Senior Curator, Indigenous Art, Judith Ryan, spoke to Kent Morris about the Indigenous Arts in Prisons and Community Pilot Program. Two of the artists who have been nurtured by this program have produced innovative works that will be featured in Melbourne Now.
Tell us about the Indigenous Arts in Prisons and Community Pilot Program, how it came about and how it works.
The Torch’s Statewide Indigenous Arts Officer in Prisons and Community Pilot program was born out of a growing need to provide art, cultural and arts industry vocational support for Indigenous offenders both inside prison and upon release. To date it is the only program of its kind to have been run in Victoria. It was set within the context of the Victorian Aboriginal Justice Agreement (VAJA) and its focus was on the role of culture and cultural identity in the rehabilitative process of Indigenous offenders.
The pilot program came out of early work done by The Torch with the Indigenous prison community in 2010, under the banner of the Yalukit Willam Ngargee Festival in St Kilda, which culminated in an exhibition of their artworks, titled CONFINED 2. CONFINED 3 followed in 2011 and from this, the Statewide Indigenous Arts Officer in Prisons and Community Pilot project was set up, funded by the Federal Attorney General’s office through the Proceeds of Crime Act and by the Office for the Arts through their Indigenous Cultural Support Scheme.
The program accords with research highlighting the significant role arts programs can play in reconnecting Indigenous offenders with their culture. With a focus on building sustainable post-release pathways, the program hoped to address the disproportionately high rates of Indigenous recidivism by increasing the confidence of Indigenous offenders and ex offenders to participate in the arts industry. There has been a particular focus on generating opportunities for people to foster new networks and to build self-generated income in the post release component of the program.
Offenders who have connected to the post release program have participated in exhibitions, completed private and public commissions and engaged in art teaching roles. Two artists from the program have their works included in Melbourne Now.
Furthermore, through new found confidence gained from the program, participants have been employed in a variety of roles including supportive roles for other community members. The transformative effects and healing power of culture in rehabilitation, as demonstrated through the program and CONFINED exhibitions, should not be underestimated.
Explain your role in this important initiative and why it matters.
My role was to design, develop and implement the program over an eighteen-month period. Initially this involved liaising with Corrections Victoria and twelve adult prisons throughout Victoria to organise visits and build ongoing relationships with Indigenous offenders and ex offenders who were interested in developing cultural knowledge and exploring art production and vocational opportunities.
I wanted the program to engage Indigenous offenders and ex-offenders in art and cultural exploration that looked toward strengthening ties to their Country, culture, family history and community coupled with post release vocational support and exhibition opportunities.
Developing and curating the annual CONFINED exhibition was a key feature of the pilot program. By building ongoing relationships through the program, participation numbers rose from 23 from the 2010 exhibition, to 49 in the first year of the pilot and 62 in the second year. The exhibition attracted about 1,000 visitors, with strong support also from both mainstream and Indigenous media.
In Victoria, Indigenous people account for 6.6 per cent of the prison population, despite comprising 0.7 per cent of Victoria’s population. In Australia an Indigenous person is statistically more likely to go to prison than to complete high school or go to university and an alarming 50% of Indigenous offenders return to prison.
The pilot program hoped to address the disproportionately high rates of Indigenous recidivism by increasing the confidence of Indigenous offenders and ex offenders to participate in the arts industry. There was a particular focus on generating opportunities for people to foster new networks and to find vocational art opportunities to increase levels of legitimate and self generated income in the post release component of the program.
Tell us about two of the artists who have been nurtured by this program to produce innovative works that will be featured in Melbourne Now.
Sean Miller is a Kamilaroi man who has a broad skill set in art and design. Sean has a desire to experiment across various media from ceramics to digital imaging and is further exploring traditional Kamilaroi designs in his artworks.
Raymond Young has Gunnai, Yorta Yorta and Gunditjmara ancestory and is a and nephew of artist Ray Thomas. Raymond is a strong leader who supports and encourages other Indigenous inmates to connect with their Culture. Spiritual beliefs and cultural continuity are important aspects of Raymond’s artistic output.
What inspired Sean Miller’s “Fire Tree” installation? Discuss the cultural materials he studied in conceiving his ceramic works and their Kamilaroi designs.
While incarcerated, Sean started to explore his identity and culture through making art. As part of the Indigenous Arts in Prisons and Community Pilot program I was able to show Sean photographs of carved trees on Kamilaroi country and drawings of their carved designs. We discussed the carved trees and their cultural significance in relation to traditional lore and burial practices. We also discussed how Sean could explore the geometric line work of his ancestors in a contemporary fashion.
Discuss the cultural materials Ray Young worked with to conceptualise the five different Gunai/Kurnai clan designs for his “Shielding the Future” installation.
For indigenous inmates, prison is a like a cultural vacuum where specific cultural resources are practically non-existent. I was able to source drawings of traditional shield designs completed by Gunai/Kurnai elders around 30 years ago from Len Tregonning who is himself a Gunnai man and the cross cultural co-coordinator at the Koorie Heritage Trust.
When Ray saw the drawings he was inspired to create five shields to represent the five clans of his ancestors. Ray instantly felt connected to the designs and with the support of ceramic artists Tony Stone and Gretchen Hillhouse was able to create contemporary interpretations of the traditional designs.