The Glen Eira City Council Gallery is in the white neo-classical Caulfield City Hall, constructed in 1885, symbolises colonial imperialism. Is it appropriate for this symbolic architecture to house an exhibition of incarcerated Indigenous people’s art, The Torch’s annual exhibition, Confined? Perhaps not. Perhaps nothing has changed from the colonial era in how white Australia views Indigenous art.
At the Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition of 1888, the art of five Larrakia artists was on display at another neo-classical building, the Exhibition Building. The men had all been prisoners in Fannie Bay Gaol in Darwin when they were somehow (unlikely to be entirely ethically given the carceral environment) convinced to produce art for an exhibition titled Dawn of Art.
This was the first public of Indigenous prison art, attracting both interest and admiration from Melbourne’s colonial inhabitants. Indigenous Australians have been imprisoned for almost as long as the English have occupied their land, and for almost as long, non-Indigenous people, like myself, have been expressing an interest in Indigenous prison art.
There are still colonial attitudes to prison art. Art in prison is part of the good-prison-bad-prison routine, distracting the public from the inhumane conditions and creating a semblance of benevolence and reform. There are feel-good aspects that appeal to the WASP middle class: rehabilitation, therapy, education and job training. What about culture, politics and pleasure? Aren’t those three things meant to happen in prison?
The politics of prison art has three parts. Firstly, who is incarcerated? In Australia, Indigenous people are disproportionately incarcerated. What is the purpose of incarceration, and what is the purpose of art? Is it therapeutic, educational, recreational, cultural or a business? (These same different approaches to art exist outside of prison; only prisons institutionalise the definitions.) Finally, there is the issue of who should profit from the art, music or literature created by prisoners. This final question only worries shallow vengeful politicians (of which there are many in Australia) who cannot separate the crime from the incarcerated person.
My one criticism of The Torch’s program is its focus on the business of selling art. We all know that there are more reasons to do art is more than business. That it is also therapeutic, educational, recreational, and cultural. And, as all decent people would know, there are some things you don’t sell. (And yes, that last comment was directed at you, Jeff Kennett AC, former Premier of Victoria and Chair of Board, administering The Torch since 2015.)
I understand this is the neo-liberal political and economic situation it is established in and the kind of people who have made it possible. But as a critic, my role is to point out that it is not the only way nor the best way to do it. To look at the big picture, including politics, history, and culture. And, in doing so, recognise the connection between colonialism and neo-classical architecture — classical and neo-classical architecture symbolised colonial, slave-trading empires (Greek, Roman, British or American). The structural irony is that The Torch’s new building is the former Carlton Post Office which has a neo-classical facade.
That said, The Torch’s annual exhibition is the most ethical way to purchase Indigenous art, where 100% of the artwork’s price goes to the artist (simply the best deal any artist could ever get). And with over 400 works by Indigenous people currently in prison or released in recent years in Victoria, there will be plenty of choices.