A heavy bassline ruptures the air around Hannah Brontë’s inner-city apartment. “I usually start my day with some loud gangsta rap.” After that, she attempts to sit calmly on her balcony overlooking Brisbane’s hip crossroads of West End. Some deep pondering is needed for the day ahead. Certain things have to be taken into account. May 5 is looming, the opening of her new exhibition. The design and curation of Still I Rise has been 18 months in the making. Still, everything Hannah says is accompanied by bouts of genuine laughter and wide effortless smiles. “Hah!” she says. “Feels like I’m about to give birth!”
Metaphorically speaking, the birth and death of creativity often go widely unnoticed. “Most curators I meet are older men, mocking older men... They’re like, ‘Really, you’re going to do that?’ ” She listens, and then she does it anyway, her latest show opening as part of the Next Wave Festival in Melbourne. If her time has come then it has come now. She nominates the artist Richard Bell as one of her mentors, and he has encouraged her to be ruthless, forward and a little bit militant.
“Yes, Hannah has great energy,” he says. “She also has wisdom beyond her years. I have tried to help her as much as I can, though I have to admit that she already had all the qualities she displays now. But she’s struggled for recognition in the art world. I’m not too worried about that … A period of struggle is good for her because that recognition will come.”
Some of Hannah’s ancestral lineage can be traced to the south-east Queensland Aboriginal reserve of Cherbourg, which has delivered some world-class artists. Hannah’s mother brought her to Brisbane’s Annerley, where Hannah began her schooling. Ever so slowly, they migrated into West End. Hannah eventually graduated from Queensland College of Art, majoring in sculpture. “I didn’t go through the Indigenous stream of arts at QCA,” she says. “I wanted to explore the major art movements. And I grew up in a house of strong, articulate women … My mum and my aunties will always be an inspiration to me.”
Indeed, her muse remains focused on the place of women in society. In the not-too-distant past, a punter took aim at her work and began a tirade against what he perceived as blatant misandry, without realising the artist was standing behind him.
“There’s an armour I put on every day, layers of armour … Just because I’m pro-woman doesn’t mean I hate men,” she says.
But today, I can hardly detect any personal devices of protection. Her flowing yellow frock is brighter than a van Gogh sunflower, and I’m still trying to emphasise how infectious her laugh can be. Only once does she frown, when our conversation turns to the violence perpetuated by young people within pub culture. Her complexion doesn’t darken that much, though her manicured eyebrows are a defining feature. I realise since we’ve met I’ve been splicing a mental montage of her and the late Frida Kahlo. She erupts into a cacophony of chuckles. “Yes! I love Frida!”
As a writer, it is hard to be serious with a subject who continues to interject honest laughter into the conversation, so I bring up the language used in one of her past exhibitions, and why she pinned “CUNTMAFIA” to a series of complicated, lively collages.
“Language like that should be empowering,” she says. “I’m into random throwdown words.” She attributes her ability to dream vividly and then interpret those images into her journals as a force behind her daily work regimen. Hannah promises patrons of the upcoming Still I Rise “a culmination of video, visual mediums, textual and self-styled hip-hop … We’re going to stage a night of Melbourne female MCs showcasing their hip-hop … They will be Fem-Cs.”
The artist balances her schedules by working with students of the Albert Park Flexible Learning Centre and teaching children to swim. “Mum was a swimmer, so I love swimming.” Her engagement at the flexi school allows her to pass on the skills she acquired at Queensland College of Art. The Albert Park campus is an alternative means of learning for young people who haven’t been able to assimilate into the public and private education systems. “We’re embarking on a mural and the kids have really taken to it.”
Hannah is not entirely sure what her next project should yield, and I get the feeling it’s not the right time to probe. I ask her what she’d really like to see down the track in terms of personal success, but I haven’t phrased the question right. She gives me her answer instantly, with a bright philosophical glow: “I’d just like women to feel they can always say ‘Yes!’ ”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 7, 2016 as "Body armour".
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