In 2015, there were at estimated 36,134 prisoners in Australian prisons. Of those 36,134, Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners accounted for just over a quarter (27%) of the prisoner population. This number increased to 30% when talking about Indigenous women, and again to a staggering 48% for Indigenous juveniles. In 2015 Aboriginal’s and Torres Strait Islander’s accounted for only 2% of the total Australian population. Though the freedoms offered to Indigenous people in 2016 has significantly increased in comparison to those who existed within the context of colonialist Australia, fragments of colonialist behaviours have snuck into 21st century Australia, thus perpetuating a cycle of oppression and misunderstanding that can be linked back to the massive overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples within the criminal justice system.
Kent Morris, coordinator of Confined, believes that the incarceration of Indigenous peoples is greatly owed to the lack of connection to country and culture. “I don’t think you should underestimate the power of culture in the rehabilitation process for Indigenous offenders,” he says on the program, created to engage inmates and encourage them to change their path. The program, now in it’s seventh year, provides an environment wherein it is safe for Indigenous artists to practice their culture, but also draws the public attention to the high levels of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in correctional facilities around the country.
Roger Sims is one of the many artists given a new lease on life as a result of the Confined program. As a child, art was Sims’ sole interest, and as a young adult he took to giving his friends tattoos in his back shed with a sewing needle and the ink from an old pen, later graduating to a real tattoo studio with a real tattoo gun. First incarcerated at 18 years old, Sims has spent a number of years in and out of prison intermittently. Briefly after his first stint in jail, he was made aware of his Indigenous heritage. Having grown up with adoptive parents, it was not until he made contact with his birth mother at 19 that he knew about his background and developed an interest in creating traditional Indigenous artworks. In 2016, his artworks were displayed in the seventh annual Confined exhibition. I sat down with Sims to talk about his art and incarceration.
When was it that you first started creating art? Is it something that you have always done or something that you found later in life?
I’ve always had an interest in art – it was the only subject I did well in at school. In 1988 I met up with birthmother and learning about my heritage really opened up a whole new world of art for me. It was only in recent years that I started to actively pursue art as more than a hobby.
Tell me a little bit about your art.
I do a lot of different things and experiment with different mediums, but I tend to work with wood and wood burning a lot. Recently I’ve been playing with different forms of “canvas” so to speak. I create a wooden shield and then use a wood burner to carve out a variety of Aboriginal symbols, native Australian wildlife and patternmaking. There is something deeply satisfying to me about the smell of burning wood. Like I know I’m in the midst of creating a masterpiece.
What does your art mean to you, particularly as an Indigenous person?
I think for me, my art is a form of protection, which is why I think using a shield as a canvas has become a recurring theme in my work. When I’m creating my art I can escape from anything else going on in my life and just feel safe. Further than that, my art has consistently focused around reconnecting with my culture and family.
How do you feel your art has affected/altered your own life? I know you were incarcerated for a period of time; what role do you think your art had in your rehabilitation?
When I went to the Confined exhibition opening at the St Kilda town hall, I was buzzing. It was like, I finally got to see all my hours of meticulous work paying off. It was the first time in 46 I truly felt like my mum was proud of me. My kids didn’t think I was such a dropkick anymore. It’s made me a happier person because the people around me were happier. It’s made me proud to be me. I think that night was what truly made me feel like there was more out there for me, what really motivated me to work hard and stay out of prison. So yeah, definitely played a massive role in my rehabilitation, and the money I made at the exhibition meant that the transition from life in jail to life on the outside was actually one I felt like I could make. Sometimes that little safety net makes a big difference.
How do you feel your art has affected those in your immediate community?
As I said, my art has been a big part of my rehabilitation process and so I it has obviously helped me to rebuild a lot of relationships. Being behind bars doesn’t do much to build a father/daughter bond, and creating art more actively has kept me too busy to get me into trouble, so I’ve been able to get to know my kids. It’s also been a great line of communication between myself and my birth mother. It’s something we can really talk about and connect over. I think it’s pretty obvious that it has only affected the people around me in a positive way. Anything that keeps me out of prison is going to have a positive affect on those around me.
Sims’ reconnection to his culture has reignited a love of art and allowed him to turn over a new leaf and step away from a life in prison. It has offered him the opportunity to rebuild relationships, rebuild a life on the outside and, in his words, “earn some moola on the side.” His birth mother, Maureen Moore says the program has “brought [them] a little closer together and forced him to get his act together.” In general, he is a perfect example of what understanding your cultural identity can do for your outlook on life, and how programs like Confined can help Indigenous people get out from behind bars and stay out.
It is no doubt that the Australian legal system has been and continues to be used to create disparities between white Australia and the nation’s traditional land owners. But exhibitions like Confined and artists like Roger Sims open up a channel of communication through which we can talk about these issues.