People We Know – Places We’re Been @ Goulburn Regional Gallery

People We Know – Places We’re Been @ Goulburn Regional Gallery


People We Know – Places We’ve Been
3 November – 3 December
Daniel Boyd• Karla Dickens •Aroha Groves •Adam Hill
Warwick Keen •Max Miller •Jason Wing
Aboriginal inmates from Goulburn Correctional Centre
Opening Saturday 5 November at 2pm by Gary Foley, Activist, Academic, Writer & Actor


Catalogue Essay

People We Know – Places We’ve Been
Goulburn Art Class 2011

Goulburn was described to me once as a stopover place on the way to Canberra, Melbourne and other southern centres. It had interesting historic buildings, two large cathedrals and a big central park but for most it still remained a place of transit.  According to Don Watson [Caledonia Australis 1984] the first structure built on the site of Goulburn was in fact a set of gallows in 1832. And further amoung the first ‘white’ European population who started building the town was a convict ‘chain-gang’. The official Wikipedia website of Goulburn sets the town as starting in 1833. In the political practice of the times it was named after the British colonial under-secretary in London, Henry Goulburn.

From time immemorial until then the area was called ‘Burbong’ by the Murring/Wiradjiri local Aboriginal landowning group. It was a place of special social and cultural significance to them. Theirs was a society and not a ‘state’; in some sense a society without prisons and possibly criminals but an intense personal responsibility to each other on pain of death. The local people; also known as the Gandangara [my grandmother’s people], although decimated by introduced disease and the driving-off of game food supply by sheep and cattle, and direct physical ‘dispersal’ persisted in the district in significant numbers until the 1930s when drought conditions set in and, as in pre-colonial times, return from time to time.

Sometimes I think this whole world is one big prison yard.
Some of us are prisoners, the rest of us are guards.
Bob Dylan, from his song George Jackson, 1971[1].

Goulburn is known now culturally for a number of ‘institutions and features; the fragility of the town water supply, the police training academy, the large correctional centre [gaol], the longest continuously active Australian theatre, the regional art gallery, and the large ‘Big Merino’ concrete public artwork. The red brick buildings of Goulburn Gaol we see today were designed in 1884. The Correctional Centre is an ‘industry’, in effect a significant economic input for the city, with security officers, families, and other centre employees, and visiting relatives.

I believe in two things; discipline and the Bible. Here you’ll receive both. Put your trust in the Lord. The rest belongs to me.
Warden Samuel Norton, The Shawshank Redemption, 1994[2].

And so we come to another group of transit visitors at the Goulburn Correctional Centre. The class of 2011 was of mixed backgrounds, ages, and from across the state and beyond. There is a saying that the teacher always learns more than the pupil. The visiting teacher artists who joined them, month to month, were equally from disparate places and experiences. Any number could have just as easily been in the reverse positions. The all male class started with around ten people, but varied each month – we didn’t know why, some were sick, some had personal problems, or were released or moved to other institutions.

We want people to get off the return visit cycle – to be able to integrate with the society outside.
Officer One.

There is already the romantic image of the artist locking himself away from everyday distractions, away from women,  to diet, to deny, to test himself in order to create the truth. It could be said there are [have been] two approaches to those in her majesties care [in prison] – that of punishment or that of rehabilitation but always out of sight out of mind. Usually policies fall somewhere in the middle along this line of difference. There is the often discussed and believed value of the arts in civilizing the supposedly inarticulate, the violent and the primitive. And, it can be beneficial. My experience of working with artists generally, anywhere, is one that starts and ends in a kind of consoling and counseling. Whether its inside or outside there is little difference really it appears. I had worked with many mainstream art institutions across Australia and at Wormwood Scrubs prison in London over three months in the early 1990s but had never been asked till now to be part of programs here in Australia.

I look back on the way I was then: a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I want to talk to him. I want to try to talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are. But I can’t. That kid’s long gone and this old man is all that left. I gotta live with that. Rehabilitated? It’s just a bullshit word.

Morgan Freeman, The Shawshank Redemption, 1994.

For any person in present day society just to maintain your sense of self-identity and self-value is difficult and increases under societies expectations and demands. And of course, even more so in the institutionalized environment here, which often may appear to be a hopeless position. How does one maintain a sense of integrity in your life? How do you exhibit your Aboriginal identity? One obvious expression is art. For many in the art world Aboriginal art is dot painting – but is it?

Its great being able to get all this art training while we’re in here.
Student Seven.

Art allows a distraction from the present day travails, problems and frustrations. It provides an outlet where you can be free, even in prison. But of course even the central point in this freedom is one’s outlook on life, to free yourself inside your head.

This play, written, I repeat, by a white man, is intended for a white audience, but if, which is unlikely, it is ever performed before a black audience, then a white person, male or female, should be invited every evening.

Jean Genet, The Blacks, 1958.

What I tried to work on was to move the students away from the easy fall-back on the stereotype of just dotting, and away from clichéd images of black stick figures, generic Aboriginal faces found in books, and Albert Namatjira-like central Australian landscapes no one had been to or didn’t exist.  We worked at the title of the show People We Know – Places We’ve Been, though exercises in drawing, painting, printing, writing, speaking and thinking.

This is me in my cell, alone and forgotten in the dark

Student Three.

What I found in this group was a candor, an openness, an inventiveness, energy and optimism. Everyone could paint well in a technical sense. They in fact, although supposedly untrained, appeared to have a broad knowledge of paint, canvas, and paper. I found they were open to talk. In fact a series of ‘confessional’ conversations of trust began to appear as the year progressed.

The earliest visits were by Daniel Boyd and Warwick Keen. They are primarily both painters. Daniel works obliquely with post-colonial readings of classic ‘history painting’, both Aboriginal and colonial. Adam works more with anime type comic compositions of equally bare post-colonial outer suburban housing-estate life. Although they allowed students to work on figure background and reverse composition making they both tackled the difficult idea of self portraiture. To express and expose your self-image can be a dangerous thing anywhere. Usually people anywhere are reluctant to be this open and also here. Eventually it moved to a number of portraits of their most captive, uncritical model; for better or worse, me!

THE BISHOP (after making a visible effort to calm himself, in front of the mirror and holding his surplice): Now answer, mirror, answer me. Do I come here to discover evil and innocence? And in your gilt-edged glass, what was I?
Jean Genet (from The Balcony, 1957)

It wasn’t until later in the year with visiting artist Jason Wing that the students relaxed enough to collaborate with each other on a quartet of life size self portraits. All however vehemently rejected my suggestion of positioning themselves in front of an image of the gaol. Student Four directly went into his image without a struggle. Student Three struggled for a time but then surrended to the event but exhibited a great intensity towards his self-image and what it was saying. Student One was seemingly relaxed with the process but then struggled with what he saw and kept over-painting, adjusting, erasing and blurring the figure until it was a ghost like smudge on a vibrant background.  Student two was slow to the subject but then methodically worked away in pencil to produce a  meticulously detailed image of himself at the basket ball hoop in the prison yard.  He then stopped and never came back.

In Kuring-gai Chase National Park in Sydney there is the “Red Hands Cave’, an over hang of rock with many stencils with a red ochre background, thousands of years old. There is another, also accessible to the public in the Blue Mountains. Although handprints were reportedly used in Babylonian times [second millennium BCE], the uniqueness of individual fingerprints really came into its own from the middle  in 1800s and are now commonly used all over the world for personal identification. The Aboriginal hand stencil and or hand-print have been an Australia-wide sign of ‘Aboriginality’ since time immemorial, on rock walls, on bark sheets, and the human body. It is the first Aboriginal print. And so here in this course Adam Hill [b.1970] used this motif in his drawing classes to edge students away from the stereotype ‘dots’. Using the hand as a stencil and trying to find different combinations of this.  Holding the pencil in the right hand to draw the left hand as subject; then changing hands.  For the artist to leave your own personal mark.  He then moved to other exercises – technical drawings of ‘a vacuum cleaner; with different hands, various grips on the pencil, and drawing from memory with your eves closed.

See, we are listening and learning something.

Student Three, showing me a boomerang painted in a type of rrarrk.

Its said that modern Aboriginal printmaking started in prison in the early 1960s with printer, poet, playwright and activist Kevin Gilbert [1933-1993]. Unfortunately for print-maker Max Miller the class was small for his visit and as a result only a few images able to be realized.

Even here we were still touched by the world outside, and the spiritual. There was one day a crow was outside the room and came to tell us something. Intense, persistent  crowing, so loud it seemed it was in the room, sitting on my shoulder – it hurt my ears. Then there was the day they all told me that they’d seen me on a TV arts program, something I wasn’t aware of.

I just like to talk to other people
Student Four.

Karla Dickens had once created a work around conversations with a crow. She’d worked hard as an art student and often used the found object, the found material to compose her images. Not always able to afford paint, she resorted to ‘feathers and rags from Salvation Army counters’ [Leonard Cohen] arranged and glued to canvas and other flat surfaces, to talk of depression, deprivation, the spiritual, and hope.  When she came to run her workshop the artists to meet her had been involved the whole year and seemed to want to make her welcome; calling her miss, producing a morning tea of little ‘johnny cakes’ and jam – it was touching.  The students also took to the idea of creating a ‘painting’ type image with ‘rubbish material.

They are human beings. Crime is a human activity and violent crime also unfortunately, and we certainly don’t encourage it. Human beings can be irritating, troublesome, beautiful, and ugly, warm, and cruel, easygoing and difficult. We don’t have to like everyone.

It seems you just get to know someone really well when they’re moved on, released or to other prisons.
Student Three.

When I started this project some people in the art world seemed to infer a kind of sainthood wish on my part for my ‘welfare work’. Or were titillated by the thrill of the students involved – the possibility of violence or the voyeurism of other people’s problems and stuff-ups. I found all sides of the institution to be very human and as interesting and positive as any in my life.

No more cries – now we rise,
And still to face the truth of our future that we build,
With a passion that reaches into our culture built,
Getting back to our roots,
Is the ultimate thrill.
Student One.

Djon Mundine OAM, Independent Bandjalung curator, writer and sometimes artists for People We Know – Places We’ve Been, Goulburn Art Class 2011, Goulburn Regional Art Gallery, to be opened by Gary Foley on  5th November – 5th December, 2011.

The moonlight on the water just won’t shine on me
I’m like a lost ship adrift on the sea.
Baby I’m lonely
And I wish you were here,
To save me from drift’in
I won’t shed a tear.
How did I lose you?
Where did I fail?
Why did you leave me?
Way out in the sail.
Lost out in loneliness,
In memories of your heart,
I’m so sorry now
Cause we struggled only to part.
Student Four

Yours is a friendship,
Which comes from the heart.
And forever a friendship shall never part.
For a good friend you are,
A good friend you’ll be,
Forever to trust,
You’ll always trust me.
Just remember how close and precious you are,
And my love will be here,
Whether you’re near or you’re far.
Student Four

Elevating every move,
We create what we choose,
Not wasting a minute,
Life be in it [or lose]
We choose,
And never take our future for granted,
Or throw away what we’re handed,
Take your own life in your own hands,
Before you’re left stranded,
Or branded [a number],
Deteriorating in jail, Wasting your wonders
And never set sail,
We gott’tah think of the past,
The thing that will blast
Our future winnings apart,
The thing that will always place us back at the start.
Chose your true path
Keep a focus on the prize,
Always notice the signs that approach us in disguise,
No more cries – now we rise,
And still to face the truth of our future that we build,
With a passion that reaches into our culture built,
Getting back to our roots,
Is the ultimate thrill.
Student One.

Event Details

  • Location: Goulburn Regional Art Gallery
  • Starts: 3 November 2011
  • Finishes: 3 December 2011