIFA I jumped at the chance. The experience was amazing and it fills me with pride every time I see my artwork as part of the World Cup. I wanted to represent FIFA and its values, creating a brighter future for women in the world of sport, and I did this through the sun/yellow circle in the painting.
I also wanted to highlight and portray the amazing women who will be proudly competing and representing their countries to claim victory through my art and to share my culture with the world. The painting features a snake that represents Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and history, and it also represents the rainbow serpent, which is one of the most widely recognised dreamtime stories for Aboriginal mobs across Australia. Every mob has their own language, customs and stories, but the story of the rainbow serpent is one story that many mobs share. The rainbow serpent created the landscape, he created the rivers and waterholes, the mountains, valleys and the many features of the land.
Glorious: Do you have any favourite female football players that inspire you?
Chern’ee Sutton: My favourite football players are Kyah Simon and Lydia Williams. They not only do an amazing job on the pitch representing our first Nations People and our country, but the impact they create off the pitch is truly inspiring, especially for our young Indigenous girls who dream of following in their footsteps.
Glorious: You have plenty of commissioned works for sports events such as the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games 2018. Your artwork and story were used on the mascot ‘Borobi’, his surfboard, name and advertising signage. What was the experience like?
Chern’ee Sutton: Being commissioned to create the Indigenous component for the 2018 Commonwealth Games mascot Borobi was absolutely amazing. Borobi was a big part of the Games and my designs were everywhere – on merchandise, signage, and trails of his footprints and handprints were found all throughout the Gold Coast, even imprints left in the sand from his feet when he’d walk along the beach to events. It was a very proud moment! I was also an artist in residence at the 2018 Commonwealth Games Athletes Village for the duration of the Games, with athletes and dignitaries contributing their fingerprints to finish off the piece, which even included King Charles and Prince Edward. The medal winners would return to add extra fingerprints in either gold, silver or bronze, and that resulted in a stunning 9m long painting. The inspiration behind the significant artwork was to educate the rest of the world about Australia’s rich and ancient culture and history.
Glorious: What are your main sporting interests – those that you enjoy playing and/or watching and why?
Chern’ee Sutton: I love most sports, whether it’s watching them or playing them, however my talent lies with art. I’ll give any sport a go, but I’m usually not very good, I just enjoy the fun, the exercise and atmosphere. I recently joined a volleyball team with my brother Jesse and sister Brooke, which we all really love. However, our wins are very limited! Watching sport on TV or going to a game is always really exciting though, especially since I’ve worked with a lot of sporting organisations, from NRL, AFL and soccer/football to tennis, basketball, cricket and V8 super cars, and of course the Commonwealth Games. As soon as my art is involved in a sporting organisation, I become even more passionate and enthusiastic about that sport, and if I get the opportunity to see the game in real life, I love becoming engulfed in the atmosphere, seeing the cheering crowds and proudly watching my art be a part of that.
Glorious: Do you have a favourite place to paint? Is it Indoors or outdoors – if it’s outdoors, where is it and why?
Chern’ee Sutton: I work mostly with acrylic paints and canvases to create artworks and this is indoors at my studio along with my brother and sister, which is great because I never feel lonely even if we’re each completely focused on our own paintings. I enjoy painting outside, but in most cases I’m working on a very large piece and have to worry about getting all my tools and paints outside as well, which is why I really enjoy creating digital artworks every now and then. I still have all my tools and colours that I’d have with a physical painting, but with digital I can work anywhere inside or outside. I can sit out in the bush or have a coffee at the beach and work, which is a lot more convenient.
Glorious: Your younger brother and sister are also Aboriginal artists. What is it like to share the same passion for painting with your siblings, and what are the differences in your works?
Chern’ee Sutton: I’m incredibly lucky to be able to share my passion with my brother and sister and that we all get along so well. We share a studio and see each other most days when we are working on our artworks and they are both just as passionate and driven as I am. Brooke is an amazing young artist, who is doing incredibly well with opportunities and collaborations I would have dreamed of at her age, being only 18, and Jesse is only 16, yet he has already accomplished so much and is in a lot of demand at the moment. We mostly work on our own projects and paintings, but we do love to collaborate for special occasions, which is always really fun because we each have unique styles.
I use bright vibrant colours and a lot of symmetry, where Brooke uses bright colours, but she also incorporates a lot of soft tones and pastels into her pieces with a more abstract and free style to her dots and shapes. Jesse uses a lot of neutral tones in his pieces, his dots are a lot more rugged and wild which I feel matches his personality perfectly.
Glorious: Would you say traditional aboriginal art is your main inspiration or are there any surprising places you take reference from?
Chern’ee Sutton: I’m very inspired by my Aboriginal culture and heritage, but I also get a lot of inspiration from my home country in Mount Isa, the beautiful colours, landscapes and animals, as well as my current home in Bundaberg which is close to the coast. I’m fortunate to have grown up always surrounded by nature, the beautiful plants, animals and colours, which I use to gather inspiration and ideas for many of my artworks.
Glorious: What’s next for Chern’ee Sutton? Do you have any upcoming events you would like to share/ pieces you’re working on?
Chern’ee Sutton: I recently launched my latest collaboration with a company called ENurse, they commissioned me to create a painting which represented their company and the amazing work that nurses do around Australia. This artwork was turned into nurses’ scrubs, which are now available to the public. I’m also currently exhibiting with Pullman Hotels. I was selected as one of four artists from around the world to have pieces turned into NFT’s which will be part of an auction. The exhibition has already been displayed in Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne and will also head to Brisbane. I’m also working on several commissions for different businesses and organisations around Australia.