In Warumungu country in the Northern Territory there is a collective of male Aboriginal artists who call themselves the Tennant Creek Brio.
Coming together in 2016 as an Aboriginal men’s art therapy program through Anyinginyi Aboriginal Health Organisation, by 2018 the collective were solidified, working across three sites in Tennant Creek: the Nyinkka Nyunyu culture centre, the bough shelter and a series of Community Development Program (CDP) sheds.
Despite only being a collective for four years, the Brio has exhibited widely, most notably showing in the 22nd Biennale of Sydney: NIRIN. While each artist retains their own personal cultural identity in the collective, working together is pivotal: the studios are spaces for collaboration that blend Aboriginal desert traditions, abstractionism, installation, video art, painting, found art, activist art and street art.
Yet it’s not only a place for making: it’s about being together, where men can voice their issues, heal and support each other, and further consider art as a kind of “truth-telling”. Three of the collective’s artists— Joseph Williams, Jimmy Frank and Fabian Brown—talk through how the Brio came together, the environments they create from and the urgent importance of their work.
Joseph Williams: I used to work at Anyinginyi in the health department called the men’s centre, which was part of Stronger Families. During 2016 we had Rupert [Rupert Betheras, a fellow Brio artist] coming in and wanted to work with men in regard to art. We weren’t doing any art at the time before that at the centre. He asked us if we wanted to do art as part of the program at the men’s centre—which was for social and emotional well-being—as a therapy meeting through art. Then a few of us fellas started painting individually and that’s when it all started.
Later, some of the blokes came to our art centre Nyinkka [under the auspice of Julalikari Council Aboriginal Corporation] and started to do work here. But before that at the men’s centre we had backyard studios in the outskirts of town. One of the uncles was living out in the bush with his wife, and Rupert would go out and take material out there for him to do painting. Other men were living out in tent houses, and Rupert would approach them too.
Jimmy Frank: One of the challenges we face is having a really good arts studio, and because the fellas were really successful and have potential around their art, we fought really hard to get a space where they can work freely. We got some tin sheds where the fellas come along and do their art. Then there’s Nyinkka where me and Joseph really do the more traditional art and the wood carving.
With Fabian and Rupert and the other fellas, this is all new, this is all contemporary. It’s only in the last few years that it’s really grown and gotten very strong. When we had our re-opening for Nyinkka, we wanted to put up something really fresh, something new for the community reflecting a new start and a new beginning, and these fellas were doing something exciting, so we put up their work. Some of the community were shocked! They saw some different art—some modern art!
Fabian Brown: I met Rupert because he was looking for artists. When Rupert walked in, he turned up and he said, “I’m looking for some artists.” I put my arm up, and whoo! I was the first one who was picked out, and then started working with him.
Every day I’m there. Every day till Sunday. And often through the night. I like to work in the evenings and stay there, be there like I live there.
JF: With me and Joseph, because of our position here, when we do the traditional carvings at our cultural centre, we’re trying to squeeze in a certain time or day we can work with our fellas. We’re working maybe once or twice a week, it’s pretty tight.
The social side is very important in a lot of ways, these fellas started off with art therapy. Especially with Fabian’s art, he tells a lot of stories, and there’s meaning in that. And there’s the background of these fellas. These fellas come from a very hard life and a very hard background. Practising art and culture is not just a business, it is about wellbeing and identity, it is like wellbeing for these men I would say. They also come from bush and they’re cultural men, very strong in their own ways, in their background with culture. With their work, that’s one way of them telling their story, of sharing it through the community, sharing it to the wider world. We used to have our old ways and this is a new way of telling their stories. And on the subject of their hard life, their lives have changed just because of their art. A lot of personal things have changed in their life and how they go about living now.
I think through their art they tell a good story for all men. It’s one way us men in Tennant Creek are telling the history and the bad things that have happened—whether it’s mining, whether it’s massacres, whether it’s alcoholism. This is a different way of healing. It’s very important and really good what these fellas are doing, and I think they’re sending a message to all men, especially central Australia Aboriginal men who have suffered from stereotyping and the results of colonisation. There’s healing. Our country and culture has been there all the time, it is our strength, our dream, and our stories. No one can take that away from us. So, we’ve got to tell that story and share it. This [art] is a new tool—well, I wouldn’t say it’s a new tool, it’s been there for centuries—but it is a tool for telling our stories. It is our identity. It’s a voice through art, and we can start that truth-telling. That’s what we wanted to do as a studio and cultural centre, it’s the truth-telling that’s important.
JW: Years ago, in Aboriginal culture, we’d have a place where the men could hang out. We’d call that place Jangkay. The young men would hang out with the older men. It used to be here. It used to be strong here and strong all over Australia. But now when we mention a men’s centre, it’s a modern Jangkay, where men hang out. So, when we speak socially, it’s part of social gatherings for men through making art together.
FB: It’s the single men’s squad!
JF: People lose their ways. People are strong, but they might need support to be lifted, or to be inspired, and I reckon with our Brio we’ve got a very talented group. Myself and Joseph, we do the traditional carving, whereas Fabian is very creative and he sees something that he can bring out of a painting.
We make the new and the old cross over. Joseph comes up with poems, and writes stories. We’re making our stories strong, about where we come from. We collaborate in our collective. Fabian can do a nice story painting and Joseph can do a poem on it, and then the culture stuff I might come in with— whether it’s traditional dancing, or a boomerang or a spear that represents our traditional culture. Or even a video. Because we live in a new world today, our old culture is adapting to contemporary times, and sits side by side and hand in hand to go forward.
Artspace is reopening following COVID-19 related closure from 1 June – 27 September 2020.
Cockatoo Island is reopening following COVID-19 related closure from 16 June – 6 September 2020.
This article was originally published in the May/June 2020 print edition of Art Guide Australia.