Surrounded by a media pack at the Artspace gallery in Woolloomooloo, members of the Tennant Creek Brio are a long way from home.
The men’s group started as an art therapy program in the Northern Territory town, five hours north of Alice Springs, before their work caught the eye of Sydney Biennale artistic director Brook Andrew.
Tennant Creek group Jimmy Frank, Fabian Brown, Rupert Betheras and Joseph Williams are exhibiting at Artspace and Cockatoo Island for the Sydney Biennale. CREDIT:RHETT WYMAN
In their first major exhibition, their work is now on display at two venues alongside more than a hundred artists and collectives from across the globe at the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, which opens today.
“At first, we thought it was just a normal small exhibition – we didn’t know it was going to be a worldwide exhibition like this one,” said Warumungu artist Joseph Williams.
The group fuses ancient and contemporary art, using discarded televisions and poker machines as canvases for traditional paintings and videos of community life.
The screen of one poker machine, a relic from the local Tennant Creek nightclub, is smashed and doused with red “blood”. The broken screen shows “how fractured our lives are”, explains artist Jimmy Frank. The blood represents the hurt.
“A lot of the trauma that affected our community has led to alcoholism and gambling,” he said.
The works paint a raw picture of the challenges facing Tennant Creek, and their root causes.
“It’s about truth telling,” Mr Frank said.
“We want to talk about the massacres, we want to talk about the colonisation, we want to talk about [how] our lands have been stolen… we have to tell these bad stories for us to move forward as a nation and we’re doing that through art.”
But in a town where Mr Williams says Aboriginal men are often “stereotyped” by negative media coverage, the group wants people to know that there are positive things happening in their community, too – especially in the art space.
“This is our strength from our community… in terms of art and culture, and the way we’re expressing ourselves,” said Mr Williams.
The group embodies the Biennale’s theme of Nirin, meaning ‘edge’ in Wiradjuri language, which is partly about amplifying the voices of those living on the margins.
With Wiradjuri man Brook Andrew at the helm, this year’s event is led by First Nations artists from across Australia and the globe.
“It’s not just First Nations – it’s all about humanity generally,” he said.
“But to lead first with two thirds of it being First Nations or people of diaspora or colour from around the world, it’s definitely hopefully going to make a huge impact.”
The Tennant Creek Brio is exhibiting works at Artspace and the Turbine Hall on Cockatoo Island during the Biennale of Sydney until June 8.