Raymond Young was given drawings of traditional Gunai Kurnai designs through the Torch’s Indigenous Arts in Prison and Community Program when he was locked up at Loddon Prison in Victoria. Two-and-a-half years later and his ceramic works are being acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria. This is his story.
My name is Raymond Young, I am a part of the Gunai Nation down in Gippsland, that’s my Grandmother’s mob and Grandfather’s side is Gundij down in Portland. I grew up in Melbourne, Mum and Dad first moved to Fitzroy, as they did back in the day, and from there to Broadmeadows.
I got involved with the Indigenous Arts in Prison and Community Program when I was at Loddon Prison, out near Castlemaine. I was working with ceramics and wanted to express my art in a Gunai / Gundij way through the creation of shields.
Kent Morris, the Indigenous Arts in Prison and Community Program Coordinator, gave me a drawing of shield designs of the five clans of the Gunai/Kurnai that Len Tregonning from the Koorie Heritage Trust had given to him. Gunai/Kurnai Elders had drawn and recorded the old designs over 30 years ago. It had some different markings from my mob – markings that I didn’t know about. I was all excited about it and I wanted to create them in clay.
Whilst I was doing it I had that connection to country, thinking about my Elders and the Old People that had created these markings a long time ago and that is something that I believe was instilled in me. It gave me freedom. Even though I was locked up I didn’t feel that I was, I might have been there in the bodily form but spiritually I wasn’t.
I entitled my works “Shielding Our Future.” These days it’s unfortunate that a lot of the young kids are sort of disconnected. For myself, being brought up in a different era, having that respect for my mob was important, for our culture, the diversity of it all. My Uncle is Ray “Buster“ Thomas and he has done a lot of stuff connecting him to country and so I was introduced to this knowledge through his art. This is something I want to be able to instil in younger generations and hopefully one day they will look forward to having that connection to country.
This is who I am, its something that can never be taken away from me and that’s precious, to be able to express it. Other people express it through dance and songs, through paintings, for myself I felt that connection through my pottery and my shields.
For my work to be exhibited at the National Gallery of Victoria was unexpected. As I said to the boys whilst I was in jail, “you know there is opportunities for you”, but this is something I wasn’t expecting and when my work was chosen for exhibition, it lifted my spirits and enabled me to get through some really tough times. When I was in jail my Grandmother and my Mother passed away and art got me through.
In jail, a lot of other nationalities don’t have what we have, as I’ve said to the fellas and the boys in there – we need to keep this program going cause who knows when it might be taken away from us, so it’s something that we have to guard. The boys have really taken a hold of the program and there are some fantastic artists in there, they are brilliant and a lot of their work needs to be shown. We are very lucky and very blessed to have this program in jail because it takes us out of that realm.
Art has opened up a lot of doors for me and I think what it will actually do, is keep me on the straight and narrow. It’s given me opportunities to be able to move forward in life and to share my knowledge.
I mean, it’s been difficult, I have been out for just over a month and just getting used to the environment I am in – big mobs of people – it can be a little intrusive but I turn to my art to get me through this time of adjusting. It puts me in a good mindset spiritually.
Creating more ceramic works is what I am going to be putting all my effort into – but I guess you will just have to wait and see how it develops.
There is so much out here that white Australians don’t know about. It’s important to our mob to be able to express, tell our stories, songlines, then they will get a better understanding of where we are coming from and they can be on that journey with us. It is a journey and its only going to get better and better, as we involve the larger community.
I just hope that the Indigenous Arts in Prison and Community Program continues, that the men and the women will be able to be have their artwork shown. They are hurting in jail – there is a lot of misery and a lot of hurt in there - and our art, it allows us to cope better.
* Indigenous people represent 2.5 per cent of the Australian population; yet constitute 24 per cent of the total prisoner population in Australia. An Aboriginal person is statistically more likely to go to prison that to complete high school or go to university. The Evaluation of the Statewide Indigenous Arts Officer in Prisons and Community Program conducted found that the program has the capacity to affect a 53 per cent improvement on current recidivism rates.
Interview by Jirra Lulla Harvey, Kalinya Communications