The over-incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians is one of our nation’s biggest human rights concerns, and there has been an ongoing failure of successive governments at the federal and state and territory levels to take action on this issue. Despite report after report, the one consistency has been government inaction. In that time, prison numbers around the country have continued to increase at exponential rates. Indigenous leaders have issued calls to shift government expenditure away from building more and more failing prisons and, instead, to invest in justice reinvestment policies and programs.
Directed by Alex Siddons, ‘The Art of Incarceration' follows several current and former prisoners as they use painting to regain a sense of cultural identity and attempt to bring some peace to their tumultuous lives. The majority of the documentary looks at the preparations at Fulham Correction Centre in Victoria for the ‘Confined’ exhibition, an annual initiative facilitated by the arts program provider, The Torch.
The Torch program uses research and art lessons to enable prisoners to learn cultural art practices whilst tracing their heritage. Painting and other forms of art provide a range of benefits for inmates, including the acquisition of skills useful on release and providing them with focus.
Barkindji man and Torch CEO Kent Morris coordinates the program and runs classes across Victoria's 13 prisons each month. Morris, who grew up disconnected from his culture, encourages participants to learn about their language group's history, stories, totems, country and traditions. The implementation of the Aboriginal Arts Policy Model in 2015 allows Indigenous artists in custody in Victoria to be involved in the program and sell their artworks through The Torch organisation. The money from the sale of the artist goes back to the artist, held in a trust until their release.
‘The Art of Incarceration’ presents the audience with some jaw-dropping statistics, opening with “Indigenous adults are 16 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous adults. Indigenous men are more likely to go to jail than university.” The film goes on to complement these stats with the perspective of the prisoners and former inmates. Siddons has expertly selected his interview subjects - each talks candidly about being an Indigenous man and the impact that being institutionalised has had on their identity.
Christopher Austin, a Keerraay Woorriing man, was in and out of prison from the age of 12 for committing a string of robberies. He has high praise for the Torch program. “It shows people out there that we aren’t all drug addicts, alcoholics, crooks and bad people”, he says. He also discusses the factors that lead to recidivism (in 2016-17, the recidivism rate for Aboriginal prisoners in Victoria was 53.4% compared to 42.8% for their non-Aboriginal counterparts). Austin is the gentle, philosophical heart of ‘The Art of Incarceration’ – his main drive is to reconnect with his 4-year old granddaughter.
Thematically, Siddons’ film bears some similarity to Catherine Scott’s powerful ‘Backtrack Boys’ from 2018, another Australian documentary about a program helping people to regain some faith in a society that has dismissed them. Like Scott, Siddons captures some naked, unguarded moments with his subjects. “Do what you feel. You know what they say, 'art is an expression of self,'" advises Damian, a Wiradjuri man and talented artist, as he adds a few touches to a drawing of a goanna, the centrepiece of his latest work. “An expression of individuality, brus,” Troy Brabham, a Wemba Wemba man, agrees as he prepares to begin his first art lesson with Paul McCann, the program’s Indigenous Arts Officer. McCann later greets another student before mouthing “he’s my cousin” to the camera.
Siddons has expertly selected his interview subjects - each talks candidly about being an Indigenous man and the impact that being institutionalised has had on their identity.
Brabham is a former freelance photographer who trained at the ABC on Sydney’s Upper North Shore, before working all over the world for various media news organisation. He is introspective and charismatic - his story, a destructive cycle of alcohol abuse, drugs, violence and squandered potential, is ultimately the most heartbreaking.
We also meet the barrel-like figure of Robby Wirramanda, a former prisoner from Wergaia/Wotjobaluk country in north-west Victoria, just months after his release from prison for drug dealing. The Torch program reconnected Wirramanda with his passion for art while incarcerated. In Melbourne, Wirramanda was a former super world-heavyweight jiu jitsu champion; now, he lives with his family - his wife and three young sons, Jackson, Hickson and Grayson - in the bush near Swan Hill. He speaks articulately about the motivations behind his art, and we watch as he shapes huge and elaborate wooden sculptures before travelling to a Torch exhibition at the Melbourne Museum. Wirramada, who seems to have a knack for whatever he puts his mind to, exudes intelligence and there is a sense that he finally has a constructive focus for it. “All wise men and all wise women would definitely create more opportunities than they find,” he ponders. In the city, he covers his heavily tattooed hands with a baggy jumper he laughingly refers to as “the Brighton blazer.”
Weaving together the stories of these men into a larger picture, Alex Siddons’ ‘The Art of Incarceration’ is a thought-provoking illustration of why the government needs more solutions to overcome the drivers of Indigenous crime and incarceration. It seems clear that ensuring former prisoners are healthy and engaged is the most effective way to prevent crime and make communities safer. The Torch’s Statewide Indigenous Arts in Prisons and Community Program is a shining light in this field - the efforts of Morris and his staff deserve support and recognition by audiences and the wider community.