Confined takes incarcerated Indigenous artists beyond prison walls

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Wergaia man Robby Wirramanda discovered The Torch Indigenous Arts in Prisons and Community program while incarcerated in Barwon prison near Geelong. Being able to create art took his mind out of jail and back to his Country in the north-eastern Mallee district of Victoria.

His traditional paintings, sculpture and other pieces are an extension of his storytelling: his work Dirrel, My Grandmother’s Country, is a richly textured landscape of red, pink, purple and blue, and dragonflies signifying rebirth. Torch chief executive Kent Morris says that Wirramanda, who works with The Torch as an arts vocational officer to men and women transitioning from prison into everyday life, is one of the program’s numerous success stories. His works are sought after by collectors.

300 artworks by Indigenous artists currently or recently in Victorian prisons will be exhibited in the 11th annual iteration of Confined. This year, the exhibition takes place online, with a virtual walkthrough and 3D visuals of each work.

Mark (Noongar people), Dingo Daze, 2019, acrylic on canvas.

Artists receive 100 per cent of sale prices, which range from $80 to $5000. For those still serving time in jail, money from art sales is held in trust to help their reintegration into the community, or the money can be used to support family on the outside. Some artists have used the money to purchase a computer to study while in jail.

When Kent Morris began building the program, potential artists in prisons had many questions about identity.

“How do you paint when you don’t know where you’re from?” they asked. “What are our stories? What’s our language?”

Visitors to Confined sometimes mistakenly assume the exhibition will be about life in prison, but the works are “extraordinarily beautiful and uplifting”, says Morris. There are hopes the Torch program might eventually be rolled out nationally.

First Nations Australians represent 28 per cent of the national prison population. An evaluation study last year of the Torch program has made inroads into reducing incarceration rates for Indigenous participants: men and women who stayed connected to the post-release program for two years had a recidivism rate of 11 per cent, compared to more than 60 per cent for the general Indigenous prison population.

Morris says the program has also helped to reconnect artists to their cultures and helped find them career paths, including as artists and arts workers, with some of their works collected by state galleries.

Confined 11
14 May–7 June (online)

Steve Dow