Empire & Decolonisation

Radical Object: Charity Shop Painting

It only cost me a few dollars in the charity shop – much less than a cup of coffee. It is a tiny painting, canvas mounted on a balsa wood frame, measuring 10 cm by 8 cm. The tiny painting is a (possibly imagined) landscape in a style which could be characterised as ‘naïve art’.

Painting and easel. Photo courtesy Vera Mackie

It is unsigned and undated, but there is a label pasted on the back:

This item has been designed and produced by Aboriginal inmates at Nura Warra Umer Work Centre, Goulburn Correctional Centre New South Wales, Australia. This painting is original and authentic.

Photo courtesy Vera Mackie

Goulburn Correctional Centre has both minimum security and maximum security divisions for male prisoners.  As a regional centre, Goulburn has housed a court house, police station and prison since its earliest days. The first lock-up was built around 1830, with a gallows constructed as soon as 1832. The first gaol was officially proclaimed in 1847, the precursor of what is now called Goulburn Correctional Centre. The main building on this site was built between 1881 and 1884. It has national and state heritage listing status. The prison is located about three kilometres from Goulburn Station, near the junction of the Wollondilly and Mulwaree Rivers.

Goulburn Gaol. Picture by AYArktos, Wikimedia Commons

The Department of Correctional Services provides various study opportunities for inmates, including art classes. We have no way of knowing when my little, undated painting was produced, but we can gain some insight into the provision of art classes at Goulburn Prison from commentary on an exhibition held at Goulburn Regional Art Gallery in 2011–2012. The Goulburn Art Class 2-0-1-1 was curated by Djon Mundine through the Aboriginal Cultural Centre (Nura Warra Umer). The exhibition documents a collaboration between the Gallery and the Prison in providing art classes for the inmates.

Seven community artists are named in the catalogue along with ‘Aboriginal inmates from the Goulburn Correctional Centre’. Perhaps they were unnamed in order to protect their privacy. The class of 2011 ‘was of mixed backgrounds, ages and from across the state and beyond’. Many of their works are self-portraits where they are identified by given name only. Others used handprints which hark back to the Australian cave paintings from tens of thousands of years ago.

Indigenous Australians are over-represented in prison populations in Australia. As at June 2023, four out of five prisoners in Australian prisons were born in Australia, with those born outside Australia coming from New Zealand, Vietnam and the United Kingdom. From June 2022 to June 2023 Aboriginal and Torres Strait prisoners increased by seven per cent. After accounting for population growth, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait prisoner population increased to 2442 per 100,000. They make up 33 per cent of the prison population. 91 per cent of inmates were male and 9 per cent were female. 78 per cent had experienced prior adult imprisonment. In 2021 the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that 3.8 per cent of the Australian population were of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage.

Sylvia Kleinert traces prison art by Aboriginal inmates back to the late nineteenth century, at Albany Gaol in Western Australia and Fannie Bay Gaol in Palmerston (Darwin). Aboriginal inmates continued to produce art work throughout the twentieth century. Kleinert quotes Greg Dening in the Australian’s Review of Books in 2001, who commented that ‘[i]n a Sense all Aboriginal Art is prison art’, reflecting the carceral experiences of Indigenous Australians under the conditions of settler colonialism. One outcome of the  Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1987 was a growing recognition of the importance of structured Aboriginal Art programs in prisons, ‘fulfilling multiple therapeutic and vocational roles as a powerful and productive means of rebuilding self-esteem to create new pathways for a cultural future’.

Bowral, where I bought the little painting, is the largest city in the Southern Highlands and forms a commercial centre for the surrounding farming properties. The shopping centre includes boutiques, book shops, restaurants, antique shops and vintage clothing stores, and there are several wineries in the region.

Shopping arcade in Bowral, photograph by Vera Mackie

I bought my painting in a charity shop (known as ‘opportunity shops’ in Australia) in an upscale shopping arcade. The shop was run by the St Vincent de Paul Society (known affectionately as ‘Vinnies’). In a prosperous town like Bowral, the quality of items sold in the charity shops can be quite good in quality.

The charity shop painting in closeup. Photo by Vera Mackie

The painting is mainly in shades of blue, green and brown, There is a gentle hill in the background, eucalyptus trees in the middle ground and a tree of indeterminate species in the foreground, which is reflected in the water. There is no way of knowing whether this depicts an actual landscape or an imaginary one. There is a river which runs close to the Gaol and some commentators refer to views from the Gaol, so it is conceivable that it might depict an actual landscape, albeit in naïve style. The painting is undated and unsigned but the label on the back assures us that it is ‘original and authentic’. This perhaps dates from a time when there were anxieties about fake Indigenous paintings being produced for tourist markets. It also departs from the ‘dot’ style of paintings produced in Central Australia.

To drive from Goulburn in the Southern Tablelands to Bowral in the Southern Highlands takes little more than an hour. Goulburn has been described as ‘a stopover place on the way to Sydney, Melbourne and other southern centres’. The charity shop painting is a trace of the experience of one inmate of Goulburn Gaol, but we have no way of tracking down the individual. We have no way of tracing the route whereby the painting was taken from Goulburn to end up in the charity shop in the upscale shopping arcade in Bowral.

There is a gulf between the white, middle-class academic who could spend her Saturday afternoon on a day trip to the Southern Highlands and the nameless Indigenous inmate of Goulburn Gaol who had no such freedom. Nevertheless, both are imbricated in the shared history of settler colonialism, –  that is, the form of colonialism which operates through the dispossession of indigenous land – whether as a beneficiary or as a member of a dispossessed community.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published under the title “Radical Object: Indigenous Art from an Australian Prison”

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *