When I first sat down for a cup of tea with Uncle Jack at his favourite Melbourne cafe, Friends of the Earth, I was full to the brim with nervous gratitude. To sit with a beloved Indigenous elder who held knowledge and stories that I could only dream to learn. Why should I deserve that privilege?
But as we sat and talked it didn’t take long for us to discover a shared warmth. From the first moment, there was an unspoken understanding that through our art we were meeting each other, two artists with vastly different stories and 50 years between us, with open arms and hungry minds.
His passionate, honest and trusting soul sung through eyes that have seen it all. I was beyond excited, and overwhelmed with gratitude at his trusting in me to join him on a journey back to Bendigo.
Back to Bendigo captures a single frame of time where both sitter and setting have undergone a parallel metamorphosis.
Jack Charles and Bendigo prison share a past that is irrevocably entwined. It was here that Uncle Jack - Aboriginal elder, Victorian Australian of the year and actor - spent portions of his darker days incarcerated. He describes it as his ‘second favourite prison’.
In 2006, the prison was decommissioned and later converted into the Ulumbarra theatre. As part of 2016 Reconciliation week, Jack, now 73, returned to perform in a stage show titled Ulumbarra.
Alongside 20 of the nation’s top Indigenous performers, Jack shared stories and songs about Aboriginal astronomy, the experience of the Gold Rush and missions, the repatriation of Aboriginal remains, Dreamtime stories, and significant landscapes of central Victoria's Dja Dja Wurrung clan.
The first sitting that we shared was between the morning and afternoon shows. As we walked together he told me that he often found it difficult to dance because the rhythms just aren’t in his bones, but that he still had a ball trying.
Jack’s reconnection to his country and culture is a process of discovery and healing that he describes as on going after a life begun as a child of the stolen generation.
This hallway of cells is the only one that has remained untouched in the transformation of the prison, and behind him are the very cells that held him. He wears his stage attire for the show to be performed that day.
The creation of this work from start to finish has been by far my most cherished experience as an artist to date.