*Fish Kills, by Robert* (Source: Corrective Services NSW)

Despite their incarceration, Indigenous inmates at the Long Bay Correctional Complex in Sydney are far from disengaged with the devastation caused to the land by the summer bushfires earlier this year. The proof is in their art, now on display at the Boom Gate Gallery.

A staggering twenty-five percent of inmates at Long Bay Jail are Aboriginal, but their works represent more than half of the art on display at the Boom Gate Gallery (named after the high security entrance to the complex).

One of its most prolific Indigenous artists is Robert*. In his most recent painting Too Hot, Save Us, koalas stare out in distress as flaming spikes rise from the bottom of the canvas.

Too Hot, Save Us, by Robert* (Source: Corrective Services NSW)

Dr Elizabeth Day, co-artistic director at the Boom Gate Gallery and postcolonial art researcher, says “even though a lot of these Aboriginal guys are urban people, their paintings continually show how connected they are to the bush and animals.”

Dr Day says she is not surprised that in response to the bushfires that killed more than one billion wildlife, Aboriginal artists’ “strong identification with the pain of the animals” manifests in the will to paint them.

Goanna Escaping the Bushfire, by Tyler* (Source: Corrective Services NSW)

Damian Moss, officer at the Boom Gate Gallery, recalls that even “prior to the bushfires, when the drought was on and there were the huge fish kills, we had a couple of Aboriginal artists who made fantastic paintings about the fish kills. So, it’s really a similar kind of response to a different phenomenon.”

Non-Aboriginal inmates at Long Bay haven’t tackled the subject matter of ecological damage in the same way many Aboriginal inmates have. Mr Moss says this might not be for lack of concern, but more practical reasons. “For non-Aboriginal artists, if they were going to paint landscape, often they need access to it, whereas the Aboriginal guys don’t because it’s more an internal thing.”

Kingfisher by Ryan*, Source: Corrective Services NSW

The depictions of the natural world in Robert, Tyler and Ryan’s paintings stand in contrast to their enclosed surroundings. In a statement last year for the “In Trouble” exhibition –  part of the Big Anxiety Festival to raise mental health awareness – Robert emphasised that “art work in here is a must, to me and other inmates, black and white, it’s very important. It helps clear our minds.”

– Story, Natasha May @tasha_tilly Story design, Lucy Tassell