Billy Benn Perrurle

Billy Benn Perrurle’s paintings celebrate the land of his forebears and his personal knowledge of it. His work depicts the land of the Harts Ranges in central Northern Territory, a place close to his heart – his birthplace.

Throughout his youth, Billy Benn worked in a number of positions for mining companies and cattle stations in the Eastern Arrernte region of Central Australia. However his life was marred by challenges in the early years, which saw him caught up with the law. In 1967, Billy Benn shot a man, killing him, and in a subsequent manhunt he wounded two police officers. After 14 days living as an outlaw in hiding, he was searched out by a hired tracker, caught, and handed over to the police.

On the grounds of insanity, however, Billy Benn was eventually acquitted of the murder charges. Released as a free man, his art practice became a saving light in his life, which could have taken a dramatically different path to the creative one he lived from the time of his acquittal until his death in 2012.

It wasn’t until he was welcomed into the Bindi Art Centre of Alice Springs in the 1980s that his painting practice began in earnest. However, Billy Benn’s first introduction to art – through his Indigenous cultural upbringing – began at an early age. His two older sisters, Ally Kemerre and Gladdy Kemerre, taught Billy how to paint on skin when he was a teenager, while living at Kurrajong/Urapuntja (Utopia). Their father was also an artist, making traditional artefacts such as wooden sculptures, boomerangs and spears. Jimmy Kemerre worked in the Mica mines and also mined for gold out at Arltunga, transporting people and mail from Alice Springs to Arltunga by camel while working for a man named Simon Reef.

Billy Benn worked extensively across his country during his youth. He began working at the young age of 10 in the Mica mines of the Harts Range with Simon Reef’s younger brother, Norman. Billy spoke of the many Italian people working there, the large flagons of wine they carried with them, and their lunches of spaghetti … “Good food, those Italian people”. Billy was not paid for his work, instead receiving tucker and clothes. Later he began pumping water for cattle, again being paid in flour, sugar and tea. He spent most of his working life in the north-eastern area of Central Australia droving sheep and cattle for pastoralists such as Cameron Chalmers, Joe Mangel and Peter Hayes. It was while working with Chalmers that Billy grew up to be a man. And it was this extended time in the outback – his and his family’s country – that informed the subject matter of his paintings that came later in life.

By the stage of his later life, when he began painting, Billy Benn no longer lived in the region so the works he made were painted from memory. He dreamt of returning home and through his paintings he kept his home close to his heart. A true devotee of his home country, he painted every part of it. To his mind, he wanted to paint every hill and its unique story so that no aspect of the land would be forgotten.

Lacking in resources and with a modest aim to his art, Billy Benn first painted on discarded boards provided by the Alice Springs Timber Mill. In time, it was his tenacity and drive that became the catalyst for the establishment of the cooperative of Indigenous artists working with a disability, named Mwerre Anthurre, at the Bindi Art Centre. The co-op fostered his talents and those of his colleagues, including Aileen Oliver and Seth Namatjira.

Billy Benn’s work displays a sophisticated knowledge of light and space. The rolling ranges of his country, painted in deep reds, thick with gloss, are reminiscent of the work of Albert Namitjira in its powerfully concise rendition of the Central Australian landscape.

In 2000 his work was first publicly exhibited, in an exhibition for people with a disability. All his work sold and an undercurrent buzz began about Billy Benn as an artist to watch. His work was described by former deputy director of the National Gallery of Victoria Frances Lindsay “as a trajectory of [the] Albert Namatjira [style]”.

Billy Benn’s use of flowing brushstrokes was a sharp departure from the traditional dot-painting style with which so much Aboriginal art is associated. His work shows a sophistication of sense and an employment of both Aboriginal and white Australian landscape techniques that seem to merge as one. Each of his pieces emerges as a complex representation of the undeniable movements of a sordid past, encapsulated within an embodiment of essence and light. His images are found from memory and feeling, by painting his land to bring the country into himself. Billy Benn’s paintings cover a wide scope of styles, born of his own lack of preciousness, his vivid imagination, and experimentation with colours, textures and materials, rather than the

study of other painterly influences. One sees hints of Turner, Cezanne, Van Gogh and the Orientalists within his work, yet these were images never seen by him. We are reminded of these other great painters in the variations of light that he captures, rolling ranges painted in deep reds, reminding viewers of the raging seas Turner exposed. From the Central Australian context, they remind one of the great inland sea which once existed here. Yet Billy Benn only remarked on Albert Namatjira being a great painter.

Billy Benn’s paintings communicate a well informed knowledge and relationship of the space that exists in his country. Belgian art historian, Georges Petitjean, was excited by Billy Benn’s breadth and continuance of horizon, never curving at the edges but continuing to travel overland and on into the distance.

Billy Benn Perrurle’s work is held in major national galleries and in many private collections, having risen to national prominence in recent years with numerous exhibitions throughout Australia.

Billy Benn Perrurle’s work is represented by Coo-ee Aboriginal Art Gallery.

A Private Collection – Gary Sands
Annette Larkin Fine Art, Sydney
Until 28 February, 2015 

Courtesy the artist, Cooee Art Gallery, Annette Larkin Fine Art and Gary Sands collection, Sydney

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