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Indigenous artists are mastering life after prison


Melbourne artist Thelma Beaton has sold her emu totem paintings for thousands of dollars.

The 36-year-old Palava woman lived on the streets and was in jail and has been out since 2014 for petty offenses such as shoplifting before finding an indigenous arts program called The Torch.

“I called two weeks after I got out of jail and asked if I could still do art, I just thought that the more I paint, the more I earn,” she told AAP.

As well as encouraging her painting, “The Torch” helped her connect with the culture of the indigenous people and the history of her family on the island of Cape Barren, off the northeast coast of Tasmania.

She knew little about her cultural heritage and had not seen her family for six years as she struggled with drug and alcohol addiction.

“I was too embarrassed to let them look at me or see me that way, but my art connected me to my family, and now I feel more at ease,” Ms. Beaton says.

She now paints her totem animal, a Tasmanian emu, in bright colors with large expanses of sky and bold flat colors.

Ms. Beaton’s paintings, which sell for about $ 2,000, have helped her find her way to economic security. In 2021, one of her works was commissioned by the Hobart Dark MoFo festival.

The Torch program supports indigenous people who have been imprisoned or recently released by providing artists with materials, training, and support in discovering their heritage.

His annual exhibition, Confined 13, this year features more than 400 works, and has so far raised more than $ 150,000, which goes directly to artists. The works are on display until June 5 at the Glen Eyre Town Hall Gallery.

This money is life-changing, according to Gamilaroi man Sean Miller, who coordinates the public painting program The Torch.

“Instead of leaving the prison without money or a place to live, participants can create bank accounts if they are released … for accommodation, food and family,” he told AAP.

After completing the program himself, Mr. Miller became an award-winning ceramist, and the works were purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria.

“It turns a person upside down and makes him feel valuable in life, they don’t feel at the bottom of the heap,” he said.

More than half of Aboriginal people imprisoned in Victoria will be remanded in custody, but the recurrence rate among The Torch program participants is only 11 percent.

The walls of the Confined 13 show, which is now taking place in Melbourne, are full of talent almost from floor to ceiling.

But Mr. Miller stops for a long time when asked if he will need a show next year for a bigger venue.

“I would like it to be smaller and our crowd not to go to prison. It’s a pity that to become a member of The Torch, you need to go through the system. “

In the 30 years since the Royal Commission adopted the problem, nearly 500 indigenous people have died in captivity in the country, with 15 deaths in 2020-21.


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