Tag Archives: The Torch

Confined 13

The gallery in the white neo-classical Glen Eira Town Hall in Caulfield, constructed in 1885, is occupied with an art exhibition by Indigenous people who have been incarcerated in Victoria. I wondered if this symbol of colonial imperialism is appropriate. Maybe it needs to be occupied.

Seeing The Torch’s annual exhibition, “Confined”, I go through similar emotions. A rush as I see, hung from floor to ceiling, hundreds of paintings filling the visual field, 400 artworks from 350 artists. Powerful images of Indigenous culture mixed with less successful work give a mix of highs and lows. The quantity of art is variable. For some, this is their first exhibition; others are regular exhibitors. Each painting tells its own story, but all of the artists have been in prison, which is tragic. The over-representation of Indigenous people in jail is evident in the scale of the exhibition. Then I think of the recidivism rate, with only 11% of those who go through the Torch’s program returning to prison compared with the average Indigenous recidivism rate of 53.4%, which gives hope.

“Because of culture, I believe in myself now and have found who I really am.” – Ash Thomas (Yorta Yorta/Wiradjuri people) Precisely what culture should do. I would prefer that Indigenous people be paid a living wage to connect to their culture instead of doing that in prison.

People want many things from art, and while it was good seeing some new work by artists that I’ve written about in the past. As a writer, I want art to be a story that takes the viewer to current events or a new view of history. We love it when an artist references art or history and doubly so when the two are combined because it gives us more to write about. So for me, two works stood out from the mass of paintings at “Confined 13” in the Glen Eira City Council Gallery. (Full disclosure; I bought two paintings through The Torch a couple of years ago, and one of them is on the wall behind me.)

Big Dom, Koorie Old Style Boxing

Big Dom’s (Gunaikurnai) Koorie Old Style Boxing has a different view of history that I hadn’t seen before. Black figures on a terracotta pot refer to similar images on ancient Greek pottery. I wanted to see more and could imagine vases with other Indigenous athletes depicted. Koorie Old Style Boxing takes the viewer to two. Ancient Greece and the history of Indigenous boxing in the twentieth century when in Big Dom’s words, “they used to travel around doing old style tent boxing to make some money to feed their family and keep fit.”

Deaths in Custody by C. Harrison (Yorta Yorta) is an all too current event, and it is something that the whole of Australia needs to address. Root and branch reforms of the custodial system need to take place. As Harrison points out, “Aboriginal people are 7 x more likely to die in custody than Australian defence personnel in war.” The calmly ordered rows of bodies on a red ocher background. There are forty-four figures in each row by ten columns. Each one painted by hand, an act that does not reduce them to statistics and symbols. The artist is aware that each represents a person who died in custody between 1991 to 2021 and whose family and friends still grieve (the number has gone up since painting).

C. Harrison Deaths in Custody 

Confined 12 and Culture

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.

Daniel JC’s Darug Archway framing Sheldon’s Dhuringa Burrundi Guyang Dreaming (Born of the Black Fire) at the Confined 12

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.)

Robert P’s Culture #2 on kangaroo hide along with Roger Sims Old Black Tree Goanna Swimming at Confined 12

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.

Manuel’s painted face-mask, Rainbow Serpent, Baiame the Creator and Octopus Dreaming baseball cap

Confined 11

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.

Angela, Oppression of Waterways

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.

Stacey, Sunset Cockatoo

Confined 10

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: Artworks from The Torch 2018

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

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.

See my earlier posts for more on The Torch: Confined 9, Confined 8, Yannae Wirrate Weelam and prison art.


Confined 9 – Indigenous prison art

Not every Indigenous person who goes to prison is an amazing artist and far too many Indigenous people are going to prison in Australia. Far too many, land rights activist Noel Pearson’s claim that Indigenous Australians are ‘the most incarcerated people on the planet Earth’ is an accurate claim according to the best available data; well over five times the rate that African–Americans are jailed. And you don’t have to be an amazing artist to do worthwhile art because something that is worth doing is worth doing. Even a first painting by a prisoner, like Ricky W trying to connect with his culture.

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Last year 130 Indigenous artists filling the walls of the St Kilda Town Hall Gallery; this year the annual exhibition by The Torch is even larger. With almost 200 work of art in the annual Confined 9 exhibition there is a great variety in quality and styles. There are some exceptional paintings including works by Bex, Daniel Harrison, Ray Taplin, and Robby Wirramanda. Gary Wilson Reid’s painting Wati Ngintaka Story is an intense and dynamic image from a traditional Pitjantjatjara/Yankuntjatjara story.

So if you think that Indigenous art is all about dot painting then this exhibition will show you there is a lot more. There isn’t one homogenous, big dot of Aboriginal culture, but hundreds of cultures, each with its own traditions and motifs. There are the sunset silhouette landscapes influenced by the Carrolup (Noongar) Art Movement and plenty of art combining traditions.

There is also wood carving, textiles, baskets and ceramics. And an awesome three storey model house Shane J’s Dream House. The house, like a lot of the art, shows what awesome things can be done with persistence, dedication, 5,500 paddle pop sticks, and 4,950 matches.

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The Torch is an organisation that supports Indigenous offenders and ex-offenders by running an Indigenous arts in prison and a community program. It works with hundreds of prisoners in fifteen out of the seventeen Victorian correctional facilities and it continues to work with them after they are released, providing career and in-community support. One focus of The Torch’s program is in assisting Aboriginal prisoners to emphasise a professional approach to art. But the most important part of The Torch’s program is that it is teaching cultural learning and cultural strengthening, which help the prisoners reconnect with their culture. Aboriginal prisoners didn’t want art classes about how to draw or mix colours; what they wanted was to learn more about their own backgrounds and country. They wanted to know about their culture. They wanted to know their totem animal, consequently there are many paintings of turtles from Yorta Yorta people.

There is parallel exhibition, Dhumbadha Munga – Talking Knowledge on at the Eildon Gallery at Alliance Française in St Kilda of the art by the Torch’s arts workers and ex-offenders who have continued an arts practice. Such an exhibition is a necessary part of their professional development so that they can still be practicing artists. The Torch’s founder and CEO Kent Morris’s exhibited two art photographs of natives birds. These are not the kind birdwatchers take yet his carefully constructed images originate with the artist “walking on Country.”

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Robby Wirramanda, Colours of Tyrell #1 and detail of Old Man Goanna


Yannae Wirrate Weelam and prison art

At the Melbourne Museum I saw Yannae Wirrate Weelam, The Journey Home in the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre. The exhibition was organised by The Torch, who are very actively exhibiting. In January I saw their exhibition, Confined 8 at the St. Kilda Town Hall Gallery. They also have an exhibition, Dhumbadha Munga (Talking Knowledge) at the Alliance Francaise’s Eildon Gallery that looks at the two-way relationship between the arts workers and the artists they support.

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The exhibition, Yannae Wirrate Weelam, The Journey Home had a very short history about the far too many aboriginal artists in prison along with work by people in the current The Torch program.

All of the artists in the exhibition took such care and time with their art but a few of the artists are outstanding. Robby Knight, of the Wergaia/Wotjobaluk, has so much creative energy and talent when working in both paint and many other materials. And Knight’s work with other materials gets frighteningly awesome and powerful. The paintings by Jeffrey Jackson, of the Mutti Mutti, are so powerful and beautiful. I was also impressed with the pokerwork, burning wood with a hot bit of metal, by Roger Sims, of the Barkindji, proving that you can do a contemporary illustration of a Murray Cod with fantastic detail in that media.

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Jeffrey Jackson, Knowing Country

This was research for my next book which is about true art crimes in Melbourne. For along with art theft, art forgery and art vandalism I also want to write about prison art and other places where art the criminal justice system intersect.

Prison art has not been an easy topic to write about for a number of reasons, chiefly I don’t have much information. I have been able to interview a couple of prison art educators and I expect to interview some more.

To add to the difficultly I want to focus on Aboriginal prison art including the artist Ronald Bull who painted the mural in Pentridge Prison’s “F” Division. In the 1970s Ronald Bull was described in advertisement in The Age: “Hailed by many as the foremost and most versatile landscape painter of the present time. Showing the often unseen beauty of our countryside, an artist with turbulent talent. Capable of becoming Australia’s premier painter.” Yet few people have heard of him today; I don’t want his life and art, along with others like him, to be forgotten so I am writing about it.


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