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Poignant art from prison

30 Apr 2019

By Rhonda Dredge

Paintings are a way for indigenous artists to connect with their cultures by using traditional symbols and methods to represent lost pasts.

An exhibition of paintings by Ralph Rogers at Deakin’s Downtown Gallery in Collins St, Docklands, shows his connection with the fish traps at Brewarrina.

The exhibition was the first solo exhibition organised by Torch, which supports indigenous artists who are also prisoners.

Torch is not releasing any information about Ralph except to say that he has been with them for five years and that he is prolific.

Usually artists are known purely on a first-name basis. Ralph was due for release before the opening of the show last month but this was delayed and he was escorted to Deakin by prison guards.

Many of the indigenous men and women in Victoria’s 15 prisons face identity issues and art can help connect them to country.

“I’m a Martu woman,” Torch CEO Susannah Day told Docklands News. “My grandmother was stolen when she was three years old and taken away. What is traditional country to me? I’m quite removed from that.”

Torch supports prisoners with arts officers, resource books, exhibition programs and post-release support.

“We study styles for an area and put together resource books of traditional mark-making, language and images of country.”

Torch takes particular care not to interpret cultural material nor rewrite original words so memories can be encouraged.

“One of our arts officers remembers when artists came to prison and showed him some picture of carved trees from country. It jogged a memory he had as a child.”

Torch has taken a political stand that there are too many indigenous people in custody. “I think the system is really broken,” Susannah said.

It aims to use art to lower recidivism rates.

“We’re trying to show that if you can connect to culture, it’s proven that you have a better chance of not re-offending. It’s about confidence and pride. There’s a lot of challenge when you don’t know who you are. You have a loss of identity.”

Ralph has included stories about his family and the fish traps, which form a network of stone weirs in the Darling River.

“I had always wondered about the truth about my country, given the years of cultural disruption,” Ralph wrote in the catalogue. “However, I’m relieved to discover that much of the history has been preserved for future generations.”

Ralph has painted his memories of the place on 10 large, colourful canvasses depicting Murray cod, platypuses, footprints and eels, among other symbols of country.

The works are doubly poignant given the environmental degradation of the Darling and the fact that they are being shown so far away in a Docklands corporate tower.

Deakin University has bought one of the paintings. All of the funds will go into a trust account for the artist, which will help him re-establish himself after release from prison.

The organisation also supports prisoners post-release. “We don’t ask why they’re in prison. We try and stick to what we know. We’re friendly and non-judgmental.”

Torch raised $267,000 from art sales last year, distributed to more than 100 prisoners. Its annual show Confined included 217 artists and the number is increasing, both a measure of the power of art and the number of indigenous men and women in custody.

“I have infiltrated it with work by someone who isn’t your regular person walking through foyers,” said Susannah. She’s making a joke but when you’re in the business of promoting art by indigenous prisoners any little advance is both welcome and appreciated.

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