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Indigenous Australians Heal through Art in Prison Doc The Art of Incarceration

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Indigenous Australians Heal through Art in Prison Doc <I>The Art of Incarceration</i>

The Art of Incarceration documents an art program at Fulham Correctional Center, showcasing the art (primarily paintings) of then-incarcerated or recently released Indigenous Australian men. Directed, written and produced by Alex Siddons, the 81-minute Netflix documentary discusses disparities in the carceral system in Australia, shedding light on the material condition of Australian racial dynamics while closely examining the lives of some men that have found an emotional outlet and a deeper connection to their cultural identities through art. It’s insightful and concise, though its split focus between incarcerated individuals and judicial disparities somehow sidesteps analyzing general prison conditions. The peek into the lives of those touched by the Torch’s Statewide Indigenous Arts in Prison and Community program is nonetheless enlightening.

The Art of Incarceration opens with a warning for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers that the film contains images and voices of people who have died, showing immediate cultural sensitivity before the statement that “Indigenous Australians are the most incarcerated people on the planet Earth,” attributed to Noel Pearson, the founder of the Cape Youth Institute. Shortly thereafter, “Uncle Jack” Charles, an Australian Indigenous elder, activist and performer, introduces the statistics that contextualize the film. These are numbers from 2017 showing that, while Australians with Indigenous ancestry account for less than 3% of the country’s population, they make up 27% of incarcerated adults and 55% of incarcerated youth. These disparities are not altogether dissimilar from the systemic racism faced by Black, Latine/x and Native Americans in the U.S., though statistically even worse. But we’ll return to that later. The stories they tell highlight the high recidivism rate that Charles later discusses: That 58% of these incarcerated return within a year of release and that the increasing incarceration rate of Indigenous Australians at a cost of $100,000/year is economically unsustainable.

Besides Charles, one of the main conductors of The Art of Incarceration is Paul McCann, then the Indigenous Arts Officer at The Torch, the organization that runs the art program with incarcerated Australians. He works with people like Christopher Austin—who, at the time of filming, had spent 37 years behind bars and, in that time, never more than nine months out of incarceration since childhood—and Troy Brabham—a former freelance photographer for the Australian Broadcast Company, Reuters and the BBC who had spent nine years in prison.

One artist, Robby Wirramanda, speaks explicitly about how punishment in society continues after release through the difficulties of finding employment. Wirramanda, who’s also credited as a writer and cultural advisor on the film, and whose sons are credited as production assistants, gets a job with The Torch as a Regional Arts Officer to help the formerly incarcerated reintegrate into society. His beautiful wooden sculptures also end up netting him commissions with a private art dealer in Melbourne.

Other featured artists include Joseph Bray, who beautifully expresses the way he channels art—composed pieces in his head that his hands bring into reality—and the team-building, communal nature of working together to create the Confined art show (in its eighth year during the filming of the documentary, and now approaching their 13th showing). There’s also Damian Owers, a truly incredible painter, and the men (some with faces blurred) at Fulham Correctional that built four-foot didgeridoos out of popsicle sticks.

In the U.S., Black people are the most often cited example of racism and systemic oppression and marginalization. Our historical enslavement is one of two oft-cited founding sins of this country. The other is the genocide of Native Americans. In Australia, “Black” is a racial denotation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders—Black and Indigenous mean the same thing. It’s a different racial dynamic than in the United States; the clearest two parallel demographic group dynamics intertwine. The Art of Incarceration doesn’t have to draw attention to these parallels because that’s not the point—the documentary isn’t specifically aimed towards an American audience—and because it is readily apparent in its depictions of the justice system. Still, it’s especially insightful for those of us with little to no firsthand experience with race in Australia.

What’s more, a few of the documentary’s subjects—especially Wirramanda and Brabham—could pass for white. Brabham talks about how the internal conflict around his cultural identity may have contributed to his drug use and other antisocial behavior. He also, after a good day in court, says “Justice prevailed, finally, for a Black man.” Wirramanda doesn’t discuss these exact matters—though he does refer frequently to “brothers and sisters” trying to reintegrate into society—but their visage and that of some of the other incarcerated Australians of Indigenous heritage lays bare the arbitrary cruelty of especially harsh punishment of minorities, particularly the historical stewards of a colonized land.

This is a documentary that will break your heart but also give moments to smile amid a lot of insight. The artwork on display is phenomenal—and the full price of any purchased pieces goes to the artists. The program is very effective for most of its participants—Austin is still out of jail; Wirramanda, who is no longer currently employed by the agency, had sold 59 pieces through their program as of last year.

Part of me wishes that The Art of Incarceration discussed general carceral conditions more or detailed how the program was established. It could give a broader view of Australian society and discriminatory policing, disenfranchisement or economic estrangement. It could focus more on women, who are displayed in the film as volunteers, social workers or the loved ones of incarcerated men; Wirramanda talks about incarcerated Indigenous women, but they’re not in the film. Similarly, considering the title, the statistics and the anecdotes, a more robust analysis of systems could have been done. However, that’s where the artistry of cinematographer Jesse Gohier-Fleet comes in, alongside the editorial skillset of a documentarian, choosing the specific shots that highlight the harsh reality. Everything is laid out clearly from the setting, through conversations with the Torch staff and the incarcerated artists, and in the use of archival photography during interviews and statistics in narration. Charles’ narrative cadence and voice provide an air of educational filmmaking, while his tone and frankness give the project authenticity. One image that speaks loudly despite its relative silence is Bray standing in front of his cell, covered in body paint in makeshift traditional garb after a ceremonial dance with some other members of the Torch group; standing silently while a guard or administrator walks by as other inmates stand silently by their cells in prison uniforms. It highlights how the art, and the small bites of ceremony, tradition and culture, are the sun breaking through the clouds of incarceration.

As a snapshot of human beings using art to express themselves and connect to their cultures, The Art of Incarceration is a triumph. Demanding more from this documentary—more general structural analysis, more prison overview, more connection to and comparison with other places—mistakes its scope. It packs reality, tragedy and relief, into less than an hour and a half. It’s heavy stuff, powerful but not unrelenting in its pain. People heal and reenter their communities. People account for their mistakes and reconnect with their families. But The Art of Incarceration never elides or evades the weight of their imprisonment.

Director: Alex Siddons
Writer: Alex Siddons, Christopher Austin, Robby Wirramanda
Starring: Robby Wirramanda, Christopher Austin, Troy Brabham, Jack Charles
Release Date: July 3, 2022 (Netflix)


Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.