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Tag Archives: aboriginal art

Confined 9 – Indigenous prison art

Not every Indigenous person who goes to prison is an amazing artist and far too many Indigenous people are going to prison in Australia. Far too many, land rights activist Noel Pearson’s claim that Indigenous Australians are ‘the most incarcerated people on the planet Earth’ is an accurate claim according to the best available data; well over five times the rate that African–Americans are jailed. And you don’t have to be an amazing artist to do worthwhile art because something that is worth doing is worth doing. Even a first painting by a prisoner, like Ricky W trying to connect with his culture.

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Last year 130 Indigenous artists filling the walls of the St Kilda Town Hall Gallery; this year the annual exhibition by The Torch is even larger. With almost 200 work of art in the annual Confined 9 exhibition there is a great variety in quality and styles. There are some exceptional paintings including works by Bex, Daniel Harrison, Ray Taplin, and Robby Wirramanda. Gary Wilson Reid’s painting Wati Ngintaka Story is an intense and dynamic image from a traditional Pitjantjatjara/Yankuntjatjara story.

So if you think that Indigenous art is all about dot painting then this exhibition will show you there is a lot more. There isn’t one homogenous, big dot of Aboriginal culture, but hundreds of cultures, each with its own traditions and motifs. There are the sunset silhouette landscapes influenced by the Carrolup (Noongar) Art Movement and plenty of art combining traditions.

There is also wood carving, textiles, baskets and ceramics. And an awesome three storey model house Shane J’s Dream House. The house, like a lot of the art, shows what awesome things can be done with persistence, dedication, 5,500 paddle pop sticks, and 4,950 matches.

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The Torch is an organisation that supports Indigenous offenders and ex-offenders by running an Indigenous arts in prison and a community program. It works with hundreds of prisoners in fifteen out of the seventeen Victorian correctional facilities and it continues to work with them after they are released, providing career and in-community support. One focus of The Torch’s program is in assisting Aboriginal prisoners to emphasise a professional approach to art. But the most important part of The Torch’s program is that it is teaching cultural learning and cultural strengthening, which help the prisoners reconnect with their culture. Aboriginal prisoners didn’t want art classes about how to draw or mix colours; what they wanted was to learn more about their own backgrounds and country. They wanted to know about their culture. They wanted to know their totem animal, consequently there are many paintings of turtles from Yorta Yorta people.

There is parallel exhibition, Dhumbadha Munga – Talking Knowledge on at the Eildon Gallery at Alliance Française in St Kilda of the art by the Torch’s arts workers and ex-offenders who have continued an arts practice. Such an exhibition is a necessary part of their professional development so that they can still be practicing artists. The Torch’s founder and CEO Kent Morris’s exhibited two art photographs of natives birds. These are not the kind birdwatchers take yet his carefully constructed images originate with the artist “walking on Country.”

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Robby Wirramanda, Colours of Tyrell #1 and detail of Old Man Goanna

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The Story So Far…

Twenty works by Indigenous and Torees Strait Islander artists from the Moreland Art Collection curated by Kate Ten Buuren at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick. This exhibition demonstrates not only the long commitment of Moreland City Council in collecting art Indigenous and Torees Strait Islander art since the early 1980s but also the diversity of that art.

It was good to see two colourful prints, Magpie and Echidnas 2011, by the late Trevor ‘Turbo’ Brown who died in January 2017. Turbo was a Latje Latje man from Mildura and the winner of the 2012 Victorian Deadly Art Award. The exhibition is particularly strong in printing with screen-prints by Lin Onus and Trevor ‘Turbo’ Brown, etching by Regina Karadada, Judy Watson and Janic Murray, and Brian Robinson’s magnificent linocuts. Although Indigenous Australian art is better known for its dot paintings printmaking is an important media for many Indigenous artists. The first was the artist and playwright Kevin Gilbert who started making lino-prints made from old lino floor tiles in Long Bay prison in the 1960s.

Lin Onus shows great technique in screen-printing with the transparent layer of the water in his Gumbirri Garginingi (Five Tortoises) 1996. The rarrk crosshatching work on the shells of the tortoises is not traditional for Koori artists but Onus had been taught and given permission to use the rarrk work by Maningrida artists.

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On a plinth is a fantastic tiny paper sculpture only 55 x 35 x 20 mm by Archie Moore. On a Mission From God (Goulburn Island) uses a little Bible to make a big point about the Mission Days destroying Aboriginal spirituality. Best use that I’ve seen made of a Bible for a long time.

What will the Moreland City Council’s collection look like in another forty years? The story continues.


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.


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.


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