Annual exhibition empowers in-prison and in-community First Nations artists

First Nations Australians make up around 2% of the Australian population, yet represent 27% of the national prison population.

The Uluṟu Statement from the Heart also highlights: ‘Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people… Walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.’

Such statistics were the grounds for the foundation of The Torch, an organisation that provides art, cultural and arts industry support to Indigenous offenders and ex-offenders in Victoria.

The Torch recently left its home of eight years on St Kilda Road in Melbourne after receiving a notice to vacate, and has relocated to Wurundjeri Country in the heart of the suburb of Carlton.

It will welcome visitors to its new home from 8 May.

In the meantime, The Torch’s annual exhibition, Confined will be held this year at the Glen Eira Town Hall Gallery from 5 May to 4 June. This year’s exhibition coincides with National Reconciliation Week (27 May – 3 June).

Read: Prison art around Australia

Confined 14 showcases works by 232 in-prison artists and 170 in-community artists at different stages of their practice. Many are looking to make their first sale, with 100% of the revenue raised going to the artists to support their rehabilitation.

With a record of 473 artworks on display, the exhibition provides a strong visual metaphor for the continuing over-representation of Indigenous Australians in the criminal justice system.

Ranging from paintings to carved emu eggs, baskets and hand-woven rugs, Confined 14 showcases a range of artistic expressions and highlights the healing power of art.

The exhibition also includes works by established artists such as Sean Miller, winner of the South-East Australian Aboriginal Artist Prize in the 2022 Indigenous Ceramic Award, Peter Thurlow (Palawa/Gunnar Kurnai man) and Daniel Church.

For the first time, The Torch is presenting a satellite exhibition in Gallery 2. In the Torchlight will give an expanded voice to in-community women artists who are pursuing their cultural practice post-release. Set to become an annual event, the exhibition this year features works by Heather Shawe, Melissa Bell, Sonia Singh, Veronica Hudson and Thelma Breton.

Bell joined The Torch’s Indigenous Arts in Prisons and Community program in 2016, and now works part-time as the Art Support Assistant. She says: ‘Making art makes me feel connected to my land. To be an Aboriginal female artist, just to put down a beautiful picture from my Country, knowing I can put that down on a canvas and express my Country to other people, is amazing.’

Art for lasting impact

In 2022, The Torch sold and licensed over $1.1 million worth of artworks for First Nations participants in the program, which currently numbers over 600 Indigenous men and women.

Through earnings from the program, participants are able to improve their circumstances and find different pathways when connecting back to the community. It’s also about building confidence and decreasing recidivism.

Barkindji man, Kent Morris, Chief Executive Officer, The Torch, says: ‘The Torch program was built upon the foundation of Indigenous knowledges, philosophies and support processes that have been developed, taught and embraced for generations. It shows that Indigenous-led and delivered solutions to some of the ongoing issues caused by systemic over-incarceration can be addressed successfully if driven by the Indigenous community.’

Morris continues: ‘The Torch’s success belongs to the voices and lived experiences of our Elders and of Indigenous community members caught in the discriminatory web of Australia’s criminal justice system. A crucial aspect of the success of The Torch program is deep listening.’

The Torch now employs 23 permanent staff – 13 are First Nations and six of whom have transitioned through the in-prison and in-community programs to work at The Torch.

Confined 14 runs from 5 May to 4 June at Glen Eira City Council Gallery.

The Torch artists will present live painting on 27-28 May and a floor talk with The Torch CEO, Kent Morris, and an artist from The Torch will be held on 2 June; free.

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