Banj Banj/nawnta (meaning “sisters” in Taungurung/palawa kani) is a joyful collection of paintings with bright colours vibrating and lots of birds. Art that is the antidote for a post lockdown brain, the first exhibition that I saw after Victoria’s fifth lockdown. Eyes dulled with repetition pop. The backstory to these paintings is not so joyful.
Stacey (Taungurung /Boon Wurrung) and Thelma (Palawa) are close enough to be sisters. The two Indigenous women are from the same regional town and met up again when they were incarcerated at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre, Victoria’s maximum-security women’s prison in Deer Park.
Their artistic origin story of these two jailbirds watching and laughing as two galahs flew down to look at them is told in an animated video narrated by the artists. Thelma Beeton records the story in one of her paintings, A Sign from Our Ancestors. She depicts the artists as a couple of emus with big brush stroke feathers behind a bluestone wall.
Beeton’s emus and bees have a cartoon simplicity with their bold outlines and colours. In contrast to Stacey’s meticulous art, a fusion of ancient and contemporary images with the traditional diamond pattern forming a background for her realistic depictions of birds, animals, and insects. There are subtle colour gradations and combinations in these backgrounds that are intensely beautiful.
The two artists works have a different mood and tone that works together in harmony. I wish that there were more collaborative works between these two artists. However, I understand that might be logistically difficult given that Stacey is still in prison.
The two prison corkboards are displayed on a background of bee wallpaper, evoking the decoration that Thelma painted on her cell’s walls. The corkboards are similar to the ones that can be found in every cell at Deer Park. They are self-portraits of each artist, represented who they are personally, socially and culturally in a mixed media of cards, letters and drawings.
The exhibition at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick is organised by The Torch. The Torch works with incarcerated Indigenous people in Victoria, the most incarcerated people on the planet, providing artistic training, materials, exhibitions and opportunities for sales. I would have seen their art before at the Torch’s annual Confined exhibitions. However, there are hundreds of paintings all competing for attention, so I’m not surprised that I don’t remember them. After this exhibition, I won’t forget them.