John's Story

A prominent force in the Australian Indigenous community and international arts world, John Smith Gumbula sees no limits on where his creativity can take him. As comfortable with his local mob as he is on the global stage, John isn’t the type to rest on his successes. He’s determined to use his platform for the betterment of his people – and to make waves of change in society more broadly.  

“Indigenous people have the highest rate of incarceration, the highest suicide rate and serious health issues – as well as ongoing challenges involving trauma around historical and ongoing atrocities. That creates a lot of issues around mental health as well. I can speak from personal experience of growing up and finding my way – it wasn’t easy.”

“At one point in my life I was on the street, sleeping under bridges. I’ve seen what alcohol and drugs can do to a person – there was a time when I was hanging around with the wrong group of people and that messed me up for a while. I’ve had a long path of finding my way as a mixed race fulla, figuring out my identity and where I fit in. I think that’s a challenge for a lot of our mob.”

Learning and growing through turbulent times is embedded in John’s DNA, with his resilience and determination a sight to behold. A deep connection with culture through art provided a strong foundation in his life and made him into the man he is today.

“I started painting back in the 80s with my dad in Rockhampton, learning different techniques. I’ve come a long way from those days of walking around Brisbane with paintings under my arms. For me it’s always been about evolving and transitioning into different industries with my art. Innovation and design is what makes my heart beat and it’s what’s kept me out of trouble.”

"ŋeerk" by John Smith Gumbula on display at the 2022 Recovered Futures Art Exhibition.

John has been involved in the Recovered Futures Art Exhibition for two years now, selling both his artworks on opening night in 2022. Despite his popularity, it’s never been about money for John – though it is helpful in aiding his other pursuits.

“I do my art to share my culture, educate others and connect with people. The journey of life can be a difficult thing – the arts have always been a way to calm my mind, my heart and my spirit. It’s a safe space for me. My art and business ventures will allow me to look after my kids, grandkids and community when I’m gone – that’s important to me; that’s why I’m here.”

While many would regard John an Aboriginal elder, he considers himself an emerging elder, determined to continue on his path of being a worthy role model to the community. He is single-minded in his mission to use creative ventures to help the next generation.

“I’m aware of how lucky I am to be where I am now – I could just as easily have been pushing up daisies somewhere else. Life hasn’t been easy, but you keep pushing. What’s kept me moving forward is staying true to my heart and spirit, and trying to get a positive message out there with my work.”

“Connecting with our mob and educating others means everything to me, especially in this complex, modern world. With so many corporate structures and non-Indigenous ideologies surrounding us, I try to do what I can to share culture and create a connection that is often missing in society.”

With infinite wisdom gathered over the course of a fascinating life, John is generous with his insights while delivering hard-hitting truths.

“Sharing culture through art and other mediums is a vital way of communicating the experience of Indigenous people in this country. We need to begin breaking down stereotypes and negative views of Indigenous people and communities. We’ve got a long way to go, and everyone must play their part.”

“At the end of the day, we all have a vision, dream and a purpose in life. It’s up to you to discover what that is.” 

Follow John on Instagram and visit his website