Culture is something that takes you to inspiring and unexpected places. I know this because it brought me to Confined 12, The Torch’s annual exhibition, artwork by Indigenous artists currently in or recently released from prison in Victoria. 379 works. Walls of paintings of totem animals: birds, fish, turtles, platypus. Thousands of dots of paint, as wells as ceramics, woodwork, basket-making and textiles.
This is the fifth Confined exhibition that I have seen and written about. I don’t want to just repeat myself explaining the work of The Torch or the variety of art. (See my earlier posts: Confined 8, Confined 9, Confined 10, and Confined 11.)
This year’s exhibition is in the gallery at the white neo-classical Glen Eira Town Hall, a minor symbol of colonial imperialism. It is a change from last year when it was all online or previous years at the St Kilda Town Hall. Nevertheless, it is a better, more coherent gallery space (even though it can’t accommodate the massive exhibition launch parties that used to happen at St. Kilda).
Looking at the exhibition, it was clear that Daniel JC (Darug) is an outstanding artist. His art needs to be in a public collection so that it can be seen by more people. His Darug Archway, a sculpture employing woodcarving, pokerwork, and inlaid shells, is impressive. It conveys the gravity of the sacred, the knowledge of Darug totems and which animals may be eaten. Then there were his three carved and painted sculptural pillars, a carved bench and a walking stick.
Daniel JC has so much energy. He reminds me of the energy that I saw when I first saw the work of Robby Wirramanda (Wergaia/Wotjobaluk). And there, along with four didgeridoos, was painted guitar by Wirramanda, Lake Direl, Grandfather’s Country #2. (Wirramanda also did the music for this year’s online launch.)
There is always some pokerwork in the Confined exhibitions. Still it seemed like there was a lot more pokerwork this year; on wood or leather, like Robert P’s (Yuggera) Culture #2. But the fire work of Sheldon (Murri), Dhuringa Burrundi Guyang Dreaming (Born of the Black Fire) went further. A section of burnt hardwood, real, actual, and natural; a solid work of contemporary art but with ancient connections to stories told through fires and smoking ceremonies.
Teaching Indigenous prisoners to be professional artists achieves a great recidivism rate (11% compared to the wider Victorian rate of 53.4% for Indigenous prisoners). But art and the culture is more important than all of that. It is not just about training to become professional artists, it about keeping culture alive. For genocide is just as much about destroying a culture as it is about destroying a people.
Reminding people that culture is part of the present is this pandemic’s compulsory fashion accessory by Manuel (Wiradjuri/Yorta Yorta). A painted face-mask, Rainbow Serpent, Baiame the Creator (and a baseball cap, Octopus Dreaming). Art keeps culture fresh, relevant, inspiring and unexpected.