northsider meets internationally renowned Aboriginal artist and Kirribilli local, Bibi Barba.
"Colour comes to me, it speaks to me…art breathes, it moves, heals, creates adventure…that’s the beauty of it...”
It’s impossible not to be captivated by artist Bibi Barba as she speaks about her work, which combines traditional designs and storytelling with bold, modern colour.
The Wakka Wakka and Yuin artist nods towards the harbour foreshore near her home. “We’re coastal, saltwater women,” Bibi explains. “Inspiration comes to me when I’m near water.”
It was Bibi’s beloved maternal grandmother who encouraged her to reconnect with her heritage through art, a subject Bibi excelled in when she was at school.
“Nana told me ‘if you want to paint country, you’ve got to visit it, you’ve got to go back home and feel it,’” Bibi recalls.
“She’s always been my inspiration and I use art to express her stories.”
Passing her stories on was important to Bibi’s nana. She had been taken from her community in Mackay when she was 10 years old at the time of the Child Protection Orders. She grew up at Cherbourg mission, where the goal was to move Aboriginal children away from traditional tribal life, destroying their links to family, country, culture and language.
“Nana’s grandmother used to come and speak language to her in secret though,” Bibi says. “Nana went through a pretty horrific time. But she never complained once.”
As a young woman, Bibi took her nana’s advice and returned to the bush.
“I started to physically feel my culture,” she says. “Culture is about the present, living with Mother Earth. She accepts you and you accept her. When that respect is there, the world is a better place.”
“She's always been my inspiration and I use art to express her stories.”
When Bibi tragically lost a child just days after birth, it was art and her connection to country that became her way of coping.
“At night, when everyone was asleep, I’d paint,” she remembers. “It was my therapy as I started healing. I’d hide my artworks in a locked suitcase under the bed. No one, not even my husband, knew about them.”
Then one day, a friend spotted a piece Bibi had forgotten to hide away. By that time, there were 140 original works stashed in the suitcase.
Bibi’s friend persuaded her to show her paintings to a gallery owner, who was so impressed, he invited Bibi to host an exhibition.
“My hubby still had no idea I painted at all!” she laughs. “So I made him a beautiful dinner, sat him down and brought out the suitcase…he was pretty shocked!”
Oyster Dreaming, left and Women's Business
Women and Children, left and Desert Flowers
Bibi’s first exhibition sold out in just 40 minutes, propelling her from secret night-time artist to the art scene’s newest sensation, with commissions pouring in.
“I painted a tree for a zoo in South Carolina, designed Queensland’s birth certificates, created many corporate artworks…,” Bibi says, recalling just a few of the many pieces she’s completed over the years.
As her reputation flourished, her marriage ended, and she left Australia to study at the prestigious Parsons School of Design in Paris. It was there she honed her craft and returning to Sydney two years later, she painted her breathtaking signature Desert Flowers work.
Representing a pivotal point in her life, Bibi was inspired by the feeling she was a flower going through a desert of emotions, with the optimistic bright yellow of the work representing a new dawn.
"As an Aboriginal woman I can see the clarity of culture and that’s why I fight for these things to be protected."
The acclaimed Desert Flowers collection saw Bibi’s work become even more known internationally. But not in a way she planned.
“I was at my sister’s house working on my website and had googled myself,” she remembers. “A picture of a carpet in a hotel appeared and I immediately recognised the design. It was the same colour, the same shapes, as my Desert Flowers.”
A spot more googling revealed the image was part of a series of promotional photos for a newly opened boutique hotel in Poland. Bibi discovered the design appeared on chairs, curtains, walls, tables...even soap dishes.
Her artwork, so personal and unique to her storytelling, had been replicated by an interior designer. In a final twist of the knife, the caption on the main image of the carpet even read Desert Flowers, inspired by Bibi Barba.
Bibi couldn’t believe her artwork had been used commercially without her permission, disrespecting both her culture and her work.
“They thought I was living in the desert under a gumtree somewhere,” Bibi sighs. “They didn’t realise I was sitting in Kirribilli, where my great, great grandmother was born, just a few doors down from the Prime Minister…”
When the designer denied copying the artwork, Bibi took the case on, first to the Copyright Agency in Australia and then the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). Eight years later, there’s talk of going to the European Court of Human Rights.
“If that happens all hell will break loose,” Bibi says. “But if it does, I’m glad. This shows how easily Aboriginal art can be taken and reproduced under the word ‘inspired’. There’s people out there that this has happened to, or is happening to, who just think ‘I haven’t got the money’ or ‘I haven’t got the know-how’ to fight this theft.
“That’s why my advocacy for artists is so passionate. We have to put mechanisms in place so if this happens, this is what you do. My case will show people the steps to take.
“As an Aboriginal woman I can see the clarity of culture and that’s why I fight for these things to be protected,” she continues. “Now I’m speaking to entire countries, not just individuals. I hope it makes a huge difference.”
Between Government consultancy work, conducting art lessons via Zoom (in person before Covid and even for A-listers, including Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s kids when they were visiting Australia, “Brad’s just divine,” Bibi laughs) and 1am meetings with her international law team, Bibi has been creating a new series of work for her first exhibition in almost 10 years.
The show, which will focus on her father’s grandmother’s dreaming, is taking place at The New Artisans Gallery in Milsons Point from Saturday 7th November until Saturday 21st November.
“We have the oldest living culture in the world,” Bibi says as she heads to her studio. “If your artwork is an expression of stories that have been passed down, it’s priceless. I just love what I do and I’ll do it until the day I die.”
Flowers of the Great Barrier Reef
Words: Anna Gordon Photo of Bibi: Belinda Spillane