• An emotional Nioka Chatfield overwhelmed by her son's portrait. (NITV News)Source: NITV News
Eight months after the Gumbaynggirr and Gomeroi man passed away, a 17-year-old schoolgirl who heard about his tragic end felt compelled to share Tane's story through her art.
Liz Deep-Jones

16 May 2018 - 12:56 PM  UPDATED 16 May 2018 - 1:01 PM

22-year-old Tane Chatfield’s death in custody last year has inspired a major artwork at the International Grammar School in Sydney.

Year 12 student, Sita Tompkins, felt compelled to share Tane Chatfield's story as her major work after learning about it in her Aboriginal Studies class.

Tane Chatfield died in custody in September last year, after spending almost two years on remand at Tamworth Correctional Centre. He was charged over two separate home invasions and was due in court on the morning corrections officers found him unresponsive in his cell. His lawyer and family believe it was highly likely he would’ve been acquitted of his charges later that day, prompting initial questions over his apparent suicide.

"He was such a young person and he had so much to live for, especially with his court case the next day, so I definitely think it's devastating what happened to him," artist Sita Tompkins told NITV News.

Sita’s mother, Ursula Tompkins, was proud that her daughter was tackling such a confronting issue and highlighting Tane’s case through her art.

"In Tane's case, a young man, a healthy young man, and his family were confident he was going to get a result that day and that didn't happen. Instead, he came out in a box; he was dead.

“These issues are fundamental to Australia growing and fixing these matters  ... From my point of view, there's no excuse for anyone to die in custody," Ms Tompkins added.

The Chatfield family attended the unveiling of the painting held in the new design centre at the school.

It was part of the school's inaugural Aboriginal Studies exhibition of major artworks, which explored issues ranging from the Stolen Generations to deaths in custody.

The event brought together Aboriginal mentors, families and friends of students presenting their artwork. The opening saw strangers unite over a young man who never had the chance to clear his name.

According to NSW Correctional Services, Tane Chatfield was the first death of an Aboriginal person in their custody by suicide since 2010, and the fourth Aboriginal death in custody in NSW over the past 2 years.

Academic mentor of Indigenous studies, Jade Carr encourages her students to explore the policies affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

"When they (the students) hear about deaths in custody, like with the Stolen Generations, they can't believe that these types of things still happen today. It's something that has a big impact and particularly with Sita, she would never have experienced any of this personally," Ms Carr said. 

For Sita, delving into an unknown area wasn’t daunting. She says it was mostly staggering to discover the injustices Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples face in their own country.

"I really just wanted to portray the issue — deaths in custody, especially Indigenous, because the statistics are so appalling, so I really wanted to put that on a canvas," Sita explained. 

Sita also has the support of the school’s head girl, Mi-Kaisha Masella, who highlighted the importance of these works as a means for reconciliation.

"I think it was so brave of her to step out as a non-Indigenous woman, I'm going to step out and show that not only is it the job of the Indigenous people to fight for their own rights, but it's also the job of any other Australian to help the Indigenous people fight for what is right," Ms Masella said.

Calls for an inquiry into Tane Chatfield’s death in custody heard in Parliament
Greens MP and Aboriginal Justice spokesperson, David Shoebridge, has put the New South Wales and Federal Government on notice. Speaking in Parliament today, he called for an independent investigation into all deaths in custody in New South Wales.

Sita sought permission to paint the portrait from Tane's mother, Nioka Chatfield, who attended the opening with her family.

Nioka was deeply moved by the student’s portrayal of her son.

“This is my boy, aged 22, and I can't get him back. For me, to come and touch that left cheek was… I can feel him holding my hand; it's amazing!" Nioka said while in tears. 

Tane's case remains under investigation by the coroner.

While the family is still seeking answers, the gesture by 17-year-old Sita has given them some hope. Tane’s mother says Sita will always hold a special place in her heart.

"For somebody to only know my name and find me on FB... What an amazing effort that's she's done… Justice for Tane!" 

Tane Chatfield farewelled in emotional service
Family and friends paid their respects to Tane Chatfield and delivered moving speeches at a packed Cathedral in Armidale on Friday.