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Tag Archives: aboriginal art

Yannae Wirrate Weelam and prison art

At the Melbourne Museum I saw Yannae Wirrate Weelam, The Journey Home in the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre. The exhibition was organised by The Torch, who are very actively exhibiting. In January I saw their exhibition, Confined 8 at the St. Kilda Town Hall Gallery. They also have an exhibition, Dhumbadha Munga (Talking Knowledge) at the Alliance Francaise’s Eildon Gallery that looks at the two-way relationship between the arts workers and the artists they support.

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The exhibition, Yannae Wirrate Weelam, The Journey Home had a very short history about the far too many aboriginal artists in prison along with work by people in the current The Torch program.

All of the artists in the exhibition took such care and time with their art but a few of the artists are outstanding. Robby Knight, of the Wergaia/Wotjobaluk, has so much creative energy and talent when working in both paint and many other materials. And Knight’s work with other materials gets frighteningly awesome and powerful. The paintings by Jeffrey Jackson, of the Mutti Mutti, are so powerful and beautiful. I was also impressed with the pokerwork, burning wood with a hot bit of metal, by Roger Sims, of the Barkindji, proving that you can do a contemporary illustration of a Murray Cod with fantastic detail in that media.

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Jeffrey Jackson, Knowing Country

This was research for my next book which is about true art crimes in Melbourne. For along with art theft, art forgery and art vandalism I also want to write about prison art and other places where art the criminal justice system intersect.

Prison art has not been an easy topic to write about for a number of reasons, chiefly I don’t have much information. I have been able to interview a couple of prison art educators and I expect to interview some more.

To add to the difficultly I want to focus on Aboriginal prison art including the artist Ronald Bull who painted the mural in Pentridge Prison’s “F” Division. In the 1970s Ronald Bull was described in advertisement in The Age: “Hailed by many as the foremost and most versatile landscape painter of the present time. Showing the often unseen beauty of our countryside, an artist with turbulent talent. Capable of becoming Australia’s premier painter.” Yet few people have heard of him today; I don’t want his life and art, along with others like him, to be forgotten so I am writing about it.

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Confined 8, Indigenous Prison Art Exhibition

Confined 8 is a large exhibition of art by hundreds of Indigenous artists who are currently in, or recently released from a prison in Victoria. There are about two hundred paintings and other works of art are packed into the St Kilda Town Hall Gallery.

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It is impossible to sum up all this art in a few words. There is a lot of variety from traditional to contemporary art and all kinds of mixes in between by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders from across the continent. The art, often painted in prison cells on small canvases, are such careful, delicate and considered works; the quality is often very high for amateur painters basically because of the time taken on them.

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Waridub’s painted football is a great mix of tradition and contemporary life: I’ve never seen a painted football before. “Legends of the Game” depicts Michael Long and Adam Goodes. (There should be a series of these balls; what about Mal Meniga?)

Ray Traplin of Kuku Yalandji people painted an impressive and colourful scene in “Cape York Hunting Grounds”. Traplin and many of the other artists depict animals, birds, fish, lizards, insects in meticulous dots or cross-hatching work however few can combine so many images as Traplin does into one spectacular painting.

The exhibition was organised by The Torch. The Torch runs the Indigenous Arts in Prisons & Community program. It uses art as a forum for cultural exploration to provide indigenous men and women in custody and on release with a new way forward. This has been enhanced by new legislation in 2015 that allows Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners to keep any money that they make from art sales. The Torch does not take any commission on the sales and the money from art sales is held in trust by Corrections Victoria until the prisoner’s release. Having money to fund a new life on release from prison is important.

A few paintings are NFS (not for sale) meaning that they had already been given to a relative. It is sad that it might be the only time that they will get a painting is when one of their relatives is locked up.

Prison art is a much neglected part of Aboriginal art history. It is an important aspect due to the over representation of Aboriginals in Australian prisons; “The world’s worst levels of detention of Indigenous people” according to Gillian Triggs, President of the Human Rights Commission. So you can look at Confined 8 as either rehabilitation or resistance, survival in the face of genocidal policies and cultural destruction.


State of the Nation @ Counihan

State of the Nation, curated by Kimberley Moulton, at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick, is a group exhibition of six indigenous artists who live on Kulin and Eora countries. Amongst them the work of Jason Wing, seven years ago I reviewed one of his exhibitions and his work is completely different now,  going from street to contemporary and conceptual.

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Video still from Megan Cope, Blaktism, 2014

Megan Cope is a Quandamooka woman from North Stradbroke Island in S.E. Queensland. Her impressive video, The Blaktism (2014), takes an absurd look at establishing her aboriginal identity at the same time questioning what Australian identity means. It was inspired by her experience in obtaining her ‘Certificate of Aboriginality’.

The video shows a theatrical ceremony where she moves from under the Union Jack to wearing the Australian flag. During the ceremony her pale skin is painted brown and dark contact lens inserted. In the end, after the fluoro dance party celebration, she removes the Australian flag, the contact lens and make-up choosing to return to her original appearance.

Paola Balla’s Unsettling Or The True Story of When Mok Mok Came to the Big Smoke (2016) is a photographic series with text. The title of the work is apt as ‘unsettling’ is disturbing, it is literally the opposite of what the colonial settlers did. To unsettle is to remove that feeling of ownership and familiarity. Balla takes on the spirit of Mok Mok, a female entity from Wemba Wemba Country that steals kids and chops up men. Here she is cooking and washing clothes in an urban domestic setting and composing a massive rant about all the injustices the indigenous women and children suffer.

Paola Balla is a Wemba-Wemba and Gunditjmara woman of Calabrese and Chinese heritage; with this background it is not surprising that Melbourne’s Il Globo has a biographic article about her that emphasises her Calabrese heritage.

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Paola Balla, Untitled and Uncared For (a)

Balla also had a couple of installations in the exhibition, assemblages of objects are hairy and disturbing. Untitled and Uncared For (a) consisted of three objects. A tin cup with a colourful image of “Outback Australia” printed on it, revealing its tourism origins. A kangaroo skin bag that appeared to contain a head and a vintage hand-coloured photograph defaced with fur. In this work identity is removed, to be replaced with a cheap souvenir that is itself uncared for. I wasn’t so impressed with Balla’s Untitled and Uncared For (b), even though I could see the point of the dead native flowers and introduced weeds and the feral fox fur, as it is just a flower arrangement.


March Exhibitions Fitzroy

On Thursday I saw a few exhibition at galleries in Fitzroy.

Sutton Gallery has a post-humous exhibition of paintings by Gordon Bennett, part of his “Home Decor (After Margaret Preston)” 2014 series. The hanging of this exhibition has three pairs of paintings, which felt both tasteful and awkward. This feeling of tasteful but awkward is at the core of Bennett’s “Home Decor” series. Like Margaret Preston’s appropriated Aboriginal shield designs of the Central Australia and Northern Queensland Indigenous communities that Bennett has re-appropriated for this series. These are some of the most appropriate works of appropriation art.

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Gordon Bennett, Home Decor

Also on exhibition at Sutton was a single large painting by Vivienne Binns, “Minding Clouds”. A large blue painting was broken up with vignette scenes, that might represent dreams or memories, painted within clouds raised from the textured surface of the painting.

This Is No Fantasy + Dianne Tanzer is showing series of sexy drawings by Arlene Textaqueen. Textaqueen’s technique with coloured marker pens (fibre-tips and watercolour on cotton rag) just gets better, her compositions are more dynamic and her message about gender, race and Australia is clear.

The exhibitions at Seventh Gallery didn’t grab me. Sorry, Cameron Bishop and Simon Reis, “Leisureland”, and Jenna Pippett, “Grab a Partner”, but I have seen exercise equipment and artists doing exercises in art galleries too often in recent years.

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If People Powered Radio: 40 Years of 3CR at Gertrude Contemporary

If People Powered Radio: 40 Years of 3CR at Gertrude Contemporary is a large exhibition about the community radio station located just around the corner. Curators Spiros Panigirakis and Helen Hughes have created an impressive and interactive display, even building the frame of a house in the main room. The exhibition  not only tells the history of the station but is a contemporary art exhibition that includes works from several notable artists including Emily Flyod and Reko Rennie.


10 Public Sculptures in Melbourne that you have probably never seen

The ten best public sculptures in Melbourne that you have probably never seen.

Springthrope Memorial

1. Springthorpe Memorial. If you have never been to the cemetery in Kew then you will not have seen this over the top, late-Victorian masterpiece of sentimentality created by an all star team. (See my post.)

Will Coles, Consume, 2015

2. Will Coles, various objects. Will Coles is notorious for his small cast objects. You need to look carefully walking around Melbourne. They can be found in surprising locations around the inner city suburbs. Except you won’t find this one in Hosier Lane anymore because it was stolen.

Reg Parker Untitled 8/73

3.  Reg Parker, Untitled 8/73, Preston Public Library. Forget all the hype around Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault, this is actually the first abstract public sculpture still on public display and still in its original location.

Charles Robb, Landmark, 2005

4. Charles Robb, Landmark, 2005, LaTrobe University. This statue of Governor LaTrobe, Victoria’s first governor turns traditional monuments on its head.

Rolled Path II

5. Simon Perry, Rolled Path, 1997, Brunswick. This is my personal favourite. It is on a bicycle path along the Merri Creek.

Paul Montford, John Wesley, 1935 (4)

6. Paul Montford, John Wesley, 1935, Melbourne Wesleyian Church. I had to look again at this sculpture after the sculptor Louis Laumen told me it was his favourite Montford sculpture, it is very dynamic and lively.

Vikki Couzens and Maree Clarke, Wominjeka Tarnuk Yooroom (aka Welcome Bowl) 2013 (detail 1)

7. Vicki Couzens and Maree Clarke, Wominjeka Tarnuk Yooroom (also known as Welcome Bowl), 2013, Footscray. Rocks spraying fine mists of water remind the public of Aboriginal smoking ceremonies but also provide enjoyment to small children and dogs.

Bruce Armstrong, Untitled (Two Persons Hugging), 1988 (1)

8. Bruce Armstrong, Untitled (Two Persons Hugging), 1988, Footscray. Armstrong the sculptor for the Eagle in the Docklands and on a very quiet suburban street in Footscray there is one of his large sculptures carved out of a tree truck. There are some great public sculptures in Footscray.

Russell Anderson, Apparatus for Transtemporal Occurrence of Impending Space, 2014

9. Russell Anderson, Apparatus for Transtemporal Occurrence of Impending Space, 2014 You probably haven’t seen this sculpture because it so new and you don’t walk along the unfashionable north bank of the Yarra River. (See my post on Steampunk sculptures.)

Steaphan Paton, Urban Doolagahl

10. Steaphan Paton’s Urban Doolagahls, 2011, Melbourne You can’t see the Urban Doolagahls anymore because they were only temporary but they still turn up from time to time.


Marrnyula Mununuggurr @ Gertrude Contemporary

In the late 1980s and early 1990s Gertrude Street in Fitzroy only had only a single gallery on it at 200 Gertrude, the gallery remains although the name has changed, Gertrude Contemporary. A decade ago there were seven galleries on Gertrude Street and now there are only four, Gertrude Contemporary. The artists supply shops are a more stable feature of the street that the transient galleries. Throughout the decades it is the gallery where for contemporary art in Melbourne without any compromises for attendance, popularity or commercial.

Marrnyula Mununggurr, Ganybu, 2015

Marrnyula Mununggurr, Ganybu, 2015

I followed the window washer with his bucket and brushes into Gertrude Contemporary. It is strange to see the window washer at work in the front gallery with all the shavings of stringing bark (eucalyptus tetrodonta) on the wooden gallery floor. It is another world from the street or a gallery, it smells different and smell is something that visual artists rarely capture. The exhibition is Ganybu by Marrnyula Mununggurr.

Walking across the stringing bark, I notice that some of this stringing bark is the same as the pieces on the wall, except that the pieces on the wall have been painted with vertical and horizontal lines. The delicate geometric painted lines on the bark reminded me of post-minimalism with the small parts building up to a greater image. For this not just an arrangement of geometric lines in natural ochers Marrnyula Mununggurr is reproduces her Dajapu clan design of the fish trap and water. The greater image created with all the 252 bark paintings is the Ganybu, a fish trap.

Marrnyula Mununggurr caught me with the fish trap within the fish trap.

At the far end of the gallery, from the same string bark tree, is a larrakitj, a ceremonial pole painted with the same design. It all comes from the same tree, completing the beautiful minimalism of the exhibition.

There is a major difference between the esoteric use of Marrnyula Mununggurr’s clan design and the eccentric painting of David Egan. I was not as impressed with Egan’s Actually Energy Help Light in the main gallery of Gertrude Contemporary, not that I expect to instantly like every exhibition that I see. There was little catch my interest just incoherence. When I read the curators notes I find that five out of the seven footnotes were to David Egan. A couple of the paintings weren’t bad but I don’t have a clue why anyone would care about it, aside from Egan and the curator.

David Egan, Actually Energy Help Light, 2015

David Egan, Actually Energy Help Light, 2015

I forgot to look at Slide, the tiny space at the front door of Gertrude Contemporary. I am always forgetting to look at Slide.


Pentridge – more on prison art

At the bottom of a box of old books, mostly about Africa that my parents brought over to my house I found Denton Prout and Fred Feely, 50 Years Hard, the story of Pentridge Gaol from 1850 to 1900 (Rigby Limited,1967, Adelaide).

It was an enjoyable read although not entirely focused on Pentridge Prison, there is a lot of other details about the Melbourne colony. Sometimes the book lost focus but I wasn’t bored, there is a dramatic short story about a night ride from Geelong to Melbourne that was indirectly connected to Pentridge. Towards the end there is a bit of an examination of nineteenth century penal theory and practice but the book is more about historical story telling than any overall thesis.

There were also a few more anecdotal details about William Stanford, the convict who carved the granite fountain in Gordon Reserve (above Parliament Station) including speculations on who was the model for the boy. However, amongst all these details the authors fail to mention, the crucial detail that Stanford had been an apprentice stonemason before immigrating to Australia.

Stanford Fountain, Melbourne

Stanford Fountain, Melbourne

“Stanford was allowed the use of a shed for his work. The magistrate also supplied him with a kit of tools, and when the artist wanted a model for the eagles which were to ornament the rim of the fountain , he arranged for a stuffed eagle hawk to be sent to Pentridge from Bendigo. Mr Paton also came to Stanford’s aid when he wanted a child to act as model for the nude figure forming the finial of the work – a youth holding up a basket of flowers. Stanford, it is said, made many request to the warders to allow one of their children to pose for the nude, although the warders were willing their womenfolk had other views.” (p.139-40)

The vast site of the old Pentridge prison continues to be rehabilitated and redeveloped into a housing estate. However, apart from the residential development and a few eateries there is little going on in the area. I notice that people keep on searching for ghosts in the grounds of Pentridge prison but it appears rather soulless in the daylight. The old carved granite bluestones retain character but the development appears lifeless. Stone work was a major feature of Pentridge’s prison regime in the early years of the prison, some of it perhaps carved with William Stanford himself.

Elliot Ronald Bull, Pentridge 1

Elliot Ronald Bull, Pentridge 2

Walking around Pentridge Village, as it is now called, I thought that I had finally found the preserved mural by the aboriginal artist, Elliot Ronald Bull (1942-1979) that I heard about. Like Stanford, Bull already had already studied painting before being sent to prison. In 1960 (or 1962 or 1964) Elliot Bull painted the mural with ordinary house paint in “F” Division. (See my post on Prison Art @ Pentridge.) Although Bull’s mural at Pentridge is his most important surviving artwork (S. Kleinert, ‘‘‘Blood from a Stone”: Ronald Bull’s Mural in Pentridge Prison’, Australian Journal of Art, 14, no 2, 1999, p 93).

I was wrong Bull is not the artist responsible for this painting. The unnamed artist  in a yet unnamed lane, between Pentridge Blvd and Sentry Lane. Now I think that it might have come from the Jika Jika Division exercise yard, as it has steel reinforcing bars embedded in the concrete. There was nothing about its history and it probably adds less to the lane than it did to the prison yard.

Elliot Ronald Bull, Pentridge 3Elliot Ronald Bull, Pentridge 4


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