The arts are a powerful repository of cultural identity, believes Dr Vicki Ware. “Humans have long used arts to present their cultural identity,” says Ware, lecturer in International and Community Development at Deakin University.
“They are a space in which Indigenous community members can represent their past, and in genres that blend traditional and global practices, they can renegotiate a sense of who they are in a rapidly changing world.”
“Amidst the tumultuous changes forced upon Indigenous Australians, traditional art forms are often one of the few avenues left to express their links to their traditional identity and culture,” she explains.
Indigenous youth are now 31 times more likely to wind up in detention than non-Indigenous juveniles.
According to BOSCAR reports, the rate of Aboriginal imprisonment increased by 40 per cent between 2001 and 2015. Indigenous youth are also 31 times more likely to wind up in detention than non-Indigenous juveniles.
Dr Ware believes the arts are particularly instrumental in diverting young people – especially those in rural communities – from engaging in harmful practices out of boredom.
“It can also provide a safe space for emotional expression, leading to opportunities to resolve trauma,” the academic says.
Barkindji man, Kent Morris, is one of many Indigenous Australians who have experienced the synergy between art and identify, firsthand.
“They’re so interlinked; our stories are visual – they’re painted and etched onto rocks and bark and into the sand,” Morris tells SBS. “This whole idea of expressing culture visually is so intrinsic to our culture.”
Today, Morris is the CEO of The Torch, a prison art program that works with Indigenous Australian inmates to assist them in finding a path forward and reduce reoffending rates.
With a strong footing in the arts, including a fine arts degree from Monash University and a graduate diploma in sculpture from the Victorian College of the Arts under his belt, Morris’s credentials were only one half of the reason The Torch was born.
“My father was born into poverty back in the 1930s in a town called Tibooburra in far north-western NSW,” he tells SBS. “He’d been placed with a non-Indigenous family through the Aborigines Welfare Board during the height of the assimilation period. He came to Melbourne and left his culture and family behind, so we grew up not knowing who dad was or where we were from.
“Our background and family history had been quite repressed in our house,” Morris says.
Lacking a sense of cultural grounding, Morris found himself gravitating towards activities that led to brushes with the criminal and justice system.
“Fortunately, I never ended up in prison, but what did happen was I found myself floating through life. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t see dad’s side of the family and I didn’t understand what was ‘wrong’ with us.”
[Art] can also provide a safe space for emotional expression, leading to opportunities to resolve trauma.
A chance encounter with an Aboriginal man from the Northern Territory who had moved into his neighborhood saw Morris commence work at the Koorie Heritage Trust at Federation Square.
“I went in to help this man with an exhibition, and I left there four and a half years later,” he recalls.
What ensued was a cultural sabbatical through north western NSW and south western Queensland where Morris met a raft of uncles, aunts and cousins for the first time.
“I was able to travel and learn about the big, beautiful family I’d never known before, who embraced me with open arms.”
The experience was life changing for Morris, and when he stumbled upon an ad looking to hire someone to design and develop a prison arts program, he landed the job. It later provided the blueprint for The Torch.
The Torch’s initial 18-month pilot program, which worked across 12 Victorian prisons, saw a 53 per cent reduction in recidivism rates.
Dr Ware agrees that, while research in the area is limited, there are clear benefits of prisoners engaging in the arts.
“By participating in arts activities, prisoners can develop a sense of self-efficacy, build trust and cooperation, and can use artistic practice to review their life trajectories and begin to imagine a better future,” Dr Ware explains.
Approaching its eighth exhibition this year, The Torch has now extended to offer a post-prison program, which invites men and women to remain engaged with the arts after their release. Two of the program’s artists were also recently shortlisted for the prestigious Indigenous Ceramic Artist Awards, which this year featured seven finalists across the country.
“In the first year I ran the program (2012), there were 49 artists who contributed 62 works and this year, 113 contributed 147 artworks,” Morris says. “It’s quite extraordinary. The post-prison program has also doubled.”
By selling their art, participants are also able to build economic stability, another well-documented deterrent of recidivism. Some of the artists in the program have also had their works purchased by The National Gallery of Victoria.
“Many of them are finding pathways into the arts through the program, but more importantly, they’re navigating through a path to reintegrate into society without reoffending,” Morris says.
“It’s really just about how important cultural identity is for most people – really understanding your history and the story of your culture and how you are a part of that cultural system. In Australia there’s a disconnect among many Indigenous people – it’s information that’s either been lost or misplaced, and it’s about rebuilding or building it from scratch. I built The Torch on this – it’s what I lived through and know.”
For more details on The Torch’s work or upcoming exhibitions, visit thetorch.org.au.
Dr Ware’s research paper, titled Supporting healthy communities through arts programs, was produced for the Closing the Gap Clearinghouse.
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First Contact (season 2) airs on 29 November, 30 November and 1 December 2016 at 8:30pm on SBS. Across 28 Days, six well-known Aussies take an epic journey into Aboriginal Australia. Watch the trailer here, and catch-up on episodes after the program airs via SBS On Demand here.