Billy Benn was born at Artetyerre (Harts Range) and spent his teenage years at Urapuntja (Utopia). Benn's father was an accomplished carver who worked in the mica mines and also mined for gold at Altunga. Benn also worked in the mica mines of Artetyerre from the age of about 10. He was not paid for this work, instead he received rations and clothing. He then worked pumping water for cattle and later droving cattle and sheep for the pastoralists Cameron Chalmers, Joe Mangel and Peter Hayes in the north eastern area of central Australia. In the 1980s Benn began working for Bindi Centasales (now Mwerre Anthurre Artists or Bindi Inc) an organisation established to provide employment opportunities, support and advocacy for people with a disability in Alice Springs. Benn continues to work through Bindi, however over the past few years he has gone from being a sheet metal worker who painted on discarded material when he was able to a full time artist who has held numerous solo exhibitions and who in 2006 won the prestigious Alice Prize.
In response to Benn's tenacity and strengthening career Mwerre Anthurre Artists has established an art program as part of their operations which now supports a number of artists both Indigenous and non-Indigenous.
Billy Benn's work is of singular importance in a region that has been the centre of Indigenous landscape painting since the 1930s. Benn's paintings seem to arise out of the renowned western Arrernte Hermannsburg School yet are imbued with an original style that uses colour, form and an intimacy with country to present an expressionistic view of the landscape. In Benn’s work calligraphic brushstrokes suggest the bluffs and deep crevasses that punctuate the ridges of his country, the vast ranges to the east of Alice Springs. Nostalgically Benn has vowed to paint every hill in this country before one day returning home.
Benn's vast desert panoramas had been painted from memory until recently when he returned to Artetyerre, his birthplace and the scene of the dramatic events of his early life for the first time. 'Artetyerre' 2006 was painted following this visit and Benn's emotional response to the site is clearly evident in this melancholic work. 'Artetyerre' 2006 depicts a seemingly desolate, unwelcoming landscape. Rendered in icy blues and cold greys the view is very much in contrast to the preconceived notion of the harsh, dry, red centre that has dominated central Australian landscape painting. Indeed many artists such as Hans Heysen would not paint the centre after the rains when the country was lush with foliage and wildflowers, but would wait until the hot, dry weather had returned the landscape to the accepted norm. In contrast Albert Namatjira painted his country with all of its seasonal change. Benn paints the landscape as he recollects it, his visual memory of the scene overlaid with the added imposition of a painful past that heightens his response to the site.
© Australian Art Department, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2007
synthetic polymer paint on plywood
48.4 x 243.5 cm board
Signature & date
Signed l.r. corner, black synthetic polymer paint "Billy BeNN". Not dated.
Purchased with funds provided by the Patricia Lucille Bernard Bequest 2007
Not on display
© Billy Benn Perrurle. Licensed by Viscopy, Australia
Shown in 1 exhibition
The hills beyond Hermannsburg, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 22 Mar 2014–02 Jun 2014