John Moriarty and Ros Moriarty

‘Balarinji’s work is about a strong connection between Aboriginal people and all Australians. Hopefully presenting our work to national and international audiences has brought Australia along with us.’ John Moriarty

John Moriarty AM and Ros Moriarty are founders of Balarinji design studio, an internationally recognised Aboriginal-owned creative studio. For over 35 years their unique work has spanned public art, curatorial management, urban regeneration and infrastructure, branding, digital, interior and fashion. They are recognised for creating world-leading strategies of authentic engagement that celebrates the cultural heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

John Moriarty (1938– ), Balarinji’s Chair and former Creative Director, was born to a Yanyuwa mother and Irish father in Borroloola in the Gulf of Carpentaria in the Northern Territory. At the age of four he was taken from his mother as part of the then-Government’s infamous assimilation policies – The Stolen Generation. At 15 John reconnected with his mother in Alice Springs, but separated once more due to them both being Wards of the State. In 1968, aged 30, John returned to the Gulf, reuniting with family, culture and Country. For the first decades of his career John was a public servant, holding several executive positions in Federal and State Departments of Aboriginal Affairs, with a focus on advocacy for Aboriginal equality, reconciliation and cultural engagement.

John has sat on several Boards, received the St Peters Citizenship Award, and the Advance Australia Award for Service to Industry and Commerce. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Flinders University, is a Churchill Fellow, and has received several Australian university honours. John is an inductee of both the Australian Design Hall of Fame and the Football Federation of Australia Hall of Fame. He was awarded the Order of Australia (AM) in 2000. John was also the first Aboriginal football (soccer) player selected to play for Australia.

His autobiography Saltwater Fella was published in 2000.

Ros Moriarty (1956– ) is Managing Director of Balarinji. Born in Tasmania, she has described her childhood immersion in the lakes and mountains of Tasmania as the sense many Australians have about connection to land. Through becoming a member of John’s Yanuwa family in the Northern Territory, Ros experienced the many deeper layers of belonging that define the Aboriginal relationship with Country. She is an alumna of the Australian National University in Linguistics, French and Anthropology, was an ABC journalist with Radio Australia, and has held senior positions with the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in Canberra and Sydney.

Board appointments have included the Council of the National Gallery of Australia, Australian Major Events, the Australian Academy of Design, and the Board of Menzies School of Health Research, Darwin. She has been awarded South Australian Business Woman of the Year, the Advance Australia Award for Service to Industry and Commerce, the 2015 Business Enterprise winner in the Financial Review/Westpac Australian 100 Women of Influence Awards, and the St Peter’s Citizenship Award. Ros is an inductee into both the Australian Businesswomen’s Hall of Fame and the Australian Design Hall of Fame.

Her memoir Listening to Country was published in 2010 and shortlisted for The Age Book of the Year. She has also written eight children’s picture books.

Meeting through their Canberra workplaces in the late 1970s, John and Ros began conceiving ideas to celebrate Aboriginal art and culture through design. In early 1983, when Melbourne was home, John created turtle images which Ros screen-printed onto a doona cover for their first son, Tim. From this initial collaboration came their design label, Balarinji – the Yanyuwa skin name of their sons Tim and James. The vision was to celebrate the heritage and identity of their sons and their daughter Julia.

They then conceived a first range of fabrics launched at a glamorous event by The Wool Corporation in 1983. From this point, Balarinji, along with community-centred groups TIWI Designs (Bathurst Island) and Desert Designs (Western Australia), were recognised as trailblazers of Aboriginal textile arts.

John and Ros, mindful of the historical devaluing of Indigenous visual culture ‘wanted to challenge existing approaches to Australian visual identity which had looked largely to Europe and America for inspiration, and which failed, in our view, to harness the unique heartbeat of Australia.’

By the 1990s, under the Moriartys’ creative direction and John’s cultural guidance, Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists and designers worked together in a growing Balarinji studio in Adelaide. Their careful use of Indigenous symbols was part of a new, versatile graphic language that were applied to corporate uniforms for firms like Budget Rent-a-Car, bed linen for Sheridan as well as home fabrics, leisure wear, ties, umbrellas and Japanese kimonos. They also had licensing agreements in Japan, France and elsewhere.

Ros says of that early period: ‘We found inspiration in creative businesses like Finnish brand Marimekko, and later, cultural fashion houses like Shanghai Tang. In those early years though we basically stumbled from point to point to establish a market that didn’t exist.’ In her 2010 memoir, Listening to Country, Ros described the exhaustion of establishing the design business – where she and John juggled parenthood, a new business and John’s continuing job in government.

In 1993 John and Ros conceived their famous Flying Art aircraft series which was proposed to Australia’s national carrier Qantas, of which Ros says: ‘Aboriginal design was scarcely used in any corporate setting, let alone on a 700 square metre canvas that would fly above millions of people each day … it was a very successful, commercial venture as well as a philosophical statement about being Australian.’ Five aircraft were designed from 1994-2018. The first was Wunala (Kangaroo) Dreaming, which referenced stories of John Moriarty’s Yanyuwa people. The most recent was by Anmatyerre woman, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, based on her 1991 painting, Yam Dreaming.

To establish a more sustainable business base, in 1997 the studio moved to Sydney where their client list expanded to include the Australian Ballet, U2 (the band), Downer EDI, CSIRO, Austrade, Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce, Frasers Property, Transport for NSW, Sydney Opera House, Xstrata, Nestlé, ICC Cricket World Cup, Northern Territory Airports Corporation, CIC Australia, Village Roadshow, IBM, Renault France, Coca Cola Atlanta, Bank of America, British Airways, Mitsubishi and others. Major national events and campaigns encompassed Reconciliation Australia Sydney Harbour Bridge Walk, posters for the opening of the Sydney Olympics Stadium and uniform fabrics for the 2016 Rio Paralympics team.

As their projects and profile grew, the Moriartys developed a co-design methodology to ensure an Aboriginal sensibility within their work. The process brings local Aboriginal practitioners and communities together for authentic storytelling, interpretation, and a legacy of place. Balarinji’s team of envisioners, designers, project managers and business developers work with urban planners, architects and landscape architects to activate the Aboriginal voice in their projects.

In the decade up to 2020 their methodology has been successfully used in major infrastructure projects, such as the Sydney Metro, M12 Motorway, Pacific Highway, Macquarie Bank’s redevelopment at Martin Place, and Burwood Brickworks in Melbourne.

Gareth Collins, Director Centre for Urban Design with Transport for NSW, reflects that ‘having the input of an organisation like Balarinji means that we can build in many more levels of cultural and public interest.’

In 2011, the many pro bono activities that the Moriartys had also evolved were formalised by establishing the Moriarty Foundation with two focused programs designed to enable Aboriginal communities to unlock the potential of their children, and radically shift intergenerational disadvantage:

The John Moriarty Football (JMF) program is aimed at 6 to 16 year-olds to develop talent and positive change through sport, improve school attendance and foster health and wellbeing. Presently, there are over 1,200 participants 5-6 days per week, with equal participation of boys and girls. It is delivered to 13 remote and regional Indigenous communities through hubs in Borroloola and Tennant Creek in NT, Dubbo in NSW, and Kuranda in QLD. JMF supports scholarship holders to attend some of Australia’s top schools in Sydney, or have access to greater educational opportunities in regional centres, while undertaking intensive football training.

Indi Kindi is a program that integrates health, wellbeing and education for early years Indigenous children. It is delivered in two remote Northern Territory communities in the Gulf of Carpentaria – Borroloola and Robinson River. Teaching resources include Ros’s eight children’s picture books, illustrated by Balarinji. A major partner is UNICEF Australia. Indi Footi, football for ages 2 to 6, is integrated with Indi Kindi’s daily delivery by JMF coaches.

In 2004, Balarinji’s work was recognised in a 20-year retrospective at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum (MAAS), afterwhich it travelled to Osaka and Tokyo in Japan. Work is now held in Australian and international collections, including the National Museum of Australia which holds the Balarinji Art and Business and Design Archive. The Moriartys were inducted into the DIA Hall of Fame in 2014.

Through four decades John Moriarty and Ros Moriarty have built a ground-breaking design practice that uniquely reflects their partnership, and which has enriched the experience of Australian graphic design and communication. Their creative management and advocacy gives unprecedented vision and voice to First Nation creators and communities in inclusive ways, and they have inspired a generation of Aboriginal-owned design studios that continue to maintain the integrity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. They also use their profile to build important social programs for youth.


Graham Rendoth
AGDA Hall of Fame Committee
November 2020

This article was created from interviews, articles and other sources.
While every endeavour has been made to supply accurate information, errors and omissions may occur.
All projects are designed by Balarinji, unless indicated otherwise. The shared creative input of others, including designers, illustrators, photographers, writers and clients, is acknowledged.
All works © Balarinji