April 2020

Arts & Letters

Desert bloom: The Tennant Creek Brio

By Anna Krien

Tennant Creek Brio artists Marcus Camphoo (left), Rupert Betheras (centre) and Fabian Brown (seated).
Photographs by Jesse Marlow / Institute

The brazen art movement born out of the troubled legacies of substance abuse and dispossession

Erica Izett had been working in Tennant Creek at the Nyinkka Nyunyu Art & Culture Centre’s gallery for several weeks when she was shown the old industrial lot behind metal gates. The Warumungu-owned gallery had been closed for 18 months and Izett had the unenviable task of re-opening it within six weeks.

“I needed art,” Izett tells me, and a tip-off from the previous gallery manager led her to the lot. The tin sheds, demountables and fibro house were mostly used for a Community Development Employment Project (CDEP), the work-for-the-dole scheme controversially and solely targeted at Indigenous Australians, but for two years prior to that it had been turned into art studios for a small group of Aboriginal men struggling with booze and other substance abuse. They were supervised by a white man – Rupert Betheras.

But that was all over by the time Izett had arrived. Betheras, an artist and ex-AFL player with Collingwood, had his program shut down – twice. First by the Anyinginyi men’s centre, which had initiated it, and again after he was rehired by the gallery to continue it. Izett was under strict instructions to never employ him again.

At the lot, Izett opened the door to a tiny, blisteringly hot room that stunk of enamel paint, where she found a stack of masonite boards leant up against the wall. She began to thumb through them. Flicking through four or five paintings, she paused at the sixth.

Soon Izett had hauled 10 paintings outside into the light. Lining them up against the building, she stood gazing at them. Then she phoned Dallas Gold, an influential art curator in Alice Springs.

“Dallas,” she said, “I think you better come up here.”

Tennant Creek, five hours north of Alice and 10 hours south of Darwin, is largely known for shock headlines of vicious violence, endemic alcohol abuse and intergenerational poverty. Set on the Stuart Highway, a silver bitumen zip up the centre of the country, the town borders the Western Desert.

The renowned and lucrative Western Desert art movement, long dominated by remote communities further south and to the west with strong connections to culture, was developed with strict protocols in place, such as elders determining who can paint what or what palette is to be used. Tennant Creek, by contrast, is an outsiders’ town where ties to culture are tenuous and often irreversibly tangled. It is a mongrel place, many say; it exists on the fringes of white and Indigenous worlds, belonging to neither.

It is fair to say no one expected an artistic bloom to bring them together.

“I wouldn’t go there to save my wife,” an Alice Springs bus driver says of Tennant Creek, which says as much about him as it does the small desert town. Tennant Creek was the site of Australia’s last gold rush, in 1932, and where first contact and mining sometimes occurred simultaneously.

Today most of the gold is gone – and so is the cash. The highway runs straight through it and most people don’t stop, pushing on to Katherine, where the bougainvillea blooms, or to Alice. At night, 50-metre-long road trains exhale as they rumble through and the local BP petrol station lures residents like moths to its neon light.

At a glance, Tennant Creek has an outer LA feel to it. The shops have a dark and boarded-up grit, the windows laced with metal grilles and doors shut tight to keep the interior icy. Despite the seven churches around town, it’s ugly boxy air-conditioning units that are most regularly worshipped. The mercury pushes high into the 30s and 40s for weeks on end. Old machinery has been left beside footpaths supposedly as monuments to the town’s mining history, though you can’t help wondering if it was just too bloody hot to lug them any further.

The houses are low and squat and the cyclone fences high, sometimes clad with metal sheets and coiled barbed wire. There are palm trees too, minus the fronds. A two-year drought has turned them into bald knobs.

This is Warumungu country. It is here where, in 1860, Scottish explorer John McDouall Stuart was forced to retreat, Warumungu warriors fighting his party back with boomerangs and lighting bushfires in the scrub to flush them out. But their victory was brief.

In the years to come Stuart succeeded in his mission to cross Australia from south to north, his explorations laying down the path for the Overland Telegraph. And then came the usual suspects – pastoralists, prospectors, police, mercenaries and missionaries. Aboriginal acts of resistance – or just plain survival as hunting grounds were diminished and soakages drained – were met with punitive reprisals. By the turn of the century, the once strong tribe was herded onto a reserve and began to starve.

Today, Tennant Creek is home to 3200 people.

More than half of the locals are Indigenous, a mix of Warumungu and neighbouring mobs, which is a significant proportion for a town that wouldn’t allow Aboriginal people to enter until the ’60s (except those with permits, such as police trackers and maids).

Yet the town was built on Indigenous land and labour. Even the highway was built in part by Indigenous workers, and local history abounds with stories of Indigenous men being lowered into shafts in steel barrels to work the mines, of Indigenous men and women sinking bores and droving in the dry. On the main street, you can still sometimes see an Indigenous stockman of old – broad-brimmed hat, crisp clean shirt, slacks and a pair of incongruous thongs.

The ’60s and ’70s were heady times of self­determination, land claims, freedom rides, black power movements and walk-offs, but in Tennant Creek these powerful moments also coincided with much of the surrounding country being gutted. A hard-won inheritance by Warumungu coincided with an industry exodus, while the Indigenous right to vote and to earn a wage dovetailed with the right to drink. With mining no longer providing decent money to be made, publicans, grog runners and liquor-store owners focused on rivers of booze instead.

Today Tennant Creek seems to exist on two storylines. There is the nostalgic ode to its mining history, and the devastating reports of alcohol-fuelled violence, abuse and neglect. And yet the connection between the two is rarely made.

Author Alexis Wright wrote about it in Grog War, her documentation of the 10-year battle between Warumungu elders and publicans, a gruesome time when even the coffins were made out of beer-can crates.

And now there is what has become known as the Tennant Creek Brio – an unexpected and brazen art movement from an unlikely crew, many of whom share the legacy of the grog war, and of the many wars that came before.

The paintings were unlike any Australian art Erica Izett had ever seen. There were bold lines, ogres, mystical creatures, superheroes, furious unfurling tentacles of paint, bird’s-eye views of mines like wounds in the land, pattern work and somehow, among all of it, quiet, gentle and loving studies.

Izett reasoned that the men who painted these works during the program run by Rupert Betheras would have produced many more. And she thought it highly likely that Betheras would wrongfully have some in his possession. She was determined to recover them. Plus, she needed his help to put names to the works. Once she got that, she figured the gallery could cut Betheras off for good.

Izett tracked Betheras down. He was staying in an old chook shed just outside Alice Springs. The shed was full of his paintings, dozens upon dozens leaning up against the flimsy walls. “He was suspicious of me,” she recalls, “and I was suspicious of him.” It turned out she was right. He did have some of the men’s work, on brown masonite boards. But there was a catch – they were collaborations. With Betheras. 

“Hang on,” I say, interrupting Izett as she tells me this story. It’s 1am in Tennant Creek and we’re sitting at her kitchen table, purls of steam from a sleepytime tea wafting under her chin. “Is Rupert part of the Brio?”

Izett smiles. “Absolutely.”

We’re surfing. Out in the desert, not a wave to be seen. And yet our vehicle rides upwards, we’re briefly airborne, and then – whump – we’re back onto the red-dirt road. It’s hot, pushing 45 degrees, and the hip-hop beats eking out of the speakers are appropriately dusty, old-school ’80s, tape-deck quality.

Betheras is at the wheel, steering us up and over the corrugations, and Fabian Brown is beside him, blue-checked shirt loose on his wiry frame, long body folded like a stick insect into the passenger seat. Brown’s hand is poised, subtly gesturing and guiding the way.

We are heading west to the outstation where Brown and his little sister, Vivienne, came to live in 1976, after their mother was murdered in Ali Curung. Brown was eight years old. “It’s a long story,” He said to me the morning before our drive. “And sad.” He’d stood in the doorway, cutting the story down to its barest bones with the words “iron bar”, “money” and “drunk”, before disappearing out of the house, away from my prying eyes.

“Bush flowers,” he says now, pointing at yellow flowers, which are sprinkled all over the Barkly region. “Beautiful, hey?” It rained two weeks ago for three days straight, filling the dam and bringing frogs wriggling up out of the mud, waking from their long sleep. The rain turned a beery colour as it rushed through creek beds.

As we drive further inland, the tall red termite mounds get bolder; brazenly built on the road, playing chicken as Betheras swerves around them. Finally an old water tower, on a lean, appears on the horizon and we pull up alongside a rundown settlement of nine or so tiny buildings made out of plasterboard and tin.

Flies cluster to our eyes.

Stepping over a length of barbed wire, I slice my shin open and a buzzing patch of black covers the wound. The buildings are mostly single rooms with dirt floors, empty except for the odd rusted bedframe, hacked pieces of foam or the husk of a dead lizard. But the walls are covered with drawings.

Fabian Brown’s artistic style was distinctive even at eight.

With nubs of charcoal he had drawn trucks and rifles, ogres with pointy ears, profiles of men, Batman and Monkey Magic, the Hulk, monster trucks, small “flying doctor” airplanes and a saddled-up horse. There is a sensational “speccie”, half a dozen Aussie Rules players clambering on top of each other, arms stretching for the football.

There is writing on the walls too, children having scrawled their names across the settlement, practising their lessons, making their mark. Vivienne Brown. Pat brat rat tat mat fat. There was an old rat who lived on a mat. I woz heya. two best mates ever 85. Michael Jackson. Break Dance. Brown loves no one. 1990. NNMC 4 Nobody.

Someone has drawn a fist giving the middle finger and a rather studious portrait of an erection, and there is the outline of a man and a woman having sex that has been furtively scribbled over.

Sitting in one room with a smile on his face, Brown looks at the walls in wonder. A honeycomb of red-dirt nests covers the ceiling and a termite mound climbs up the greying plaster. It’s the graffiti that holds me, the act of inscribing on a place, and the agency and dialogue that comes with it.

“Let’s go and see the old fellas,” Brown says, and Betheras drives us to the tree under which Brown’s grandmother was born and where her family camped.

Erica Izett was in a bind. She was convinced the Tennant Creek men had created important artworks, and that they should return to the gallery as artists. But Rupert Betheras, she’d learnt, was integral to their output, and the artists would not return to the CDEP lot without him.

For four years of the program, the ex-footballer had left his own paintings – his entire output of thrilling vivid abstracts, hungry bold imagery, fine details like needlework – often unfinished, throughout the ­studios. On the ground, in mammoth piles stacked against the walls, out in the carpark. And in response, the men began to lay the paintings down on the ground and work with them. Betheras never intervened, though he later said there were instances that made him flinch. On the rare painting he might have felt close to, almost completed, someone, usually Brown, would come over the top, leaving a leery enormous devil in bold brushstrokes.

But still, the process made sense to Betheras, and perhaps, out here, the very idea of an unblemished canvas is dishonest.

Betheras took the men in his ute on salvaging missions, collecting half-empty tins of enamel and house paint from the tip, as well as blackboards, masonite boards from a packing factory, a whiteboard from an old butcher shop, hooks from abandoned abattoirs and dozens of dead flat-screen televisions. Stains and grooves cut into boards from Stanley knives were part of the patina. Maybe Betheras thought it was only fair to have something by a white man painted over for a change.

When he was 12 years old, Rupert Betheras was tagging the streets in Melbourne. The third of four brothers, he and his kin were an infamous unit in the graffiti scene; a friend recalls to me looking up at the tracks back in the ’80s and seeing one of the brothers atop the passing train, crouched low, surfing.

“I was more of a foot soldier,” Betheras, then playing for Collingwood, told writer Martin Flanagan in 2002, “putting up the name of the crew.” Diehard Magpie fans fondly recall the tough and nuggety Betheras. On footy forums, they lament, “It was Malthouse’s biggest mistake dropping Rupe.” He was dogged, a blue-collar team player at a time when the game was increasingly seeking out athletes with a flair for aerobic fitness tests.

Even when he played in the AFL, Betheras painted. Obsessively, some say. He was fidgeting and agitated if he wasn’t training or working in his studio. When the Magpies abandoned their home ground, Victoria Park, for fancier facilities at the Lexus Centre, Betheras set himself up in the now defunct press box above the Bob Rose Stand to paint. And he painted as he played: hungry, adrenaline-fuelled. The more he painted, the better he played. At least that’s how Betheras felt. Then in 2003, Collingwood delisted him.

In After Collingwood, Betheras’s first exhibition following his “cut”, his paintings had a blood-red palette, reminiscent of the Sherrin footy, and seemed to weep like wounds. In one, a footy player in a black and white sweater had his face scrubbed out.

Then Betheras went north.

In the years since, he played in the mostly Indigenous footy league and taught footy clinics to Aboriginal children as part of a program to keep kids at school. And he painted.

“I like this song,” Fabian Brown yells, gesturing at the battered grey beatbox. “Turn it up!” It’s Miley Cyrus, “Nothing Breaks like a Heart”. The men are back at work. The CDEP lot was reopened to the artists in late 2018 and Betheras returned, dragging his mattress into the room with “CDEP coordinator” above the door.

It had taken some high-level persuading from Izett to have the program reinstated. She showed the paintings she’d discovered to the Julalikari Council, which runs the gallery, explaining that Betheras’s unorthodox approach to art therapy was exactly why the program had been working. Yes, she’d concurred, he was clearly a slouch at documentation – and the mess around the lot was unholy – but he sparked the men up, got them going, just with his own determined intensity and generosity.

And so, in the evenings when the heat dipped, the men drifted back in as Betheras wedged lids off paint tins. But this time there was a fever in the air. Izett’s enthusiasm was contagious and the men, including Betheras, began to see their work through her eyes. A feeling grew among them of finally being seen.

Today, the collective is a loose nine. The men work together and separately, sometimes like ships in the night, leaving an image for another to complete.

Betheras has built the men’s confidence, working alongside them – and as always, he has been prolific – but a quieter, more contemplative element has crept into his work. “I used to put everything into my paintings, all of me, making these big statements.” He shrugs. “Now I’m just making marks, small details. It’s like I’m receding.”

He looks away and changes the subject.

Brown paints intensely. A self-proclaimed travelling man, the 51-year-old paints mystical animals, mermaids, samurais and bulky policemen, curiously unique yet instantly recognisable forms; his unusual vision is like a collage of radio and TV fragments, a stapled-together way of seeing the world. He mostly seems attracted to adding to Betheras’s paintings, sometimes casually walking across one to reach a far corner; their work is a curious dialogue between a Western desert man and a European man.

Brown lives on the fringe of town in the men’s camp in a two-roomed house with five others, including fellow Brios Clifford Thompson and Lindsay Nelson. For them, home is a tin roof, besser-brick walls and a concrete floor, with no running water. Often an electrical cord threads between the houses like a long black snake.

Marcus Camphoo, known as Double OO, is the youngest of the Brio and perhaps the most mysterious. The 26-year-old slinks into the lot and tends to crouch over his paintings, a shock of thick black hair covering his face. Betheras speaks of trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to feed him fruit and vegies. Camphoo lives in Tennant Creek, so in that sense he is not homeless, but he does wander from house to house, possibly a habit picked up in childhood. His works are elusive, loosely geometric and grainy, seeming to hint at grids and shelters, of which – depending on your perspective – he either has many or none.

 Simon Wilson, on the other hand, lives with his parents in the eastern part of town. Quiet and gentle, he paints haunting wurly-wurlies, desert dust storms that seem to rise up out of nowhere, and traces over the fracture­lines of smashed TV screens with white paint as if the televisions are enclosed in spider webs.

When the men returned to work together, a vein of excitement grew in the art scene. It was Izett who called them the Brio. “It’s an Italian word,” she tells me, and smiles. “Fire, mettle, style… It’s them.”

Last year, the Alice Springs curator Dallas Gold organised a show, titled King of the Roosters, which introduced the Tennant Creek Brio to the art world. It was a sellout success. At Desert Mob – an influential annual exhibition at the Araluen Arts Centre – the Brio’s work drew accolades.        

With the buzz, the men grew braver.

So when they scored seven defunct pokie machines from the derelict Shaft nightclub on Tennant Creek’s main drag, it seemed only natural to gut them, replace the innards with road signs, a sped-up animation of a heart and short films. They painted over the exterior graphics and plunged spears into the cabinets. Now the pokie machines have been positioned on milk crates on a concrete floor at the 2020 Sydney Biennale as part of a Tennant Creek Brio showcase, where painted televisions have been hung on meat hooks and Brown and Betheras’s series of Ancestor Boards – Life Cycle, Warrior, Horus, The King, Bluebird, Werewolf, and She-Wolf, tower over the space, their strange beauty compelling the eye.

“My grandfather and myself, we had one hundred years to adapt to this white man culture today,” says Jimmy Frank, a Warumungu man, “and they want us to live like a white man?” He purses his lips and shakes his head. “We still traumatised. My country is bleeding and my people are still bleeding.”

Alongside Joseph Williams, Frank provides a traditional aspect to the Brio – they carved the spears that were plunged into the pokies. It was Frank’s grandfather – Frank Juppurla – who in 1932 showed a telegraph worker a piece of ore with gold in it, triggering a flurry of advertisements promoting a “gold reef” in the middle of Australia. The ensuing rush saw miners poring over the reserve the Warumungu had been made to live on. The tribe was shifted to Six Mile Depot, mostly spinifex desert without any permanent water. Then the missions came, a cruel kind of sanctuary where protection was exchanged for culture and the children were separated into dormitories, away from the influence of their parents. In the ’50s, the Department of Native Affairs took over and began the forced removal of “half-caste” children.

Frank wants to show us a goldmine, where the Warumungu signed a land use agreement with mining company Giants Reef back in 2002. The Chariot mine is on black-headed python country, west of Tennant, but he makes a last-minute decision to go to Warrego mine instead. On the way out of town, we drive past the Bill Allen Lookout, where a circle of plaques has been arranged like a sundial, pointing out significant sights. All, bar three, point to mines. Like the Warrego mine, most are “temporarily shut down”. To shut down completely, say critics, would mean having to put into action expensive rehabilitation plans. Kunjarra/The Pebbles gets a plaque, citing it as an important women’s dreaming site. There is no mention that this too almost became a mine.

We drive onwards, past the next big thing. Shale gas.

At a treatment plant for the $800 million fracking pipeline, a flame licks the sky and the stink of fart fills the car.

Arriving at Warrego mine is like driving onto an unfinished dream. It is as though someone called “tools down”, and everyone walked. Mounds of blue and yellow tailings cast a toxic hue across the sparse cynanide­laced moonscape, the skyline fractures with hangars, mills, silos and vast conveyor belts crossed like swords. We walk across the white dried mud in the sweltering heat, past dried-up hazard showers and chemical eyewash stations. I follow a bullock’s hoof prints to a slimy green pond.

Jimmy Frank came here to work when he was 15. He was meant to start his boilermaker apprenticeship but instead he ran away. “I got scared,” he says. “Too many whitefellas.” Frank laughs, but there’s a waver in his voice. I wonder if he thinks he had failed, that he had not taken the opportunity to turn his fate around. It seems an unfair burden.

We wander inside a hangar, drifting apart. I find shelves upon shelves of buckets, all filled with seeds. Some have been overturned, the floor scattered with them. I step closer to read the labels. Wattle, acacia, mulga, mallee, waddy wood. I call out to Frank. When he sees the buckets, he smiles. “We kids collected those seeds and brought them here,” he says. “They’d pay us per bucket and we’d use the money for lollies.” The mine owners said they’d use them to reseed the land afterwards.

Driving back into Tennant Creek at dusk, the sky is orange and pink turning blue. In someone’s front yard there is a huge digital road sign propped up so that it peers over the road. “Tuesday” it pulses, orange letters against black, “Word of the Week”. Then, after a blink, “Kvetch”.

“This is a breakout,” Erica Izett says of the Brio’s art. They’re not tied to a traditional style or a commercial one, she explains. They paint in a town in the middle of nowhere. “Their work is shit hot,” she says, then adds, “but they’re all so vulnerable.”

In Alice Springs for the artists’ opening night at Desert Mob, Clifford Thompson had been nervous. He had quietly told Izett that they were “very high up” – they were in the building’s second storey. “He’d likely seldom been off the ground floor,” Izett says. Her mind had then leapt ahead: the hotel room they had booked for the Sydney Biennale was on the 11th floor.

Betheras is vulnerable too, in Izett’s mind. People will question his role, she says, his ambitions and motivations.

“But I’ve seen him change their bandages,” she says. “He gives them the shirt off his back. He moderates their behaviour. Anyone else would have walked away by now.”

And money. Izett worries about that too.

With recognition, there will be money. And somewhere between those two things is hope, explains Izett. I think of my day back at the CDEP lot, sitting under the house with a mug of tea. Above me, through the floorboards, I could hear Fabian sweeping and then the drag of a bucket of water as he mopped. He wants to stay, I realised. He doesn’t want to live at the men’s camp anymore. Hope is why Fabian Brown is sweeping and dreaming of a different kind of roof over his head. And that, explains Izett, is the most fragile thing of all.

“Who’s that?” I ask Brown, pointing to a painting of a man in a cowboy hat, hand on holster, his bulk magnified and stretched almost comically to fill the board. “That’s the policeman from Coniston,” he replies. “He killed my people.”

The Coniston massacre is recent history. In 1928, police-led shooting parties were energised by the murder of an itinerant prospector south of Warumungu country. Official records at the time state 32 Indigenous people were killed out of necessity. Descendants say it was at least double that. Brown, a Walpiri man, paints him a lot, this policeman. His figure is always magnified, too big for the space provided, as if the man is frozen in a child’s memory.

One night, in between bouts of painting, Brown sits with me on a brick wall, smoking cigarettes he’d bought with cash earned collecting glass bottles. He fantasises about living in the unit over the fence. “I could get someone to make a path from the backyard into here, where I work.”

Anna Krien

Anna Krien is the author of Night Games: Sex, power and sport and Into the Woods: The battle for Tasmania’s forests, and the Quarterly Essays Us and Them: On the Importance of Animals and The Long Goodbye: Coal, Coral and Australia’s Climate Deadlock. Her debut novel, Act of Grace, was published in 2019.

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