Painted in February 1961 by an inmate of Pentridge Prison who signed his name J. G. Cust. Earlier this year, I was sent these photographs by a man whose father had been a warden at Pentridge in the 1960s. We know nothing else but hope to find out more. Please comment if you have any information.
I live close to the stone walls of the former Pentridge prison. I was living there when it was still operational. So my interest in this area is partly due to proximity (the rehabilitation of this former 19th-century prison is another story). I’m interested in art outside of the mainstream, from alternate exhibition spaces to graffiti.
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 therapy, education, recreation, job training, or culture? These definitions are political and, in a prison, become structural and institutional.
Finally, there is the issue of who should profit from the art 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.
In this state, the Torch provides art training and the opportunity for sales to Indigenous people who are incarcerated and post-incarceration. I have been writing about their annual Confined exhibitions and other exhibitions organised by the Torch.
Here are all my posts on the art of the incarcerated (I must try to keep this up dated).
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.
In her Oppression of Waterways Angela, a Gunditjmara/Gunaikurnai woman, takes on the contemporary political/environmental issue of cotton farmers taking the Murray River’s water for irrigation. The Australian government’s treatment of waterways is an important subject. The paintings elegant design draws the viewer into discovering that the painting has a message, that its curves are waterways. The painting is both simple and complex, ancient and contemporary. It sold on the first day of Confined 11, an exhibition organised by The Torch. The artist, Angela, is still in prison, but will receive 100% of the sales price on her release.
Confined is an annual exhibition normally the exhibition is held at the gallery in St. Kilda town hall. The Torch an organisation that provides art and culture support to Indigenous offenders and ex-offenders in Victoria.
Due to the COVID-19 virus there was an online exhibition and online exhibition launch this year. It was my first virtual exhibition and virtual launch in this unusual year. I have been going to the Confined exhibitions regularly for last few years so I have a basis for comparison (see my previous reviews of Confined 10 and Confined 9 and Confined 8).
It was great to hear from more of The Torch team and some of the artists in the virtual opening. The best part was the live crosses as The Torch CEO Kent Morris, as he phoned the winners awards; it was the best award presentation that I’ve seen because it was so real, personal and heart warming. See the video launch on Facebook.
There are a number of ways to explore the large exhibition you could scrolling through themes or look at the painting in a virtual gallery. The large virtual warehouse exhibitions spaces were an ideal vision of how Confined exhibitions should all look, as if there were no space limitations at the St Kilda Town Hall. Without the limitations of space the curators could divide the exhibition into three galleries based on themes: 1. animals and kinship, 2. belongings and waterways, 3. birds, bushfires and country.
The advantage of a virtual exhibition and opening, aside from the avoiding a virus, was that I didn’t have to travel all the way from the north of the city to St.Kilda to see the exhibition. There is a physical exhibition as an adjunct to the virtual exhibition with 177 artworks at The Torch gallery in St Kilda but that is by appointment only.
The big disadvantage was that the live opening didn’t work for me. There needs to be information about the requirements and time that it will take to sign up to these platforms before the event starts. The other disadvantages was that there was no sense of community alone at my desk, there was no chance to run into familiar faces and to meet new people.
I’m standing in line, about to buy a painting when the woman just in front of me buys the very one that I wanted. She must have excellent taste but I am so disappointed. I look at the exhibition catalogue again, before heading to the bar for a consolation drink. The same woman is just in front of me in the queue for the bar, fortunately she didn’t drink the bar dry.
Thursday, January 31 is opening of the Confined 10 in the Carlisle Street Arts Space at the St Kilda Town Hall. Confined 10 is the annual exhibition by The Torch, an organisation that supports Indigenous artists currently in or recently released from prisons in Victoria. The gallery is packed to capacity, there is a security guard only letting a hundred people in at a time, and there are hundreds more people in the foyer and the ballroom.
The walls of the gallery are full of paintings, hundreds of paintings; amidst all these you would think that I’d be able to find another painting that I liked. However, there are now there are more dots on the walls, not more dot paintings but red dots to indicate that a painting has been sold. The paintings that are just designs, without any images of animals are selling very well.
“It’s what the painting represents more than the painting.” I overhear the familiar voice of for Premier Jeff Kennett. He is talking to someone else just behind me in the crowd but I’m not surprised to see him. Jeff Kennett has been the Chairman of the Torch since 2016 and ensured that the law was changed so the Indigenous prisoners could sell their art. I don’t know what Kennett means; is he referring to the humanitarian value of helping people in need, or that Indigenous culture is more than just a painting. But I am still feeling the loss of the painting that I wanted to buy, its colours, its designs, Kelvin Rogers bold signature with date.
I shouldn’t have taken so much time looking at whole exhibition, photographing the couple of quirky works, like the wooden model motorcycle by Shane J, and gone straight for the buying. But the art critic in me wanted to look at variety of art on exhibit. For the last two years Shane J has been exhibiting some impressive constructions made from matchsticks and ‘paddle pop’ sticks.
Anyway, enough of the regrets, the speeches are starting in the ballroom. Kent Morris, the CEO of the Torch told the story of how an exhibition, a decade ago featuring 18 artists and 25 art works, grew to its current size with 217 artists and 230 art works. Followed by more speeches from Auntie Caroline, the Mayor of St. Kilda Dick Ross, and Uncle Jim Berg, Gunditjmara Elder. The award winners were announced: Ash Thomas, Kim Kennedy, Chris Austin, Paul Leroy McLaughlin, Lodi Lovett, Veronica Hudson, and Graham ‘Gil’ Gilbert.
No Turning Back is a group exhibition Art by Indigenous prisoners and former prisoners at Deakin Downtown Gallery, the one room gallery Deakin University’s elegant space at Collins Square in the Docklands.
Big Kev, Ceremony, 2017
Most of the paintings are about the artist’s country. The fire paintings about burning as land management by Pitjantjatjara artist, Veronica Mungaloon Hudson. Jeffrey Jackson’s paintings that represent Mutti Mutti country around Lake Mungo. Robby Wirramanda painting and ceramics inspired by the Lake Tyrrell salt flats with his hopeful dragonflies trailing after images of dots across the surface of the paintings. Ray Traplin’s large dot painting of a giant snake creating rivers in Kuku Yalanji country.
There are paintings about ceremony. Ceremony by Big Kev, a Ngiyampaa man has so much detail and about his culture. The clarity of information about an exchange ceremony held between Wiradjuri, Barkindji and Wailwan in this one painting is impressive. And Bora Rings (Ceremonial Grounds) by Bradley, a Dja Dja Wurrung/Yorta Yorta man is restrained in its ochre hues but has the intensity and concentration of design that is typical of much prison art where the painting is evidence of time well spent.
Not that Gary Scott’s painting looks out of place for not being about country or ceremony. New Beginnings is about changes in his own life and from all accounts Scott is making a career as an artist in the highly competitive Indigenous arts sector, even selling a couple of paintings to the Victoria Police Academy.
On Thursday morning Kent Morris, The Torch’s CEO and a Barkindji man gave a talk at the exhibition. Weaving his own personal story of finding his identity into the way that The Torch’s program works in helping Indigenous inmates find their identity, reconnect to their culture and earn some money through art. Morris talked about the many challenges for The Torch from getting the law changed so that Indigenous prisoners can sell their art, to giving art criticism to prisoners. If you think that some artist are sensitive (and believe me they can be) then consider the delicate art or giving prisoners art criticism. Having the resilience to work through criticism and failure is necessary for artistic development but it is a very tough thing for someone in prison when the rest of their life isn’t going well.
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, or Ben to his friends and family. 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.
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.
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; the same year that he married Lynette Davies. 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. He was survived by his wife and daughter, Katrina.
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.
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.
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.