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HomeIssue 8Breathe in the Brio's exceptional air

Breathe in the Brio’s exceptional air


An explosive sense of “who we are” radiates from the recent work by the Tennant Creek Brio, showing at Raft Artspace.

It is as multi-faceted as the life experiences of these men, expressed with an urgency, a tough exuberance, a deep-seated knowing of what needs to be laid down and shown to whoever is willing to see.

It is not closed off (other than by being a men’s group) – hasn’t been, won’t be. It is that expanded “we” in the text at the centre of the collaborative work Highly Understandable, 2021, whose tail draws out like a long exhalation, underlined to make its point. (See at top, artists Jospeh Williams, left, and Fabian Brown, with the work. Other collaborators are Lindsay Nelson and Rupert Betheras.)

Multiple works in the show are collaborative, which also makes the point. While there are obviously standout individual talents and visions at work, the Brio is a collective, “everyone feeding off each other’s energy”, as Raft’s Dallas Gold observes.

Aboriginal identity, culture, context are essential ingredients in the mix, but not exclusively so. Rupert Betheras, a non-Indigenous artist, has been there from the beginning in a mentoring role that is probably better described as catalytic.

Fabian Brown, The Old Man Fire Starter – etc, 2021.

In this show he has collaborated on some works, and has others of his own, including Say No More, 2021, which would seem to summon the wild ride that the Brio has been.

Levi MacLean, who has been around the Brio for some time in a support role, is also non-Indigenous and is now collaborating on some works.

Warumungu country though is the starting point, as the song and dance – a white cockatoo dreaming, a snake dreaming – that opened the show made clear. This is where the meeting of minds that is the Brio takes place.

It is the air their art breathes, to take up the metaphor offered by the text of Highly Understandable, from the ‘pen’ of Joseph Williams. His identity as “custodian for the country we’re singing, my mother’s country” is now also pervaded by the history of colonisation, as manifest in that country and on the streets of Tennant Creek, the highway town some 500 kilometres north of Alice Springs.

Williams writes of the battles that begin “with the air we inhale and exhale”. 

Is he thinking here about Aboriginal people especially? I ask him.

“Myself and my people,” he says, “what we go through in life, or younger people having rough times, any of our people, or any people after that, any nationality or race.”

Fabian Brown & Lévi McLean, Ned Kelly (Beheading Queen Mary), 2021.

What are the challenges at that deep level?

“As we all know, a lot of our people are unemployed, a lot of our people live in crowded homes, a lot of our people, you know, consume a lot of alcohol, but that could be anyone.

“A lack of education. Even myself, I’ve never been to a high level of education, I left school very early, but I had to work and understand and live life.”

So all that’s in the air, but the art is about breathing the air: “Inhaling, exhaling your thoughts of everyday life that you’re going through, trying not to think about tomorrow, try to think today about what you’re doing, it’s about that breathing.”

This immediacy, the sense of the present moment, while summoning an extraordinary interweaving of cultural influences, comes across viscerally in the Brio’s work.

Its cathartic effect is obvious and it’s worth noting that the Brio had its roots in a men’s program in 2016, offered by Anyinginyi Health.

“A lot of artists express their feelings, when you have a rough time in life,” says Williams. “I know I do, many artists do, you can’t just keep it in your mind. Express it, whether you go to speak it to someone or write a text, let your emotions out – that was something that was in my mind, going through a bit of a rough time in life as we all do.”

Rupert Betheras, untitled, 2021.

The group has had great success very quickly in terms of recognition, opportunities (such as showing at the 2020 Sydney Biennale), sales – not surprising, given their work’s exceptional and idiosyncratic verve, its unexpected urban grit coming out of the Northern Territory. I ask Fabian Brown and Clifford Thompson what had changed for them as a result.

“Everything changes,” says Brown, who has embraced the experience full tilt. “We had a trip to Sydney, very exciting, first trip made to Sydney.”

That visit was curtailed by the pandemic. Their work was on show at the Biennale’s main venue, Cockatoo Island in the harbour. He recalls being “scared of looking at that cruise ship, people with face masks on – we had to come back.”

But now he rattles off an exhibition itinerary coming up – Sydney again, Melbourne, Perth, Darwin, even New York.

Thompson is quieter. He’ll fly interstate but doesn’t want to go overseas – “the plane might crash into the ocean.” On the question of change he says first,  “I do TVs.” Painting on found objects, or “rubbish” as Williams puts it, is part of the Brio’s signature.

On the Brio’s success and what it has meant, he says simply, “Experience.”

Clifford Thompson, TV Series, 2021.

“A life for everyone,” expands Brown. “I’m a grandfather, see, I have to take care of my grandchildren. My granddaughter, she’s doing art as well, she’s only eight years old … doing the same thing as I used to.”

He started to draw at eight, watching his big brother who could “sketch anything”: “I was watching him after school … he was my mentor.”

Thompson returns to the matter of success: “It does change us, yes, from drinking too much.”

“From prison life,” adds Brown.

“Staying out of gaol, staying out of trouble, that’s the difference it makes,” says Thompson.

“The most important contribution in our lifestyle,” expands Brown, “get away from trouble, do a lot of art, always do our own progress.”

Marcus Camphoo, 2021.

Is their story drawing younger people to join them?

“They’re welcome but not really, I’d like to see that happen,” says Williams. “I’d like to see a younger artist come and join us, or any artist. It does not particularly have to be an Aboriginal man, could be a white man, any man can come and join us.

“We can share each other’s history, life, journey, who we are.”

That inclusivity in the Aboriginal art context is unusual, I suggest.

“For me it’s all right, it’s about reconciliation and sharing and living together because we have to live like that, but understand each other.

“That hasn’t started yesterday, it’s been 200 years plus.”

Brown and Thompson respond with more frustration about young people, who see the opportunity in the artists’ success in terms of money for themselves.

“Too much pestering. Why can’t they wake up to themselves, do something important, work with us?” asks Brown.

“They know what we’re doing but they’re not interested in it,” says Thompson. “They hang in the street all night, breaking in, all that, smashing windows.”

The men want me to put this “in the paper” but Brown doesn’t dwell there too long, returning to the vision of what his art has opened up for him:

“I need to travel around, have a good time, enjoy life. I could end up with a mansion one day. It does happen, hey?”

It’s not an uncommon aspiration but the path towards realising it has been anything but common. The hard times along the way imbue the Brio’s work, but so does an exhilarating sense of possibility.


Note: Other Brio artists include Simon Wilson, Lindsay Nelson, and Matthew Ladd.

Shows until 17 April. 

Last updated 10 April2021, 1pm.


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