A connection to landscape was the foundation for Bayley Mifsud’s Indigenous art career. The proud Kirrae and Peek Whurrong woman grew up near the Grampians, the richest site of Aboriginal rock art in Victoria, and it was there that her family introduced her to traditional Indigenous symbols and encouraged her to contribute to family artworks.

As the years went on, with a busy schedule of sport and work, Bayley didn’t revisit her passion for art until the beginning of 2020. But, after sharing a new art piece on social media, requests for commissions started flowing in. Now her business – named Merindah-Gunya, which means “beautiful spirit” in Peek Whurrong language and was gifted to Bayley through ceremony by her parents and Elders – is flourishing. 

Aside from her business, Bayley also works full-time as Officeworks’ National Indigenous Engagement Lead. Here, she looks back at just how far she has come.

Growing Up on Country

My background is Gunditjmara, which belongs to the Eastern Maar people. I was born in Warrnambool, Victoria and lived there until I was 8. I grew up on Country and that’s where I initially learned art from my Elders. 

Every family has a possum skin cloak, and each family member contributes a patch to it. You sit down and learn all the symbols, then get to paint yourself and your family on a square to put onto the cloak. It ends up being a large cloaking, which your Elder – because there's always one per Mob – wears during ceremonies.

Nurturing Indigenous Identity

 Indigenous artist Bayley Mifsud embraces her Aboriginal culture through her stunning contemporary Aboriginal painting.

In high school, I did art with three folio subjects, which is a massive workload. But to me, there was nothing else I would rather do. I didn’t produce Indigenous art until Year 11, when we were given a theme called ‘identity’. I did a contemporary Aboriginal painting portrait of my brother that ended up being picked to go into the Catholic Education’s ‘Visual Arts Display’ exhibition. The director actually wanted to purchase my artwork! They created a ‘director's choice’ award from then onwards. I based my whole Year 12 visual art project on identity and on Indigenous art.

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The Pandemic and Rediscovering Passion

When COVID first started, I did an art piece at home then posted it on Facebook, and lots of people commented saying, "Oh, can you do an artwork of my parents?” Dad has his own Indigenous consulting business and he said, "Well, charge them for the materials plus however much you value your time at." 

My business, Merindah-Gunya Art, started that way. Since then, I’ve always had a piece to do and have finished more than 350 commissioned pieces. They range from A5 framed paintings to massive canvas works that are metres by metres. My most popular piece would be an A2 framed piece. 

The Importance of Mentors

Every two years we went to Alice Springs as our holiday destination. There are old Aboriginal women sitting and doing contemporary Aboriginal painting in the street, and you can stand there and watch them. My dad's quite well known in the Indigenous community and also quite confident. I was about 8 years old and Dad would say to the women, "My daughter loves art. She's really good at it. Can she sit here with you?" They said, "Yeah, of course." 

I ended up sitting there for hours with them and they were showing me how to do dot art and how to explain that through their stories. That was a real point where I thought, “Okay, I definitely want to do this.”

My Auntie Roz, a Butchulla woman from Queensland, would show me artworks of her families, and she would explain them to me. She played a massive role in me deciding I can do this. And my dad's mum has played a big part, too – not in my art, but in my cultural life. She was born and raised on Eastern Maar country, and lives in a small town outside of Warrnambool. She has played a huge part in me being proud of my culture, because if I wasn't proud of it, I wouldn't be doing this as well.

Finding the Perfect Workspace

Bayley’s contemporary Indigenous art comes to life in her garage, which has been transformed into an artist studio.

I live with two of my siblings and I started doing my art on my little round kitchen table. I just couldn't do it for long. My boyfriend had a massive, 15-seater table at his house and I ended up moving my whole studio there for a good year.

Now we have a garage as my studio. It opens on both sides and on a nice sunny day I can open both sides for light. My pop made a massive table that's probably about four metres by three metres for me to work on at standing height, as I never actually do my art sitting down. He made it out of wood from Gunditjmara country.

I’ve also got bean bags in the studio because whenever I do art, people like to come in and talk to me or watch me. Whether it's my siblings or any of our partners, there's always someone sitting in there. My dog also always loves to sit in the studio with me. 

Everything Has Its Place

My whole life is very organised. One thing I can control is how clean everything is in my studio. I am very particular about the way the paints are displayed, and they're all colour-coordinated, as are all the pens. My brushes are even arranged in size height.

Her Creative Process

The colourful contemporary Aboriginal paintings produced by Bayley Mifsud of Merindah-Gunya Art proudly reflect her Aboriginal culture.

 I normally do a full 10 hours of artwork on a Saturday then a couple of hours on a Sunday, which is mostly for framing. In total, I do about 20 hours a week on top of my full-time job.

I always paint a base first and wait for that to dry. Then I'll do all the detail at once. I use acrylic paint and 1000gsm board for my framed pieces. The thick paper doesn't absorb the paint, which sits really beautifully on it. I also use canvases. I primarily use a stretched canvas, which means it's ready to hang. As well as acrylic paints, I also use Posca pens. The creative process takes a few days.

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Collaboration With Clients

It really does help when the client has an idea of what they want. Some people just say to me, "Do whatever colours you like," which I find fascinating – my house is so coordinated that it’s interesting they don't mind if the painting doesn't match their pillows or their rug! But they trust and like this style. I’d say I'm very well known for my pinks and oranges.

Ideas and Inspiration

 [In my Indigenous culture] we have a certain number of symbols – about 30 to 40 – that we can use to tell a story. Everyone is taught in different ways how they can tell that story using those symbols. For me, it's quite simple. I paint my story.

The pieces I've done that weren't commissioned represent my family and my Mob. That's the process when I just create art when I feel like it, which I often do. I'll put them up on Facebook Marketplace, and they sell within an hour. It's absolutely crazy.

Artistic Highlights

I would still say I'm most proud of the portrait I did of my brother Jack in 2015. That's probably the proudest I've been, because it's the first time someone showed interest. Everyone at school said, "Oh, it's amazing." For the director of the gallery to say, "I want to buy it", it made me really proud. I'm still shocked that he did. I'd love to see the artwork of my brother hanging up in his house.

Advice for Budding Artists

Bayley Mifsud spends 20 hours in her artist studio each week, and says her Indigenous art helps maintain her mental health.

Don't be harsh on yourself. I've made numerous pieces where I don't absolutely love them, but my sister will say, ”That's my favourite piece!” Art is so different for every single person; popular doesn't necessarily mean good. 

I'm constantly asking my boyfriend and sister for an opinion, and they've got very different views to each other and to me. If none of us likes it, which none of us ever have, then I know that maybe I should redo it. It's very subjective. 

Experiment with things and don't restrict yourself to certain techniques or certain materials. Not everyone is going to like it, but there will be people who do like it and will be willing to pay for it.

What to Try 

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This article was originally published in March 2022 and has been updated.