Kenita-Lee McCartney’s company Matakupaat Arts, like so many successful small businesses, grew from determination and willingness to evolve, but mostly from an undeniable love for her craft and belief in herself. Without a set plan to scale, Kenita-Lee’s Matakupaat Arts serves as an important reminder that not all business ventures need to be driven by financial goals, but passion is essential. She has that passion, and creative talent, in spades.
Swan Hill-based Kenita-Lee – a proud Wemba-Wemba, Wotjiboluk, Neri Neri ,Wiradjuri and Boon Wurrung woman – started her business several years ago. “I found my love of business and started learning stories from my family,” she says. Kenita-Lee’s entrepreneurial grandmother was especially inspiring. “My grandmother, she had raised all her children in Balranald. She was always thinking about starting her own family business and all the kids could be employed. So, she did. She sold kangaroo meat and supplied places all over Australia… She got to the point where she either needed to expand or sell. She decided to sell, set herself up, brought a big house and land. Her story is amazing. She’s why I am who I am today.”
Kenita-Lee initially set out selling clothing and jewellery, but when customers began asking about paintings posted on her personal social media, she saw a reason to pivot. “I had my Instagram; about 150 followers. But they were really great customers,” she says. “I was selling a couple of things a week and I was so happy. I was painting every day; I have for two years now. For me it has been a way for me to heal, and to tell my families stories, stories of our future. I started painting about 5 years ago and have built up a huge collection of 60 + pieces” she says.
This led her to consider a business course run by Ngarrimili. “It was just great support from Ngarrimili,” she explains, “They helped me build a new website. Initially I wasn’t ready to take that step, but with the current climate I decided to take on whatever opportunities arrised. After taking the leap to launch her business website, she immediately made several thousand dollars and her Instagram following jumped from 150 to over 17,000. Again she saw the need to change and removed the jewellery from her site to focus solely on her artwork.
Now mostly a print company, Matakupatt Arts sells Kenita-Lee’s pieces as limited edition artworks on various materials. “One thing I learned when I was working in an art gallery is that prints will make your originals more expensive, or worth more in the long run. That’s made me feel positive about my business decision to take all my original artwork offline. I love that I’m a print business, but I’m also aware that I can’t just print out hundreds of thousands of prints… I don’t want my art to just be that stuff that is everywhere; I feel like it takes away the value in it. I’m looking at these things at the moment to see where I can go and where my business is going to go.”
Of course the path hasn’t been that straightforward, and growing rapidly comes with its own challenges. From managing finances to sourcing all the items needed to ship large numbers of artworks, Kenita-Lee has been learning on the job. “I’m learning to love money a little bit more,” she says. “When I look at my bank account, I don’t see it as I’m going to go spend up real big.” Rather, she is aiming to put profit back into her community. “The big dream,” she explains, “is for my community to be thriving and culturally strong, that our wellbeing is great, and there’s opportunities for my Elders to go out bush a couple of times a week… My purpose and the purpose of being in business is to do good for my community and be able to provide them with what they need, just as Blackfellas.”
She’s aware that to support and celebrate her community, her own wellbeing must be a priority. “I’m really lucky that I have a business coach who is a wellbeing coach as well,” Kenita-Lee says. “She’s talking through these things with me, but I wish I learnt this a long time ago. She’s teaching me things to put in place to be a high- functioning businesswoman, things I never thought I could be. A year ago, I would have been in the same position thinking, ‘I can’t do this’... I love how my mindset can change… Its interesting to think that in a few months, I’m totally different to where I was. I thank my Ancestors for that because I know they’re guiding me.”
Business and finance practices aside, Kenita-Lee proves herself to be a firm believer in simply believing. “School for me was quite difficult,” she says. “I was one of only a couple of Aboriginal people at a Catholic high school. Racism was a huge distraction… but back when I was a teenager, I knew I was meant for something bigger than what others thought I could do.” That belief has been a driving force. “I always knew I was meant for something, but I didn’t know when that was coming because we had a lot of hardship and a lot of trauma,” she says.
Resilience and determination are manifestations of believing in one’s self. With that in mind, “If you want to do something, don’t give up on it. You just have to get your right people around you, learn a little bit, make a few mistakes,” she says, “And reach out to Aboriginal people in business to get some guidance and tips because we are about sharing and we want to help you get to where you want to be and make that journey a little bit easier.”