Stan Yarramunua may have conquered the art world, but he’s not done yet. His latest collaboration with Oscar Hunt is set to infiltrate the corridors of power.
The glint of Stan Yarramunua’s gold tooth is constantly visible. That’s because he smiles a lot. A straight-backed man with a ponytail and easy laugh, he looks considerably younger than his
54 years. But he’s also packed a hell of a lot into them.
Frankly, where do you start? Sure, he’s as an internationally renowned painter, art dealer and gallery owner specialising in Aboriginal art. But he’s a philanthropist, too, as well as an actor (his latest TV outing was ABC’s Mystery Road). As a musician, he’s played his didgeridoo onstage with the likes of Stevie Wonder and U2. But above all, Stan is a frank optimist whose ballsy opportunism has shaped his remarkable life. “Kangaroo doesn’t jump backwards, he goes forward,” he laughs. “And I’m the same. My whole journey has always been about moving forward.”
That journey has taken him a long way from his hard-scrabble upbringing. Growing up in grim poverty under the wing of his father - a semi-pro boxer, drifter and occasional fugitive – stints of homelessness were not uncommon. To convey just how far he’s come, Stan gestures through the window of his Acland Street gallery to the St Kilda neighbourhood outside.
“I remember near here when I was 10,” he says. “My little brother and I were so hungry we went down collecting mussels off St Kilda pier. We were going to boil ‘em up in a tin and eat ‘em. As we were walking away, there was this big apartment block overlooking the beach. And just to give my eight-year-old brother a bit of hope I said to him: ‘Don’t worry - we’ll live up there one day’.”
In fact, Stan would end up buying three apartments in the block - including the multi-million dollar penthouse from
The Footy Show’s Sam Newman. But all his success, he insists, stemmed from two key decisions he made in the space of one year. “I picked up the paintbrush in ’93 - the same year I put the bottle down,” he says. “Alcohol left a hole in my life. I filled it with art and culture.”
The way Stan puts it, his art career started by chance. He was working as a weekend caretaker at the Galiamble Rehab Centre when he happened upon a leftover canvas in the art studio and idly began to experiment. As he squeezed colours onto the palette, he recalled one night sleeping rough with his dad and becoming mesmerised by the stars in the night sky. That cosmic skyscape from his childhood became his very first painting.
When the Centre’s art teacher returned on Monday she asked to buy the picture. “She gave me like $120 for my painting,” Stan says. “And I thought, ‘Gee, this is good!’ So I just kept going and doing more and more.”
The decision to become an art dealer was similarly haphazard. In 1997, Stan was up in Alice Springs acting in a film called Welcome to Woop Woop. One day standing in Todd Mall, he watched an Aboriginal artist walk nervously into one of the galleries to try and sell one of his paintings. The owner waved the man away with barely concealed disdain.
“I didn’t like the way she spoke to him,” Stan says. “But I also liked his painting. So I bought it from him for $300 and told him: ‘You don’t have to go in there and put up with her. One day I’ll come back and buy all your art - and other people’s art as well.”
From that point on, Stan kept returning. He started buying artworks on a bigger scale and representing more Indigenous artists from around the country. “As I learnt more about the cultural part of their paintings, it made me feel really connected. I just got more and more involved with it. That’s why I’m still doing it today.”
In 2008, Stan opened Australia’s first privately owned and managed Aboriginal gallery at 500 Collins St, in Melbourne’s CBD. He’s since opened another gallery in Daylesford as well as this space in St Kilda. During this time, he’s watched the demographic of his customers shift in a revealing way. At first, most of his sales were to international tourists, but the market has changed. “In the last
10 years, Australian people have become the biggest buyers of this art.”
For Stan, this development reflects a population growing in confidence about its national identity. Instead of seeking validation overseas, he says, Australians are increasingly keen to celebrate their own history and culture. “People here are much prouder of all that now,” he says.
Stan’s collaboration with Oscar Hunt (alongside Amity Guild) is, in part, reflective of this trend. It’s resulted in a range of made-to-measure suits with technicolour linings festooned with his Indigenous art. But this isn’t a mere fashion statement, Stan explains, it’s the evolution of an age-old idea.
“In Aboriginal culture, men would traditionally wear cloaks made of possum skins and in the lining they’d tell the stories of their journey from being a boy to a man,” he says. “The pictures would reflect their responsibilities - whether they were the law man, the medicine man or the elder of that particular tribe. It would represent your status as a man.”
The Oscar Hunt project extends this idea into modern tailoring. A well-made suit, after all, holds similar connotations of professionalism and elevated masculinity. It’s also a form of clothing that conveys respect, Stan argues – that’s why men invariably suit up to tackle many of life’s big moments.
“You wear a suit when you go to a wedding. You wear a suit when you go to a funeral. You wear a suit when you go to court,” he says. “It’s what you wear when you’re representing. It’s something that you should feel proud to wear.”
Yet there’s also a playfully subversive element at work here. Like it or not, corporate boardrooms are still largely white, male and formally tailored. Putting Aboriginal art into a suit lining is a subtle way to infiltrate these spheres of influence. Stan hopes the suit linings will serve as conversation-starters to increase awareness of Indigenous issues and break down cultural barriers. “It’s just another way to get people talking,” he says.
That’s the sub-text of the project, but the immediate benefits are also worthwhile. As the artist and writer Sebastian Horsley put it: “Being well-dressed gives a feeling of inward tranquillity which psychoanalysis is powerless to bestow.”
That’s particularly true when you button up a custom-made suit. The effect of good tailoring isn’t just form-flattering, it can deliver a mental pick-me-up, too. The right suit can make you feel a little more sharp, confident and worldly wise.
Consciously or not, men have always tapped into this sartorial power, says Stan. “The traditional men wore their possum-skin cloaks proudly - they made them stand up a bit straighter and walk a bit taller,” he says, flashing that gold-tooth once again. “And I really think that these suits can do that, too.”