An advocate for authenticity and ethicality, John Smith Gumbula is a man of passion and purpose and making strides for Indigenous art on the national and global stage.

Gumbula has a strong connection to culture and his people, drawing strength from those before him.

“I want to acknowledge our people, the First People of this land. Our Elders, past, present and future. The land that we stand on, the land on which we work, it’s always important to acknowledge that and have the resonating within your heart,” he said.

“My grandmother and grandfather’s side are Wakka Wakka, Gurang Gurang. Right on the [NSW and QLD] border, Goondowindi, Tulloona and Boggabilla, is my great-grandfather’s Country.”

“Three unique areas of cultural heritage. And on my Mum’s side I have Irish and Scottish … I have that Gaelic blood.”

Gumbula also has strong ties to Yolngu peoples, speaking fluent Yolngu Matha

Being surrounded by culture and art from a young age, Gumbula fell in love with creating early.

“It’s a very powerful pull from our culture, and the essence has been resonating in my art and spirit since I was a small boy.”

“Dad was an artist; my Uncle was an amazing artist. There were always artists and musicians around us.

“I’ve always been a walkabout boy, ever since I was young. I’ve always been very adventurous, and curious – looking at life in a very different way, in that creative mind.”

Gumbula recalls selling his first painting as a young boy and the feeling of stepping into that role of artist.

“I remember the first time somebody wanted to buy my painting … I was painting in a group at the time with my father and my uncles in Rockhampton.

“Somebody came up to me and wanted to buy one of my paintings … I said, ‘can I speak to my Dad?’ I didn’t know how to engage, is it okay for me to sell my painting? Is it okay for me to step into that space? 

“I spoke to Dad and he said, ‘it’s fine. You know what is in your heart and your spirit’.”

Gumbula was the first Aboriginal artist to receive the Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Trust Award for Young Achieving Australian.

“It was an amazing experience being the only Aboriginal person there, which was an unusual feeling being there surrounded by all these other nationalities and prodigy kids with their pianos and all sorts of things!” he recalls fondly.

“Being the only Indigenous person there, it was a really proud moment and it’s a big part of my journey. 

“I really realised, it’s fine that you receive awards and accolades along the way, but they’re just little gifts within your life. 

“That’s the way I look at it, the universe is saying to you, you’re on the right path, you’re doing the right thing. You’re staying close to your heritage and showing it to the world, you’re educating people.”

“For me, it’s about educating people around the diversity of Indigenous art and culture here in Australia and really being true to that and respecting that space.”

Gumbula’s work has been featured across various mediums, including the world’s first Aboriginal embroidery cards for the Husqvarna Viking Sewing Machine company in Sweden in the 1990s.

“I’ve designed a lot of stuff over that period of time, particularly looking at new mediums and trying to step into new spaces.”

Gumbula founded Bur’an Australia. An ethical fair-trade social venture corporation, Bur’an has a specific focus on contributing to Indigenous socioeconomic developments whilst preserving culture and stories. 

Gumbula has recently collaborated with EFM, a business which designs Australian lifestyle products, to create art for an iPhone case. The art, Our Home, shares the stories of the deep connections Indigenous communities have with land.

With a passport that’s been waved through 70 countries, 15 years living abroad and pieces of Arabic, Chinese, Danish and Italian in his vocabulary, Gumbula has had an extensive and impressive 30-year career.

“From my experiences walking about Brisbane markets and painting there, to walking around with paintings under my arms and jumping on buses and jumping into taxis being out there trying to make things meet. 

“It was super tough, but in the process, you understand how important what you are meant to do in your life is.”

“Art has been a wonderful expression of my cultural heritage, who I am and where I’m from and then being able to connect that with businesses and commercial products. 

“My interpretation of that has always been creating cultural protocols and understanding in global businesses and communities through the expression of art and cultural heritage that I keep strong.”

To see Gumbula’s collaboration with EFM, visit: 

By Rachael Knowles