A brush with spirits: centering First Nations storytelling at Pentridge Prison

A mural painting featuring a First Nations man sitting cross legged on the earth in front of a fire, surrounded by arid country and a dark sky filled with stars; to the right, a First Nations man standing and holding a set of bed sheets as he enters Pentridge Prison.

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This content contains the names and images of deceased Aboriginal and Torrest Strait Islander people.

“You get an idea in your head, so you pick up the brush and start painting. You build on it, and the story comes to you. And every time you tell a story, it helps you to understand yourself a little bit more.”

Chris Austin is, among many other things, a painter. He could likely tell us a thing or two about works in progress, but the story of his life is a reminder that we, as humans, are also adding new brushstrokes to our own canvas of existence every day.

Chris is also a Keerraaywoorrong man of the Gunditjmara Nation, the Traditional Owners of southwestern Victoria. He is proud to be an Indigenous Program Mentor at The Torch, an organisation dedicated to supporting Indigenous offenders and ex-offenders through cultural and artistic expression.

Photograph of Chris Austin standing in front of his artwork.
Chris Austin in May 2022 with his pelican artwork in the Confined 13 exhibition. Photo: James Henry. Source: The Torch.

After spending over three decades in and out of prison, Chris asserts that the process of creating artwork is what finally broke the cycle. “It makes you realise things, you know? You realise you can do something with your art. Telling your story can be an important thing for you and other people.”

Chris is a former inmate of Pentridge Prison, a site of complex Australian penal heritage and dark urban lore. Art Processors partnered with the National Trust of Australia (Victoria) to provide a creative interpretation of the prison’s history, delivering an end-to-end immersive experience for visitors through location-aware technology, authentic set design, and powerful storytelling.

Curating these narratives of Pentridge is already an inherently complicated task, with inmates being held at the site from its establishment in 1851 until its closure in 1997. However, the former prison sits on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, a fact that is inextricable from the edifice itself.

Prisoners to their own earth

“Art Processors has a baseline logical assumption that the land of this whole continent is essentially unceded, and the colonial history of Australia is a period of just over two hundred years nestled within a much longer and deeper history,” says Sam Doust, Group Director, Creative Services. “So it’s absurd that you wouldn’t start by representing, or at least acknowledging, the ongoing custodianship of this land.”

In seeking to represent this history we consulted the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation, who provided essential context and First Nations perspective on our interpretation of Pentridge. 

“The experience of Pentridge is so often connected to the structures on the site. That aspect is more easily read by white audiences and contemporary visitors, rather than signs of Country. You need that cultural expertise to really be able to see a place for its true nature,” says Kate Chmiel, Senior Content Developer, explaining the necessity of this engagement.

“There are tens of thousands of years of experience and stories about what this place means, but it's not accessible in the same manner as historical archives are. But it is absolutely and utterly there.”

However, the bluestone of Pentridge quarried from the surrounding land represents far more than the injustice of appropriated Country—the crossroads of First Nations people and Australia's penal system is a source of profoundly deep and ongoing trauma.

There was no question that First Nations people—and moreover, their experience of incarceration—would be represented in this project but, as Sam asks, “What are you going to say, and more importantly, how are you going to say it?”

A stony reception

A mural greets visitors when they enter Pentridge’s former Warders Residence, now the visitors centre from where the prison tours begin. It was painted by Chris, in collaboration with other artists from The Torch. 

The left side of the mural illustrates a man on Country, and is a subtle nod to another mural painted in Pentridge’s F Division in 1962 by Gunaikurnai man Ronald Bull. In stark contrast, the right side of Chris’s mural portrays a downcast Indigenous man entering prison, with the unmistakable form of bluestone filling the background. 

A mural painting featuring a First Nations man sitting cross legged on the earth in front of a fire, surrounded by arid country and a dark sky filled with stars; to the right, a First Nations man standing and holding a set of bed sheets as he enters Pentridge Prison.

“When they told me this place would be the reception for the tours, that’s where the idea for the mural came from,” explains Chris. “A lot of us came straight from Country into the jail system, and the first thing you get on reception is a bed-pack,” he says, referring to the folded linen being held by the man in the painting. “I still remember my first day there. It was a long time ago, but I remember it as clear as day.”

Separating the two halves of the mural is a small fire, and emerging from the smoke is a ghostly ancestral figure holding a spear. “The smoke is to clean out a lot of demons and bad feelings from Pentridge. It’s a terrible and very strange thing being taken from Country,” reflects Chris. “It’s like being taken through different realms.” 

While the figure on the right represents no specific person, it could be taken to embody every First Nations person who entered Pentridge. Speaking to Chris, there is a sense that remnants of this man’s spirit are forever committed to this place of torment and cruelty, with the depiction of the smoking ceremony providing a cleansing of his ordeal. “I hope it helps him on his journey through his sentence,” he says.

Speaking from experience

First Nations representation is at the forefront of the immersive audio experience we created for Pentridge. We had the extraordinary privilege of working with Uncle Jack Charles, also a former inmate, who sadly passed away a few months before the completion of the project. With the permission of his family, we are fortunate to have his voice featured in the audio narration. 

Uncle Jack Charles stands outside; someone holds a boom mic next to him.

“Uncle Jack was a gentleman, a raconteur, and phenomenally generous,” remembers Kate. “He offered a unique perspective on Pentridge because he saw it as a bit of a reset in life. He was loved and respected in there, and later on he became such an important mentor to young Indigenous people in prison. We have a lot of love, respect, and gratitude for being able to talk to and spend time with Uncle Jack.”

The other prominent narrator for the audio experience is Rachael Maza, a Yidinji and Meriam woman and Artistic Director of Ilbijerri Theatre Company. Incidentally, she is also the daughter of Bob Maza, who co-founded Australia’s first Aboriginal theatre company in 1971 with Jack Charles.

Aside from contributing the Warders Residence mural, Chris also provides his voice to the tour. When incarceration is so often a painful and spiritually devastating encounter for First Nations people in particular, it leaves you to wonder why someone would choose to revisit these sorts of experiences. 

“Learning about my culture and my history during my last sentence in prison, through all the torture of it, taught me a lot about how I ended up where I was,” says Chris, who felt that sharing his story could be of benefit to others. “I realised that people want to know about it, and they can learn from it. I really hope they do.” 

Subjugation across the system

Each cell in the new Pentridge Prison tour draws the visitor into a specific theme or topic. One of these cells within B Division is titled ‘Mob Inside’, described by Sam as one of the most thought-provoking of the entire experience. It represents the work of Gunditjmara artist Les Griggs, who passed away in 1993. 

The sign at the entrance to a door reading, "Mob inside" and inside the room a First Nations painting.

As it happens, Les was a cousin of Chris, and also his artistic mentor. Next to a photo of Les on the wall is a quote from his testimony given to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody of 1987–1993. Both were kindly provided by his family. 

“The story of this cell gives this exquisite context to the complexity of what it is to be a victim,” says Sam. The process of curating narratives around prisons and inmates is fraught with questions surrounding truth versus myth, duty of care, who to platform—and how to address the place of victims within these stories. 

“I feel if you go in with an open mind to the experience without any preconceived critiques of how this is handled, the experience itself will elaborate on what it is to be a victim,” continues Sam. “The ‘Mob Inside’ cell is a classic example of where you're down by law in many, many ways, and this is why this issue is so complex.”

Finding a path forward

We unreservedly recognise there are many hard truths about the effect upon Indigenous Australians of widespread systemic failures. Forced separation from culture and Country, grossly disproportionate rates of imprisonment, intergenerational trauma—to name a handful. However, the experience at Pentridge Prison Tours is not our soapbox for editorialising.

“Given the disempowerment of First Nations people in the justice system and in society generally, it's almost critical that we say very little about that,” emphasises Kate. “It has to come entirely from people with that experience, speaking from their own knowledge of both culture and prison.”

Therefore, we are grateful to those who shared their stories with us, and allowed us to elevate their voices. People such as Chris, whose circumstances leading to repeated incarceration throughout youth and adulthood are, sadly, far from unique. 

“It’s important to stay on the right path,” he says. “You know, I've spent over 30 years in prison and in boys’ homes. But since I started opening up and understanding myself more, I’ve left prison and stayed out, joined The Torch program, and it’s helped me change my values. I’m travelling on a different pathway.”

Wherever Chris finds himself nowadays, he knows he can take a few more steps on that pathway with little more than a paintbrush at hand, and wants to impart that message upon those under his mentorship. “It’s taking you right out of there, it’s the best therapy in the world. No matter how you’re feeling—you go and paint.”

Acknowledgement of Country

In the spirit of reconciliation, we acknowledge the many Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and honour Elders past, present and emerging. We respect their deep, enduring connection to their lands, waterways and surrounding clan groups since time immemorial. We cherish the richness of First Nations Peoples’ artistic and cultural expressions.