Interview: Roger Sims from The Torch program18 July 2017
In 2015, there were an estimated 36,134 prisoners in Australian prisons. Of those 36,134, Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners accounted for just over a quarter (27 per cent) of the prisoner population. During that time, Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders accounted for only 2 per cent of the total Australian population. One could argue that fragments of colonialist behaviours have snuck themselves into 21st century Australia, creating a cycle of oppression and misunderstanding that can be linked back to the massive overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples within the criminal justice system.
The Torch program is now in its eighth year, and it provides an environment wherein it is not only safe for Indigenous artists to practice their culture, but also draws the public attention to the high levels of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in correctional facilities around the country. Coordinator Kent Morris believes that the incarceration of Indigenous peoples is greatly owed to the lack of connection to country and culture.
“I don’t think you should underestimate the power of culture in the rehabilitation process for Indigenous offenders,” he says on the program, created to engage inmates and encourage them to change their path.
Roger Sims is one of the many artists given a new lease on life because of the Torch program. As a child, art was Sims’ sole interest, and as a young adult he took to giving his friends tattoos in his back shed with a sewing needle and the ink from an old pen, later graduating to a real tattoo studio and a real tattoo gun. First incarcerated at eighteen years old, Sims has spent a number of years in and out of prison intermittently. Briefly after his first stint in jail, he was made aware of his Indigenous heritage. Having grown up with adoptive parents, it was not until he made contact with his birth mother at 19 that he knew about his background and developed an interest in creating traditional Indigenous artworks. In 2016 and 2017, his artworks were displayed in the seventh and eighth annual Confined exhibition. I sat down with Sims to talk about his art and incarceration.
When was it that you first started creating art? Is it something that you have always done or something that you found later in life?
I’ve always had an interest in art – it was the only subject I did well in at school. In 1988 I met up with my birth mother, and learning about my heritage really opened up a whole new world of art for me. It was only in recent years that I started to actively pursue art as more than a hobby.
Tell me a little bit about your art.
I tend to work with wood and wood burning a lot. Recently I’ve been playing with different forms of “canvas”, so to speak. I create a wooden shield and then use a wood burner to carve out a variety of Aboriginal symbols, native Australian wildlife and patternmaking. There is something deeply satisfying to me about the smell of burning wood. Like I know I’m in the midst of creating a masterpiece.
What does your art mean to you, particularly as a Wurundjeri man?
I think for me, my art is a form of protection, which is why I think using a shield as a canvas has become a recurring theme in my work. When I’m creating my art I can escape from anything else going on in my life and feel safe. Further than that, my art has consistently focused around reconnecting with my culture and family.
How do you feel your art has affected or altered your own life? I know you were incarcerated for a period of time; what role do you think your art had in your rehabilitation?
When I went to the 2016 Confined exhibition opening at the St Kilda town hall, I was buzzing, finally getting to see all my hours of work paying off. It’s made me proud to be me. I think that night made me feel like there was more out there for me, what really motivated me to work hard and stay out of prison. It played a massive role in my rehabilitation, and the money I made at the exhibition meant that the transition from life in jail to life on the outside was one I felt like I could really make.
How do you feel your art has affected those in your immediate community?
Being behind bars doesn’t do much to build a father/daughter bond, and creating art more actively has kept me too busy to get me into trouble, so I’ve been able to get to know my kids. It’s also been a great line of communication between myself and my birth mother. It’s something we can really talk about and connect over.
Sims’ reconnection to his culture has reignited his love of art and allowed him to turn over a new leaf and step away from a life in prison, offering him opportunities to rebuild relationships, rebuild a life and, in his words, “earn some moola on the side.” His birth mother, Maureen Moore says the program has “brought [them] a little closer together and forced him to get his act together.” Sims is a perfect example of the power of understanding your cultural identity and how programs like Torch can help Indigenous people get out from behind bars and stay out.