Visual Art

Confined 13 demonstrates that the carceral state can’t crush the creative energy of Indigenous artists. By Tristen Harwood.

Confined 13

As I walk through the glass doors of Glen Eira City Council Gallery to see Confined 13 – an exhibition of 400 artworks by 350 Indigenous artists who are either currently incarcerated or recently released from prisons in Victoria – I’m uneasy. A man in a black suit with an identifying number pinned to his lapel moves towards me. Is he a gallery assistant there to direct me into the exhibition space, or a security guard about to shoo me away?

Maybe he was both: the line between security guard and gallery assistant isn’t all that clear. He does direct me to the gallery space. But I’m stuck in that uncertain augural moment for a while, and it returns to me now.

Confined 13 is the flagship event of The Torch, an organisation that works with incarcerated Indigenous artists to facilitate and exhibit art-making, deepening artists’ cultural connections. It brings into relief the carceralism and necropolitics that underpin the Australian nation state, which in part defines itself by dictating who gets to live within its borders and who is left for dead, who gets locked in offshore detention, who gets killed inside its prisons, or in the back of a divvy van or holding cell, or during a police chase, or is shot dead by a cop in their own home.

Last year, one of my six younger brothers went to prison, just as another was getting out. When family members are in prison, the ambient violence of Indigenous deaths in custody seeps in through your pores, inhabits you. The knowledge that every time a news notification appears on my phone announcing another Indigenous death in custody, I could be about to read my brother’s name.

I’m buoyed when I enter the gallery: it’s full of mob and a vast, ecstatic collection of paintings colourfully plastering every wall from floor to ceiling. Walking through Confined 13, my feelings of dread ebb away.

Two paintings paired together address Indigenous deaths in custody directly. Bill Mansfield’s National Shame Job (2021) is a linguistic painting that uses white, red and yellow hand-painted text on a black background to ask “Why are Aboriginals still dying in custody after the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody?” … “This is a National shame job!” It seems to provide commentary for C. Harrison’s Deaths in Custody (2021), which sits alongside it. Harrison’s painting is slightly larger at 59 centimetres x 87 centimetres – the size of the vast majority of paintings in the exhibition, an indication of the limited access to art materials in prisons – and depicts 440 human figures rendered in black that resemble cut-out paper people chains.

The figures are painted on an earthy, nostalgic orange that recalls the colour used in a lot of 1970s Aboriginal kitsch “tourist art” and is decorated with a black-and-white crosshatched pattern reminiscent of Top End Indigenous painting, such as the rarrk used in Arnhem Land barks. The 440 black figures mark the number of deaths in custody since the 1991 royal commission at the time it was painted. The number has since reached 500, suggesting the painting knows its own limits and accounts for only a moment in history, rather than the unutterable and ongoing nature of suffering and grief.

Using a similar colour palette to Harrison’s Deaths in Custody is Big Don’s visionary Koorie Old Style Boxing (2021). Instead of making an earthy orange by mixing acrylic paints, as in Harrison’s work, Big Don literally uses the earth – terracotta clay – to sculpt a large vessel that depicts a scene showing Aboriginal tent boxers mid-fight, mid-punch and post-match, in the circling, storytelling style of a Grecian vase. Much as the pictorial work of Greek vases provides insights into daily, mythological and ceremonial life in antiquity, Big Don’s vase tells of a time around 1910-70 when Aboriginal men used to travel around as troupes of boxers, fighting in circus tents. The sport required willing, fungible bodies that it was socially acceptable to shape and misshape through violence.

The theme of boxing recurs in Longy’s Cultures Together (2021), a mixed media painting in which the artist has depicted the faces of Eddie Koiki Mabo and Lionel Rose on a pair of boxing gloves. While Rose, the first Blackfella to win a world boxing title, has a much more direct relation to the sport, the two men are highly respected and prominent figures whose actions led to changes in how the settler state relates to Indigenous people: Mabo for the historic recognition of land rights and Rose as the first Indigenous person to become Australian of the Year.

Sharing a vitrine with Cultures Together is Leroy McLaughlin’s Dinner Time (2021). Here, McLaughlin has painted a dingo onto a small wooden A-frame, which he has turned into a timepiece by pulling apart a household clock and transplanting its hands so they tick in the centre of the painting. The central dingo figure comprises red crosshatching outlined in puffy yellow paint to create shapes that resemble tribal tattoos, and it seems to walk through the painting across the red earth.

McLaughlin says of his deadly painting, “The dingo is looking for his dinner on Country and now he has had his feed, it’s time for seconds.” In this sense, the dingo simultaneously occupies and unravels the past, present and future. “Time for seconds” satirises linear regulatory time, as the only clock that the dingo follows is his body clock.

There is so much work in Confined 13, a reminder of the number of Blackfellas locked up in Victoria. But the fucked-up carceral state we live in can’t circumscribe the sheer creative energy of the artists. As I perambulate around the gallery, new works reveal themselves with each lap.

Shaggy has painted Deadly Storm (2022) on a pair of Velcro prison-issue sneakers. It pictures a lightning storm with streaks of white lightning that light the night sky into an incandescent blue. Patrick H. has framed up a koala and an echidna using a series of dots as well as crosshatching and figuration in Australian Culture (2021). Busy ant mounds at the bottom of the painting recall Willie Gudabi’s brimming paintings, such as Love Story (1990). In fact, Australian Culture seems to be a serendipitous ode to the radically synchronistic painting of 1990s Ngukurr artists such as Gudabi, Ginger Riley Munduwalawala and Djambu Barra Barra.

Confined 13 is luminary because it can’t be pinned to any single style of Indigenous art-making, whether an aesthetic such as rarrk or a politics such as cultural nationalism – and it’s not trying to. It’s an outlet, as Sean Miller – an artist who was formerly incarcerated and now works with The Torch as an arts officer – said in his speech on the night. Making art takes you out of “the depression of prison”, both in your head and socially, as the work connects with other people’s lives.

The Torch is a flicker – I don’t want to say of hope – but maybe an illumination of beauty of the kind that has always resided in Indigenous acts of resistance: of the refusal to be crushed by the settler state, even in its most oppressive conditions. 

Confined 13 is showing at Glen Eira City Council Gallery, Melbourne, and online until June 5.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 21, 2022 as "Beautiful resistance".

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Tristen Harwood is a writer, cultural critic and researcher, and a descendant of Numbulwar.

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