Showcasing art from the inside

Peter Widmer and Leezette Chapman
Federation TAFE corrections teachers Peter Widmer and Leezette Chapman at the Marra-Narrap Lakorra exhibition.

Federation TAFE Corrections teachers and practising artists, Leezette Chapman and Peter Widmer are bringing art by Indigenous inmates at Hopkins Correctional Centre in Ararat and HM Prison Langi Kal Kal to the wider world through the Marra-Narrap Lakorra: under blue skies exhibition.

“Marra-Narrap Lakorra celebrates and showcases some excellent work in the corrections environment. The work being produced inside is fantastic and to bring that into the community so people can see what the fellas are doing is just great,” said Peter.

The artworks are a result of the Certificate II in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Arts and Certificate II in Mumgu-dhal tyama-tiyt programs delivered in collaboration by Federation TAFE, Corrections Victoria, and Federation’s Aboriginal Education Centre.

Through the visual arts programs, students explore their culture and creative sides, develop artistic skill, and harness the healing and therapeutic powers of art.Dancing Man

The classes have led to the discovery of incredible, and sometimes previously untapped, talent and allowed the students to tell their stories in their own way.

“There’s no problem getting fellas to come along to classes. As one of the regular attendees said, it’s an island of peace for him. And at that time during the week, he can be away, he can be outside, he can be anywhere he chooses to be.

"Our job is to allow them to develop skills to enable them to tell their stories and understand themselves and their culture a bit better. A lot of fellas come into jail, and they’ve never picked up a brush or worked in any form of art at all while some are already practising, so there ends up being a broad range of people working together. It’s quite a communal class and a lot of the learning is done by working together. To see the fellas grow and develop is quite an extraordinary thing," Peter said.

The exhibition, coinciding with NAIDOC Week, features 35 predominantly acrylic on canvas paintings in varying styles by formerly and currently incarcerated First Nations' artists that explore themes of family, country, culture, identity, home, and freedom.

“There is a painting in the exhibition called ‘Dancing Man’ and when the artist talks about this painting he says, ‘Happiness is so overlooked until you have none. Dance and be happy’. And it’s the most fantastic painting, an incredible picture of a person upside down and twisted and gyrating all over the place and it gives you that sense of that joy you have through that physical activity. The artist has chosen to express himself in a very personal way," said Peter.

Ponde Opening Moorundi"Another fella has a significant knowledge of his country and his culture, and his painting, 'Ponde Opening Moorundi', is the story of the Murray River and its creation and development by Ponde, the giant cod. If you look into that picture, you can see he is understanding the topography of his country, not just the history of it, and it’s beautiful, the transition of colour, the way he’s using his brush is incredibly evocative.”

Seeing the art created in prison by their students hanging in the Post Office Gallery space ready for the exhibition was quite affecting for both Peter and Leezette.

“We had a look at the show the other day and when you have the paintings stretched and put on a wall in a different place, the work is different. Seeing them on the wall in the gallery I was quite overwhelmed with how good they were," said Peter.

"As a practising artist I have always been a big believer in two-way education for me personally, and to see people bloom and blossom through the act of making is always something I value deeply, particularly with our First Nation’s people.

“I’m constantly learning and as a whitefella in this job, I always have to acknowledge the First Nations people with whom I've worked, with whom I’ve sat, from whom I've learnt, and to whom I have listened, and I think that's something that we could all do.”

Leezette adds, "As a whitefella I was very fortunate and privileged to grow up alongside First Nation's peoples in far western New South Wales. Quite simply, with my art practice and teaching I could spend another lifetime learning from this vital, living culture. We haven't even scratched the surface of what we need to know."

Marra-Narrap Lakorra is showing at Federation University’s Post Office Gallery, Ballarat, until Sunday 9 July. Some works will feature on The Torch website where 100 per cent of the sale price of each artwork goes directly to the artist.

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