Broadcaster Daniel Browning can remember the first painting that made an impression on him.
“My mum brought home this [Pierre-Auguste] Renoir print from a secondhand shop. I think she wanted to beautify our home,” Browning tells ABC Arts.
Browning was five or six years old at the time and that $2 print was of an 1881 painting titled Alice and Elisabeth Cahen d’Anvers, better known as Pink and Blue.
“I grew up in a very working-class home — my father’s a boilermaker … and that print was like a window into another world,” Browning recalls.
Browning grew up in Fingal and Tweed Heads on Bundjalung country on the far north coast of New South Wales, and is a descendant of both the Bundjalung people and south-western Queensland’s Kullilli people.
“[As a child] I used to draw by the light of the television and I drew all these … fantasies; these usually very elaborate interiors, like the interiors of palaces.
“It was so far removed from the kind of life that I was leading.”
Browning would grow up and go on to art school, before changing tack and joining the ABC in 1994.
This week, Browning takes another step in his impressive career by taking the reins of The Art Show, ABC Radio National’s weekly fine arts radio program.
“I go back to the Renoir painting, it drew me out of that mid-1970s South Tweed Heads housing commission house and took me somewhere else.
“And I think that … the human voice can do that too.”
‘Hold the space’
Inspired by that print, Browning became a Renoir obsessive; so much so that his high school art teacher begged him to move away from Impressionism towards something more abstract.
For his 14th birthday, his mother and grandmother took him to a 20th-century masters exhibition — the hero image was Pablo Picasso’s mask-like portrait of Gertrude Stein — at the Queensland Art Gallery.
“From there I just became more fascinated by the history of art,” says Browning.
After failed attempts at other tertiary degrees, he landed on a visual arts degree with a major in painting at the Queensland University of Technology.
“I was inattentive at university, I was more interested in techno and … the next big rave,” he laughs.
“[And] at the end of the degree, I was resolved that I couldn’t make a career out of art. I wasn’t good enough; if I tried I’d probably fail.”
So Browning decided to take up an ABC news and current affairs cadetship just days after graduating.
“I’d always had a dream to be a newsreader … I liked the way they seemed to hold the space, how they had some kind of authority,” he recalls.
After completing his cadetship, he moved to Sydney to work in news at triple j and found his way onto the air. By 2000, at age 28, he was director of triple j news.
The story of art
Indigenous art was notably absent from Browning’s tertiary education.
“The history of Australian art as I was taught it didn’t incorporate Indigenous art,” he says. “It’s not part of the story that Western art tells about itself. Maybe lately it has become [part of the story], but it certainly wasn’t when I was in art school.”
Since 2005, Browning has produced and presented Awaye!, Radio National’s Indigenous arts and culture program.
“My work on Awaye! has been kind of very formative in learning more about Aboriginal art and how it fits or doesn’t fit. And trying to kind of do away with this idea of a linear story,” says Browning.
“We shouldn’t be trying to shoehorn Aboriginal art into a category where you can’t fit it.
“Although it absolutely is a contemporary art movement, it is its own thing.”
He says it’s hard to pinpoint highlights of his more than 15 years on Awaye!.
But he relishes the opportunities he had to make documentaries about Aboriginal rights activist Anthony Martin Fernando, the ethnographic zoo phenomenon and jazz singer Georgia Lee.
“There is this idea of editorial distance from their subject which other journalists pride themselves on, [but distance] is a luxury,” says Browning.
“I believe good journalism is possible when you’re close to a subject. I ask myself ‘what is your relationship to what you’re talking about? … How deeply do you understand what it is at the core of what you’re talking about?'”
In 2016, he created Word Up, a language revival podcast first broadcast as a series for Awaye!, and in 2020 he executive produced the podcast Thin Black Line about the 1993 death in custody of Aboriginal teenager Daniel Yock.
“As Aboriginal people in a media organisation like the ABC, you are constantly navigating what is personal, and what is a matter of public interest,” he explains.
“We need to bring more people into the organisation from an employment perspective, but also just in terms of listeners, and blackfellas want to know that there are other Black people telling stories on the national broadcaster.
“[But] we’re really at a blessed time in terms of Indigenous broadcasting.”
A vision for The Art Show
Earlier this year, Browning took over hosting duties of The Art Show temporarily after Namila Benson began hosting Art Works, ABC TV’s new weekly arts show. He now steps into the role permanently.
Long-time Awaye! producer Rudi Bremer now hosts the program, with Browning as editor of Indigenous radio overseeing the show and the department’s other projects.
He says that his knowledge of Indigenous arts puts him in good stead to host The Art Show.
“These are the stories that have been told for generations, for millennia … It’s all there, just waiting to be seen, to be really understood.”
Browning is excited about broadening the scope of his arts coverage.
“The show’s unlimited in who we can reach and what we can talk about and that’s thrilling … to not feel as if I can’t talk about something because I’ve got to keep in my lane.”
On The Art Show, Browning is interested in covering artists who work collectively and exploring the consequences of our limited access to galleries during lockdowns.
“I think the beauty of artists is that they tell us where to look … [so how] do we usher people gently towards these other things that we should all be looking at?”
“I think that there are so many challenges globally and on many fronts, that we need artists more than ever to light the way, just so we can enter those dark places and confront what is really going on.”
‘Acts of healing’
The theme of this year’s NAIDOC week is Heal Country!.
“We [Indigenous Australians] bring a lot to the table, we are a big part of this country’s cultural capital … and that needs to be acknowledged,” says Browning. “The Heal Country! theme resonates on many levels.”
He thinks of artist and ngangkari (traditional healer) Betty Muffler, whose recent work is about healing her country in the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands, which was affected by British nuclear testing.
“She’s literally renewing country when she paints — these are acts of healing,” Browning says.
He says this renewal is even more important during the uncertainty and stress of COVID-19.
“You might ask what value is there in looking at art when you’re trying to just make it through? But I would say that’s when you look, that’s when you listen and that’s when you really distill what it is that you need. … [and Muffler is] an extraordinary example of where we need to look, we need to look at how we can heal country.”
Browning says the NAIDOC theme is not a statement, it’s a provocation.
“We all need to think about that, NAIDOC should never be something that happens over there.”