Colors of Culture: Bayley Mifsud’s Vibrant Aboriginal Artistry

The Aboriginal Artist Redefining Tradition

Not too long ago, Seminal had the opportunity to interview a remarkable Australian artist who has made unparalleled waves in the art world in just a few years. Her name is Bayley Mifsud, known by her Aboriginal name, Merindah-Gunya, meaning “Beautiful Spirit,” she has created artwork featured all across Australia. Her achievements include creating various murals nationwide, collaborating with major brands such as Cadbury and Casetify, and being the first artist to be featured by Rippl, a sustainably sourced and infinitely recyclable series of water cans in Australia.’

Bayley has always been immensely involved with art and creativity being first introduced to the traditional symbols used in Aboriginal art when she was just 5 years old.

At the onset of COVID in 2020, Bayley found herself with ample free time and seized the opportunity to re-engage with art. She utilized the large blank wall above her bed to create a series of three pieces narrating a story about her family. After sharing an image of her work on her private Facebook page, she received a significant amount of positive feedback from family and friends. This led to a few close friends requesting her to create pieces for their homes.

Since then, her business has grown, and she has been a full-time artist for just over a year now.

This is her story.

Bayley Mifsud

Can you introduce yourself – Who are you and where are you from?

My name is Bayley Mifsud. My Aboriginal name is Merindah-Gunya,
which means “Beautiful Spirit” in my tribal language. And I am a contemporary Aboriginal artist.

What kind of art do you make? – Medium, size etc…

I’m a painter, and I create Aboriginal artwork in a very contemporary style. My work combines traditional elements with modern-day contemporary art.

Aboriginal artwork tells a story, and it is an ancient style with a rich history dating back 60,000 years. The original Aboriginal artwork, often found on rock surfaces, conveyed stories about traditions and customs. We use various symbols, specific to different *mobs and tribes, to tell these stories.

*’Mob’ is a colloquial term in Australia for identifying a group of Aboriginal people associated with a particular place or country.

Tell me about your heritage, and your connection to it?

I am a Gunditjmara woman from Warrnambool in Victoria, about a three-hour drive from Melbourne. I was born and raised in Warrnambool on Gunditjmara country and moved to Naarm, which is Melbourne, when I was about eight. I have lived here ever since.

My great-grandmother was a Bunurong woman from Melbourne country, so I have ties to Warrnambool, Bunurong, and also to Yorta Yorta in northern Victoria.

My Aboriginal heritage is very important to me. I grew up deeply connected to my Aboriginal culture. My dad raised my siblings and me to be very connected, and I am very grateful that I can now paint and continue that connection in my everyday life.

Being connected to my Aboriginal culture is a spiritual connection. When people ask, “What does being Aboriginal mean to you?” I explain it as a deep spiritual connection to other Aboriginal people and the land. Being on traditional country feels like being home.

Bayley Mifsud Art

From your experience, what is the difference between the art which you make, and that of historical First Nations artists’?

Traditionally, Aboriginal art was done on rocks and was less colorful. However, nowadays, with the availability of paint and various colors, it looks different due to the range of colors now accessible.

Not all Aboriginal people have the freedom to paint in any colors they choose; this often requires permission and teaching from Aboriginal Elders. I have received this permission from my Elders, allowing me to paint in whichever colors I like.

Instead of painting on rocks, I paint on canvas. As society progresses and new materials become available, the art evolves. I don’t do traditional rock art, nor do I paint with dirt or ochre as my Elders did. Now, I create colorful art on canvas.

Why do you think your Aboriginal art gets such a great reaction?

I believe my clients connect with my art because the story is about them. Throughout the process of commissioning an artwork, I ensure that I understand what the client wants it to represent and the colors they would like it to be. For instance, if someone’s house is predominantly blue, I wouldn’t want to paint them a pink painting. Therefore, it is important to me that the story reflects their desires and that they love how the artwork looks.

Describe yourself, your practice, and your passions in 3 words.

If I had to describe myself in three words, I would choose passionate, creative, and inspired.

Bayley Mifsud

Tell me about the teaching you do?

I was fortunate to learn the Aboriginal art symbols from my Elders when I was about five, and I grew up very connected to my Aboriginal culture. I know this isn’t the case for all Aboriginal people, and especially not for non-Indigenous people. That’s why it’s really special for me to go into schools and preschools to teach Aboriginal artwork. Since it’s not part of the Australian curriculum, many people, whether Aboriginal or not, have not had the opportunity to learn about it.

What reactions do you get from children when they’re creating art?

I think kids love Aboriginal artwork because it’s quite simple. Once they understand why certain symbols look the way they do, they become very passionate about it. For example, the symbol for a person is like an upside-down ‘U’ because it represents someone sitting down. If you imagine sitting in sand with your legs crossed, that’s what you would look like. In contrast, drawing themselves as stick figures is much harder for kids. Once they understand the symbols, it’s easier for them to paint their family and the people they love. So, kids really enjoy it.

Through your experience of making art, what advice would you instill in past you?

Art is very subjective, and you might not always love everything you create. I believe you need to create pieces you don’t love to learn from them. Often, I paint pieces for clients that I don’t love, and I ask my sister for her opinion. I’ll say, “What do you think about this? I don’t love it, and I don’t like giving someone something I’m not really passionate about.” Then she’ll respond with, “Oh, it’s my favorite piece ever!” We have different tastes, love different colors, and have different vibes. This makes me realize just how subjective art is.

I often have a specific idea in my mind, and if the final piece doesn’t match that vision, I don’t love it. When I’m creating something, I know the end vision, and if something changes slightly or two colors mix differently than planned, I get a little too strict and harsh on myself. I need to learn to let go, be creative, and not worry so much if something isn’t exactly what I envisioned.

Bayley Mifsud

In a few sentences tell me how your art career has progressed in the last 3 years?

My art career began about three years ago, but it was only six months ago that I transitioned to being a full-time artist. At that point, I no longer had the capacity to continue my previous job, so I was incredibly excited because art had been a hobby for so long. Now, if I were to describe my artist career, I’d say it’s great—it’s flexible, fun, and incredibly colorful.

The first piece I created was during Covid when I had plenty of free time. I went to my local $2 shop and bought a cheap canvas, inexpensive brushes, and poster paint. That piece marked the beginning of my entire business. I posted it on Facebook, and all my friends commented positively, encouraging me to pursue this path. So, I created an Instagram account. Looking back, I actually gave that first piece to a friend because I couldn’t stand to look at it anymore—the poster paint wasn’t even blended. Now, I invest in better brushes and paints, learning the importance of quality materials. Initially, I used whatever I could afford.

Over time, my approach has evolved significantly. The paints and colors I use are always changing as I experiment with new options. After three years, I’ve reached a point where I know exactly which paints to use for my work.

How has your style evolved? Do you think someone could tell the difference between a piece you made today compared to one at the beginning of your career?

My style has certainly evolved over the past couple of years. When I first started, I went through different phases of experimenting with various types of art. I learned dot art from my aunt, who is from northern Queensland, so I have created some dot art pieces in the past. However, nowadays, my artworks don’t feature as many dots. So, my style has changed quite a bit.

I would hope that if someone looks at one of my artworks, they can recognize it as mine. I often receive messages from people asking, “Is this yours?” With new collaborations on the horizon, I hope that people will start to notice my distinctive style even more.

Bayley Mifsud

Increased art licensing will bring more art into more people’s lives, why do you think that’s important?

I believe licensing artwork is crucial because artists deserve to be compensated for their work. This might seem obvious to many, but surprisingly, many brands that reach out don’t always understand the need for a licensing agreement when they commission artwork. When they pay for the artwork, they should also pay for the rights to use it. Therefore, it’s essential throughout our collaboration to emphasize the importance of understanding and respecting the licensing of artwork, ensuring that artists receive what they deserve.

In my collaborations with consumers, I make sure that alongside appreciating the beauty of the artwork and its storytelling, there is also an educational aspect about the symbols and their meanings. It’s well-known that many Australians are unfamiliar with Aboriginal artwork, so I aim to provide consumers not only with a beautiful piece but also with cultural awareness and knowledge.

Tell me about how you use symbols in paint to create narrative within your works.

All Aboriginal artwork is created from a bird’s eye view, influenced by Bunjil, who Aboriginal people believe is our creator—an eagle. This perspective is integral to our art, imagining it as seen from above.

My favorite symbol is the meeting place, and what fascinates me most is its evolution. Traditionally, without buildings, meeting places were often campsites or waterholes, represented by circles intertwined, a motif found in most of my artworks. It can be challenging to explain this to kindergarten kids because they often ask, “Wait, what was there?” Originally, these circles symbolized waterholes or campsites.

In today’s contemporary art world, the meeting place symbol can represent various locations where people gather, such as houses, cafes, or even iconic places like the MCG. It’s intriguing to hear the perspectives of children when discussing this symbol.

Reflecting on our societal changes, it’s clear how much this symbol has evolved. While we may not meet at traditional locations as much anymore, our society has diversified in terms of meeting places. For me, the meeting place symbolizes this evolution, making it my favorite symbol in Aboriginal art.

Bayley Mifsud

Do you approach the use of these symbols as a way to tell a story and also make the piece more visually engaging?

I think that I don’t necessarily think about that visual until later in the process. So once I’ve done the key story elements and those symbols, I then think of the surrounding symbols. In my mind, I know what colors I’m going to use.

Also, advice to anyone that loves art: the color wheel is important. I think in school, I didn’t actually concentrate on that, but now it is important to know mentally what colors work well together. So for me, I do the key story elements first and then I would do the other story elements, and the scale of that is also important. And you can see that in a lot of my artworks. So yeah!

Bayley Mifsud

Tell me a little bit more about the teaching you do? You always have such a big smile on your face when you talk about it, why is teaching important to you?

Kids get really excited when I come in to teach Aboriginal artwork. I think one, because I’m an artist, and the way that the teachers introduce me is that I’m a professional artist, so they instantly think, “Oh, this is really cool.”

It’s really cute to see how passionate they are about learning the artwork. I do a lot of work in kindergartens, and kindergartners do a really good job at doing an acknowledgment of country and learning about Bunjil and Aboriginal culture. Because many kindergartens are local government funded, they operate differently from schools. It’s nice to see the progress in kindergartens and hopefully, with the treaty in Victoria, we’ll see changes within the curriculum too.

How does teaching inform or progress your art?

Teaching is a bit separate from being an artist for me. It’s something I’m passionate about, stemming from my previous role in Indigenous affairs. The main reason I struggled to detach from that role was the educational aspect and how I could support the broader community in reconciliation efforts.

For me, teaching is something I love doing because it allows me to continue educating and playing my part in society. It’s often colorful, fun, and interacting with kids is really enjoyable. So, for me, it’s about embracing this additional role in society as someone deeply proud of my Aboriginal culture.

Your grandmother has had a massive impact on your artistic journey, tell us a little about her and the impact she has had on you not only as an artist but as a granddaughter as well.

So my nan, Nana Maud, lives in Warrnambool, which is about three hours from Melbourne in Victoria. She is very passionate, staunch, and proud of her Aboriginal heritage. She grew up in a very different time compared to now, and she raised my dad to be proud of his culture simply by embodying that pride herself. I’m incredibly grateful to her because back then, not many people openly identified as Aboriginal due to lack of human rights, so her pride was significant.

Nan didn’t teach me Aboriginal artwork; that was her brother, a senior elder despite being younger than she is. Eldership, as I learned, isn’t about age but authority, and I gained a lot from him.

Nan is someone that, you know, if you walk into a house, you’d instantly know she’s Aboriginal because she’s got all the spears, artifacts, and photos. She’s super in love with her culture. I try to see her as much as I can, but being three hours away is a little bit difficult. I call her every single day. She actually just called before and interrupted the last shot. So yeah, she calls me all the time. We speak all the time. I love being really close to Nan.

Bayley Mifsud

Tell us about growing up in your mob?

I mentioned at the time, it seemed a little bit different. I went to an all-girls Catholic school, and on the weekends, we would go to the Grampians and watch the men skin kangaroos. When you went back to school, one girl spoke about the sleepovers they had on the weekend, and here we were shooting and skinning kangaroos. It was a little bit different. However, looking back now, I’m grateful for those experiences and also for learning how to throw boomerangs. I can throw a boomerang, which surprises people, but that’s what my family would do on the weekends.

We would also go camping, and the Grampians are our traditional land, on Maar country, our nation. We would immerse ourselves in culture there, participating in song and dance. Often, the men would perform the dances, as it’s a part of our custom, which was really special to experience at such a young age.

Does any of that ever inspire your artwork?

Yes, yeah, it does. I’ve got a few artworks that are about the Grampians. I go there every year to camp, and it’s always really beautiful to return there. But yeah, many of my artworks, which aren’t commissioned pieces, tell stories about myself.

Bayley Mifsud

Amazing, I think that’s a wrap! Thank you so much for allowing us into your home and sharing your story!

Awesome, thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to share it!

Our interview with Bayley has provided a vibrant look into the world of contemporary Aboriginal art—a realm filled with color, stories, and cultural significance. From rediscovering her passion during COVID-19 to becoming a respected figure in Australia’s art scene, Bayley’s journey embodies resilience, creativity, and a deep connection to her Aboriginal heritage. By merging traditional symbols with modern techniques, she not only shares personal stories but also educates and inspires others, particularly through her work with children. Bayley’s evolving art continues to foster understanding and appreciation of Aboriginal culture while staying true to her roots. Her ongoing commitment promises a future where colors and narratives blend to enrich our collective artistic experience.

We can’t wait to see what she does next!

If you enjoyed this blog and want to read more just like it or join the Seminal network, make sure to visit our website for more insightful content and updates. To see more incredible art from Bayley Mifsud, don’t forget to follow her work on Instagram @merindahgunya. Click the links below to join our community and stay connected with Bayley’s latest creations!

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