From 31 July to 5 September, The Torch and The Counihan Gallery in Brunswick present Banj Banj/nawnta - an exhibition of artworks by Indigenous artists Thelma Beeton (Palawa people) and Stacey (Taungurong /Boon Wurrung peoples). Their strong, bold and colourful paintings generously share their inspiring artistic and cultural journey and express the resilience of First Nations women as they navigate a pathway through the justice system back to family, culture and community. Thelma is a special guest on 3KND's Big Brekkie. Art gives me an opportunity to feel heard - I think as an Indigenous woman in the justice system sometimes you feel like nobody cares and art gives me a voice.
Stacey (Taungurung /Boon Wurrung peoples)
Banj Banj/nawnta, meaning sister in the First Nations languages of Taungurung1 / Palawa kani 2 respectively and pronounced: Bun ya Bun ya / norn ta, represents the unique friendship between Thelma and Stacey, who are participants in The Torch’s Indigenous Arts in Prisons and Community program. Growing up in the same regional town, Stacey and Thelma formed a strong bond during their incarceration together at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre, Victoria’s maximum security women’s prison in Deer Park. Their friendship epitomises both the familial bonds that can be forged in prison and what can be achieved when women empower other women. Now separated following Thelma’s release from prison, their connection and support for each other remains unfaltering. They maintain their friendship through daily phone conversations about art, love, life and culture.
The theme of sisterhood in their artworks emerges through poignant and comical tales. In a paradoxical twist, some of these vibrant and playful artworks address why Aboriginal women are more vulnerable to higher incarceration rates than their non-Indigenous counterparts. Other works celebrate the strength, power and resilience of black women as they navigate the justice system together with compassion, humour and heart.
Indigenous women are 21 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous women. They are particularly vulnerable to many of the risk factors that lead to incarceration, experiencing family violence at a higher rate than that of the wider Australian community, and their incarceration has harmful impacts that reverberate widely throughout the community.
Many women in the justice system have caring responsibilities not only for their own children but also for other people’s children and for the elderly and the sick3. This has a direct effect on the rate of Indigenous children in out-of-home care, itself a pathway to youth detention and adult offending. Stacey and Thelma recall an event in prison that encapsulates the value of their friendship and cultural connectedness during their incarceration. “When we were together we always watched the birds flying through the jail. One day we saw two galahs and Thelma said that they represent us,” said Stacey. “They flew right above us, squawking really loud as if they were laughing too ... In that moment, we felt spiritually connected to the birds … It soothed our hearts as if our ancestors were letting us know they were watching over us,” remembers Thelma.
“On my visits to the Dame Phyllis Frost Correctional Centre, I took pride in seeing our women together culturally, working on their art and sharing their stories. Their resilience and determination which I experienced firsthand was very humble, strong and proud,” said Aunty Pam Pedersen, Yorta Yorta Elder and Director, The Torch.
“The importance of women to First Nations communities cannot be overstated. They are central to many aspects of family, community and cultural life. Over the past ten years, The Torch has maintained a strong focus on supporting Indigenous women whose lives have been impacted by the criminal justice system. This exhibition is a testament to the collective hard work and determination of the artists and The Torch to provide a forum for lived experiences and First Nations perspectives to be shared and explored,” said The Torch CEO, Kent Morris, Barkindji.
"Painting gives you a reason to yarn up about your stories. If I wasn’t painting, I wouldn’t know anything I’ve learnt. I wouldn’t know what my totem is, I wouldn’t know who my mob was or who my Aunties and Uncles are, I wouldn’t know any of that," said Thelma Beeton (Palawa people)
1. With thanks to the Taungurung Land & Waters Council 2. With thanks to the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre 3. Human Rights Law Centre and Change the Record Coalition, Over-represented and overlooked: the crisis of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s growing over-imprisonment, May 2017, p5.
Thelma Beeton was just eight when one of her paintings was selected for exhibition at Melbourne Museum. As an adult, however, she achieved a measure of fame for a different kind of art: her graffiti tags were so prolific that they drew the attention of police. “I was doing street art and got into trouble for that,” she says. “I'd done so much I ended up in prison.’ Beeton was confined to the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre when she discovered The Torch, an initiative fostering artistic skills in Indigenous Australians in incarceration. In 2017, she presented several paintings in the program's annual exhibition, Confined. “That's how my first painting was sold, and mine was the first one to go out of us women in prison," she said. "I was actually the only one to sell two paintings in that exhibition as well.” Before The Torch, Beeton was living on the street, offending to make ends meet. “Now I'm painting and I've got people buying my artwork so I'm not re-offending to make money. I call myself a professional artist now. It does feel good.” John Bailey is a contributor to this story.