Saltwater Dreamtime: Zachary Bennett-Brooke

Prelude: Tyneesha, what the heck is this?

Dear friend, reading this post, I know this seems kind of out of step with the rest of the content I put on this site. Allow me to explain.

I am currently completing my final major project for my journalism degree, so I’ve chosen to write a series of local artist profile pieces. These profiles focus on local Wollongong artists from intersectional and diverse backgrounds, and I aim to build up exposure and support for indigenous and/or LGBTQ+ artists and their work.

Eventually, these articles will be published on a dedicated site, aptly titled “Colours of Wollongong”, but until I put that site together, I will post my drafts here. I am rather proud of this project, and there is more to come in terms of visual content for this article, but here’s to the start of something cool!

If you’re interested in the project itself or know anyone who might like to get involved, feel free to browse through the project outline and get in contact! Thanks!

Now, on to the article!

Zachary Bennett-Brook began creating his own personal brand of contemporary art inspired by his Torres Strait Islander heritage over a decade ago. He is now an internationally recognised and awarded artist. Born and raised on Dharawal land in Wollongong, NSW, Zachary creates work that reflects his personal experiences through contemporary takes on traditional art styles and conventions.

Just one look at the ‘Saltwater Dreamtime’ website, and it’s clear how creative Mr Bennett-Brook has been in fostering culture and tradition and bringing it into the modern, everyday eye. Using surfboards, vehicles, apparel and buildings as a canvas’ for his brilliant artwork, he subverts traditional ideas about how, where and why indigenous art should exist.

“There’s a place for art and artists who create on a canvas or behind a frame in a gallery. That’s for some people, but that’s not accessible for everyone, said Mr Bennett-Brook.

“I’ve always been attracted to street art, graffiti culture. I love the rebellious nature of it all. That’s sort of why I’ve moved into doing large-scale mural work—making artwork accessible to all the masses. You don’t have to buy a ticket to a gallery to go and see it; it’s there. Day in and day out, it transforms a space and allows everyone to enjoy it.”

The Wollongong area boasts the lavish coexistence of bustling enterprise, homely suburbia, edgy art culture, beachside relaxation and mountain views. Local artists often credit the combination of the lush, unique natural landscape with the convenient proximity to city skylines as inspiration for their work, and Zach is no exception.

“My upbringing here in the Illawarra is what’s made me as an artist, what influences my artwork, my style.”

“You’ve got the mountains and sea and the proximity to those; you can travel an hour and be in the CBD hustle and bustle of Sydney. The only other place I’ve travelled to that’s similar is Hawaii.”

“I don’t know what type of direction my artwork would have taken without that, but then on the flip side, if it was, if I was more secluded, again, I don’t think I’d have the same opportunities.”

When painting, Zach avoids pre-determined structures or drafts. He allows his brush to roam free, following instinct and passion to create technique and structure that rings true as authentic, genuine and personal. Taking inspiration from designs found in the sand, sea, land and trees, Zach’s pieces come together as organically and naturally as the environment that inspires them.

“I try to play on the colour palettes that you see (in nature), as well as the designs. I am influenced by patterns in the sand and the water surface or designs within trees and leaves that I see up on the escarpment, and all of that influences my work.”

Zach’s art typically features a cool-toned palette full of vibrant blues, greens and purples. He aims to steer clear of traditional browns and reds as he finds a connection to country through the water. This connection to water certainly flows through to his work, as he describes the feeling of painting the same way he describes his relationship with water – soothing and meditative.

“I’m a saltwater man; that’s what really resonates with me.”

“A lot of people talk about being barefoot on country – like the physical land. For me, it’s having my feet in the water.”

Zach found his feet in indigenous art whilst creating his major art project at the end of year 12. He took art thinking it would be a bludge subject, but quickly found himself reconnecting with his Torres strait islander roots and exploring his identity through his art. Nowadays, his artwork perfectly depicts his personal experiences and cultural identity, blending tradition and contemporary approaches to create some of the most creative work coming out of the Illawarra region.

“It’s all about storytelling. I don’t tell traditional stories because even though I was born and raised on Dharawal country, so they’re not my dreamings to tell. In saying that, I haven’t been back up to the Torres Strait, so I haven’t got dreamings from up there.”

The arts and culture industry is synonymous with Wollongong’s reputation and serves as a key selling point for tourists and locals alike. During the pandemic, the arts industry has both suffered and flourished, with a greater emphasis on the value of art and entertainment media.

“There’s funding and grants and all that sort of stuff. But is there enough? Definitely not.”

“The arts are so needed. We were all stuck inside listening to music, watching Netflix, and so on; that’s all the arts. I don’t think it’s given enough credit.”

“Having conversations with artists is really important. Getting to know the background of your artist, what they’re creating, why they create and what they’re passionate about is  really cool, and a conversation is such a huge thing.”