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Tag Archives: prison art

The life and art of Ronald Bull

In 1960 in a corridor of F-Divison in Pentridge Prison a young 19- or 20-year-old artist was painting his largest and most important artwork. The young Gunai (Kurnai) artist was Elliot Ronald Bull, known as Ronald Bull. Nobody is sure about why Bull was in prison; it might been for nothing as F-Division was used for both remand and short-term prisoners. He may have been in and out of there a couple of times for minor offences.

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Detail of Ronald Bull’s mural in Pentridge

While Bull was in prison painted a mural that is still visible today. In it he depicted an idealised Aboriginal camp scene with three lean and muscled men. In the background there is a variety of trees and other vegetation. The landscape has hidden images of kangaroo heads; something extra in the painting for those with time to look. Hidden faces and bodies in the landscape were a feature of Bull’s paintings.

In the mural, Bull depicts an idea of life before European colonisation. It was not a scene that he was at all familiar with, but rather an idealised traditional life. Bull was a member of the Stolen Generation; he had twice been removed from his family, who lived at the notorious government-run Lake Tyers Station. The first time he was taken he was only four months old; in the legal process of this removal Bull would have acquired his first police record, one that would influence all later interactions with the courts and police. He was returned for primary school only to be sent to Tally Ho Boys Training Farm, a Methodist Church institution in Burwood East when he turned 12. At the age of 15 he was fostered out in Melbourne. Along the way he became very interested in art.

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His 3 metre long and 2 metre high mural in Pentridge is painted with ordinary house paint on a terracotta orange background that also serves as the sky. The other colours stand out against this orange background and, along with the confident painting technique, shows that Bull, although young, was no self-taught painter. Indeed, Bull hadn’t learnt to paint in prison; prior to his incarceration he had studied painting with Melbourne painter Ernest Buckmaster and exchanged letters with the Adelaide-based landscape painter of great eucalyptus trees, Hans Heysen.

Bull’s mural was followed by others in K- and G-divisions at Pentridge. Based on their content, they all appear to have been painted by Indigenous artists, although none were as talented a painter as Ronald Bull. Although it is not currently on public display, Bull’s mural was preserved after Pentridge Prison was closed in 1997. The mural is on the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Register and protected under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006, as well as the Heritage Act 1995, because it is on the Victorian Heritage Register as part of Pentridge Prison.

 

Ronald Bull’s first exhibition was at Morwell in 1965. In 1966–67 he exhibited with Keith Namatjira, the fourth son of Albert Namatjira. In 1973 he sold a landscape painting for $1,150 at the Melbourne Art Show. By the 1970s Bull was exhibiting regularly in Melbourne galleries with notable, non-Indigenous artists, including Ernest Vogel and Pro Hart. I have been able to piece together information about his career from newspaper advertisements.

In 1975 on Sunday afternoon 25 October, Sir Douglas Nicholls, a Yorta Yorta man, footballer, pastor and Aboriginal rights activist, opened An exhibition of Paintings by Ronald Bull at Kew Gallery on Cotham Road. At the time Bull was not called as an ‘Aboriginal’ artist; an advertisement in 1981 described him as: ‘Australia’s greatest Native artist’.

A 1976 advertisement described the ‘the tranquil paintings by Ronald Bull from $95 regarded by many as one of the finest and most gifted landscape artists of the present time’ ($95 then is worth about $550 today). In the ads Bull’s paintings were claimed ‘To Increase 100% in Value’. This all seems over the top given that Bull’s paintings were not expensive to start with; a 1979 advertisement offered Ronald Bull paintings ‘from $65’ (that’s about $280 today and you can buy one for under $300, they have just kept pace with inflation).

Melbourne’s art world was far less sophisticated in the 1970s and early ’80s. It’s hard to imagine buying one of Bull’s paintings from a private sale in Surrey Hills along with paintings by Heysen, Bell and Streeton; or purchasing them from the 1983 Brighton Art Exhibition, a classy affair with an opening night preview hosted by celebrity chef Peter Russell-Clarke and featuring a chicken and champagne supper and a body painting demonstration.

In 1979 Bull was not a well man; ominously a clearance auction of his art was held on Saturday morning 30 June 1979 in the Plaza Arcade in the run-down eastern suburb of Clayton. On 8 September 1979, Ronald Bull died of hypertensive cardiovascular disease at his home at Mont Albert.

Bull’s art was almost forgotten as two new wave of Indigenous Australian artists emerged during the 1980s. Conventional European landscape paintings, like those of Albert Namatjira and Ronald Bull were out of fashion, replaced by Central Desert dot painting by the likes of Michael Jagamara (also spelt Jagamarra or Tjakamarra) and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri. It was the popularity of these Central Desert dot paintings that would develop into a generic Aboriginal ‘prison art’ style. At the same time, there were urban Indigenous artists, like Gordon Bennett, Lin Onus and many others, who were continuing Bull’s practice of using European media and techniques.

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Teaching art in prison

In 1977 Chris Dyson was playing guitar with Paul Kelly in High Rise Bombers. However instead of pursuing music Dyson went on studying painting at Victorian College of the Arts and later Masters from Monash University. Dyson studied at the VCA 82-84 and then taught there until 1998. In the early 80s Chris Dyson saw an exhibition of aboriginal prison art at the VCA gallery school. He remembers a painting titled; “The park across the road from the bank I robbed.” A few years later Dyson was teaching art at Pentridge.

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Pentridge Prison, Coburg

In 1986 Dyson gave art classes at the psych unit, G Division. Dyson felt that what he was doing was art therapy than art classes. That it was a chance for the prisoners to take pride in something. A chance for the prisoners to think about something else. A chance for them to talk about things that they wouldn’t normally talk about. Maybe that’s why the guards hated it so much.

Many of the prisoners were so heavily medicated they were like zombies for most of the month. Dyson regarded most of the prisoners in G Division as people who couldn’t deal with the outside world. They painted dicks or marijuana leaves in acrylics. No oil paint was allowed due to fears from the guards at what other uses the prisoners could make of them. There was no music therapy after Gary Web David swallowed the metal guitar strings.

He wasn’t there for long somewhere between a year and eighteen months on shitty pay. He felt intimidated; the memo about the body search option, the missing art materials and general harassment from the guards. One day they wouldn’t let him go in with his cigarette and a prisoner ends up giving him a White Ox cigarette. Then the guards question him about what he is going to give the prisoner in return for the cigarette. He considered teaching jobs elsewhere in the Pentridge and later in other private prisons but corruption and lack of support from the guards weighed against that.

Dyson felt that the guards were worse than the prisoners. He only remembers seeing the guards body building with the gym equipment, never the prisoners who were all over weight from the stogy prison food and the side effects of psychiatric medication.

Using his old connections Dyson did get Paul Kelly to perform at Pentridge. He remembers the afternoon as a great performance followed by a BBQ.

This is some of my research for a chapter on prison art for my book about art and crime. The book is planned to be published later in the year, so I have been working on that and neglecting this blog. I don’t think that much this will end up in the book except as background because that chapter is taking a different direction, so I thought that it would make a good blog post.


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.


Prison Art @ Pentridge

Pentridge Prison operated in Coburg between 1850 and 1997 and as in all prisons some prisoners were also artists (not just escape artists and bareknuckle bash artists). In 1886 professional photographer, Joseph H. Soden was convicted of forging pound notes and served time in Pentridge in the same year his photographs were exhibited at the Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition.

In 1960 (or 1962 or1964) aboriginal artist Elliot Ronald Bull (1942-1979) painted the mural in “F” Division. Painted with ordinary house paint the mural depicts an aboriginal camp scene. Part of the stolen generation Elliot Ronald Bull had already studied painting with Melbourne painter, Ernest Buckmaster. After his release Elliot Ronald Bull participated in a number of solo and group exhibitions. Some of his mural at Pentridge has been preserved.

Having lived in Coburg for decades I can remember the prison in operation, closed the location being slowly rehabilitated. I can still remember hearing the howls that came from Pentridge at midnight on New Year’s Eve in 1991 when I was living a block from the prison walls. I also saw and photographed parts of the prison shortly after it closed.

Carving from officers club rooms Pentridge Prison.

There was some prisoner art on the site in the maximum security Jika Jika Unit and in the officers’ club rooms. On a wall in the officers’ club rooms were a series of folk art style carved and painted round base reliefs. I’m don’t know what has happened to them.

The escape proof Jika Jika Unit has been demolished along with the art on its walls. Prisoners had painted some of the yard walls of the Jika Jika unit. On the ceiling and walls of one cell an unknown, probably aboriginal artist had painted goanna with tracks leading up the wall and onto the ceiling. The simple elegance of this design helped humanized a dehumanising cell.

Towards the end of its long life Pentridge Prison did have various art programs for prisoners run by art educator, Dr Max Darby and painter, Margaret Miles. (See Dr Max Darby’s “My Days In Prison”.)There was also at least one prisoner art exhibition in a CBD bank – so if anyone knows anymore details about prisoner art in Pentridge Prison please comment before the details are lost to history and redevelopment.


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