Victorian Premier’s Design Awards’ 2022 Special Commendation (Design Strategy) recipient Solid Lines describes itself as a First Nations-led illustration agency fuelled by a constant connection to identity, culture and Country.

Solid Lines project team: Dr Nicola St John, Jeremy Wortsman and Emrhan Sultan

Solid Lines project team: Dr Nicola St John, Jeremy Wortsman and Emrhan Sultan

As an organisation, it is reimagining the world of Indigenous commercial art and giving the artists it represents greater freedom of expression and time to focus on their craft without fear of misappropriation or exploitation.

Although only a year old, Solid Lines’ initial social impact – as the first truly dedicated organisation working to showcase the breadth and diversity of Aboriginal artists across the country while protecting Indigenous cultural intellectual property – makes it a pioneer in the field of self-determination and artistic control by the artists and their respective communities.

From student workshops to dynamic commercial platform

A series of workshops that focused on transforming traditional stories and artworks into digital platforms formed the genesis of Solid Lines. Conducted by RMIT’s Dr Nicola St John – whose work explores design cultural perspectives and the value of communication design education and enterprise within Aboriginal communities – the workshops with the Ntaria School in the Northern Territory, laid the groundwork for a new way of bringing Aboriginal voices to arts procurement and management.

Nicola joined forces with long-time collaborator, Western Arrarnta, Luritja and Kokatha artist Emrhan Tjapanangka Abbott-Sultan and Jacky Winter Group Founder and Director, Jeremy Wortsman to conceive a business model where Aboriginal commercial artists could be self-represented collaboratively by an Indigenous agency. What began as a research project, originally funded in part by a grant from Creative Victoria, has evolved to become a successful and highly respected business that has already changed the way Indigenous commercial artists are represented, how they gain access to lucrative commissions and how they ensure retention of their intellectual property.

Solid Lines Website

Solid Lines website

Bridging a divide in the Indigenous commercial art market

According to Solid Lines Project Manager Emrhan Tjapanangka Sultan, the agency fills a gap in the commercial illustration arena, ensuring that Indigenous artists are represented by an Indigenous-owned and led agency.

“The whole idea was to make sure that our artists are being represented in a culturally appropriate way. A lot of our artists’ work extends beyond traditional motifs and elements and it’s important to showcase all styles of contemporary Aboriginal visual art and illustration, taking it to a new commercial level,” he said.

The protection of Indigenous cultural intellectual property and transparency around commissions are two of the cornerstones of Solid Lines. Its artists own the rights to their own artwork and have greater freedom when it comes to its usage and applications. Prior to its establishment, there was no platform for First National commercial artists that was Aboriginal led and very little genuine representation in the commercial design area.

Initially, an expression of interest was put out to Aboriginal visual artists and illustrators working in diverse genres across the country. Due to Covid lockdowns, a series of discussions was held online to gauge what the artists wanted in terms of access to commercial markets, what opportunities they were looking for, how they wanted to be represented and how a different business model might work for them.

After engaging law firms and intellectual property specialists to design a joint venture framework that would provide the best possible outcomes for its artists, Solid Lines was officially launched in mid-2022.

“The word ‘solid’ is deeply entrenched in Indigenous communities. We use the term to mean something that is really great, and of course ‘lines’ references one of our best-known artistic expressions, so the name Solid Lines has multiple layers of meaning for us,” said Emrhan.

“Because the agency is the first of its kind in the country (and possibly the world), the entire process has been a learning experience.”

It currently represents 10 First Nations visual artists and illustrators with 3 more coming on board later this year. Its stable is a mix of different creatives – “a very deliberate choice as we spent a considerable amount of time researching the artists and wanted to ensure that Solid Lines could provide the broadest cross section of genres possible,” he added.

The significance of being acknowledged by the Victorian Premier Design Awards

“A commendation from the Victorian Premier’s Design Awards is all about the artists and raising their profile. It celebrates and acknowledges all the hard work behind the scenes and helps us communicate that First Nations art is so much more than just dot paintings. The recognition also supports our premise that Aboriginal arts management has been underrepresented within commercial industries.”

“We are proud to be building a legacy and protecting our Indigenous artists from fake art coming in from overseas and the misappropriation of traditional symbols and motifs that belong to individual communities in specific parts of the country.”

Beyond borders – a blueprint for Indigenous artistic representation worldwide

As an agency that prides itself on self-determination, Solid Lines sets a benchmark, not just in Australia, but on a wider global level. Although still in its infancy, it has been set up to grow its reach and capacity to showcase the talent of its member artists.

“Hopefully, it will become a blueprint for establishing like-minded platforms for Indigenous arts communities in other parts of the world,” said Emrhan.

“We encourage First Nations visual artists and illustrators to contact us and have a conversation about what Solid Lines can help them achieve.”