The ancient ranges that traverse the arid landscape of Central Australia, east of Mparntwe (Alice Springs), are the home of the Alyawarr and Eastern Arrernte people. This is the land Billy Benn (Perrurle) painted, his birthplace and father’s country. It was here he learned the traditional art of his people from his father, and ‘cousin sisters’ Ally and Gladdy Kemerre. After moving to Mparntwe, he began moon-lighting as an artist while employed as a gardener, metalworker and woodworker. Until recently, Benn’s paintings existed in obscurity, bolted to the walls of a workshop.
Benn’s paintings remain true to their origins, created on salvaged timber and, early on, were often embellished with generous coatings of estapol. Awareness of Benn’s work grew when In the bush Barrow Creek way, c.1996, appeared in ‘Desert Mob 2001’, one of the annual expositions of regional Indigenous art held at the local Araluen Arts Centre in Mparntwe. Widely regarded as his most spectacular work, it is likely this painting was inspired by Benn’s fond memories of droving with his cousins from his father’s country Arrkngenangkerre (Mount Swann) to Barrow Creek.
Benn’s tenacity inspired the establishment of Mwerre Anthurre – Bindi Centa Arts, a cooperative of artists working with a disability, and the fostering of the talents of his colleagues, including Aileen Oliver and Seth Namatjira. As a collective, the Bindi artists navigate the stylistic vernaculars of the two art movements for which Central Australian Aboriginal art is renowned: the representative water-colour landscapes of the Hermannsburg school and the interpretative symbolism of Western Desert painting. Whereas the Western Aranda artists, whose members include Albert Namatjira, create clearly defined topographical paintings saturated with the vibrant colours of the desert, Benn’s expressionist landscapes are often rendered in swirling dusty hues as if emerging from a primordial dawn. Calligraphic brushstrokes suggest the bluffs and deep crevasses punctuating the ridges of this country, fringed by stands of gum trees that line wide sandy riverbeds, bleached the colour of bone. Accents of topaz and turquoise, like the intermittent flashes of brilliant birds, evoke the dramatic effects of the play of light over a vast desert panorama.
Benn’s paintings are permeated by a touch of melancholy that reflects the loss of many of his family in the hard days of frontier life, yet Benn is sustained by his nostalgia for his country and driven to keep pursuing his dream of painting every hill in his country, and one day returning home.
Hetti Perkins in 'Tradition today: Indigenous art in Australia’, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2014