Intertwining their stories, Counihan Gallery and The Torch, an arts organisation that supports Indigenous offenders and ex-offenders, are showcasing the stories of Palawa woman Thelma Beeton and Taungurong/Boon Wurrung woman Stacey.

Exhibiting in Brunswick Victoria, Banj Banj/nawnta, meaning ‘sister’ in Taungurung language and Palawa kani, respectively, hosts bold and colourful paintings from the women.

The paintings share stories of the women’s unique friendship and their journeys through incarceration back to family, culture, and community.

Growing up together, Beeton and Stacey had a strong bond, which was strengthened during their incarceration at Dame Phyllis Frost Correctional Centre.

“Our mums were close, we’ve been family friends for years … Stacey is older than me, so I used to play with her brothers and sisters,” said Beeton.

“We were in prison together, but our friendship has grown outside of there too … We’re really like family. We really encourage each other all the time and we are forever always talking about our paintings over the phone.”

Whilst at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre, the women participated in The Torch’s Indigenous Arts in Prisons and Community program.

“I was on the streets, I wasn’t doing well and ended up in prison … I got into a program there, it was an Aboriginal art class. I went along, they threw a canvas, paint brush and paint at me and told me to paint,” said Beeton.

Thelma Beeton – Untitled (Prison Yard) 2021. Photo supplied.

The class provided Beeton an opportunity to learn more about her cultural identity.

“I had no idea about anything to do with my culture, all I knew was that I was Aboriginal and that my family came from Tasmania,” she said.

“In going to the class, I found out what my totem was, and who my mob were. I paint my totem, which is the Tasmanian Emu.”

Beeton recently returned to Country, visiting Tasmania and tracking back to the home of her grandparents — Cape Barren Island in the Bass Strait.

“I took my shoes off, I had to feel their land on my feet. Being in the ocean and on the sand, collecting shells, it was such a learning experience. It made me quite emotional, but it was such a good feeling,” she said.

“I feel really proud of where my family come from and who we are.

“It’s sad that people say there aren’t Aboriginal people from Tasmania, there are quite a few of us that are still here — a lot of us didn’t make it and that’s horrible.

“But we are still here, and we are strong.”

During Beeton’s trip, the first sighting of an emu egg in over 200 years in Tasmania made news.

“My family were saying that me coming home brought the Spirits alive again in the emu,” she said.

“It was this weird coincidence it happened whilst I was over there.”

Stacey – Healing Garden 2021. Photo supplied.

The Torch supports Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people incarcerated across Victoria.

The Torch Director and Yorta Yorta Elder Aunty Pam Pedersen has worked with women incarcerated at Dame Phyllis Frost Correctional Centre.

“On my visits to the Dame Phyllis Frost Correctional Centre, I took pride in seeing our women together culturally, working on their art and sharing their stories,” she said.

“Their resilience and determination which I experienced first-hand was very humble, strong and proud.”

Indigenous women are currently 21 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous women and are more vulnerable to the drivers that lead to incarceration, including family violence.

“The importance of women to First Nations communities cannot be overstated,” said The Torch CEO and Barkindji man Kent Morris.

“They are central to many aspects of family, community and cultural life. Over the past 10 years, The Torch has maintained a strong focus on supporting Indigenous women whose lives have been impacted by the criminal justice system.

“This exhibition is a testament to the collective hard work and determination of the artists and The Torch to provide a forum for lived experiences and First Nations perspectives to be shared and explored.”

Banj Banj/nawnta is showing at Counihan Gallery until September 5. The exhibition can also be viewed virtually here.

By Rachael Knowles