Billy Benn

As one of Australia's most beloved outsider artists, Billy Benn's work has attained such a significant and unique place in the Aboriginal art market. Since joining Bindi Inc in 1981, he had been painting his father's country, working from memory to create a visual map of country that he has not seen since a boy. He first showed with the Araluen Arts Centre, Alice Springs in 2000.

Region: Harts Range, NT

DOB: c 1943 - 15 Oct 2012

Place of Birth: Harts Range, NT

Significant Country: Harts Range

Language: Alyawarre

Art Centre: Bindi Mwerre Anthurre, NT

Born in 1943 in Artetyerre (Harts Range), Billy Benn’s two older sisters Ally Kemerre and Gladdy Kemerre, both celebrated artists of the Utopia community, taught Billy how to paint on skin when he was a teenager, while living at Kurrajong/Urapuntja (Utopia). Billy also remembers a Chinese lady showing him how to paint. Their father was also an artist, who made the more traditional artefacts, wooden sculptures, boomerangs and spears. Jimmy Kemerre worked in the Mika mines and also mined for gold out at Altunga, transporting people and mail from Alice Springs to Altunga by camel whilst working for a man, Simon Reef.

Billy has worked extensively in his country. He began working as a young boy, aged approximately 10, in the Mika mines of Harts Range with Simon Reef’s younger brother Norman. He recalls alot of Italian people working there, and the large flagons of wine they carried with them, imported from Italy. He recalls the lunches of spaghetti….”Good food, those Italian people“… Billy was not paid for his work, instead receiving tucker and clothes. Later Billy 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 Cameron Chalmers, Joe Mangel and Peter Hayes. It was whilst working with Chalmers that Billy grew up to be a man. Billy speaks in particular of a special trip, droving with his cousins from Arrkngenangkerre (Mount Swan), where they drove a herd of cattle to deliver to Neutral Junction Station, East of Barrow Creek, also returning on horseback.

Since 1981, Billy worked at Bindi Inc since 1981, an organisation established to provide employment opportunities, support and advocacy for people with a disability in Alice Springs. During his time constructing metal boxes in the Brown Street workshop, he identified a space which became his corner to paint in. Billy began to visually map out his father’s country via the painted image, using old boards discarded by the Alice Springs Timber Mill. Working as many outsider artists do, with second rate materials, on any surface that appealed, Billy painted using his fingers, cloth, glue and paint. Despite the brilliant landscapes being created, they were only shown once prior to 2000 in an exhibition of artworks done by people with a disability in the “Beyond Passions” exhibition in Alice Springs. All his work sold, and yet, the low profile of the exhibition, meant that his work had still not been viewed by the wider market. 

Unable to return to his homeland, Billy continues to paint primarily his father’s country of Mount Swann and his own country, Harts Range. His images are found from memory and feeling, by painting his land Billy brings the country into himself. He plans to paint every hill from his country and then he will stop, then he will return home. The artist’s traditional life and history remain intensely important to him.

Billy’s paintings cover a wide scope of style, born of his own lack of preciousness, his vivid imagination and colour, texture and material experimentation strategies - rather than the study of other painterly influences. One sees hints of Turner, Cezzane, Van Gogh and the Orientalists within his work, yet these were images never seen by Billy. 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 remarks only on Albert Namatjira being a great painter. 

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

Billy Benn - Artetyerre - (Collector Portfolio)

Artetyerre by Billy Benn

As one of Australia’s most beloved outsider artists, it is no small wonder that Billy Benn’s work has attained such a significant and unique place in the Aboriginal art market. Since joining Bindi Inc in the early 80’s, he had been painting his father’s country, working from memory to create a visual map of country that he has not seen since a boy. He first showed with the Araluen Arts Centre, Alice Springs in 2000.

Billy’s work is now included in many outstanding collections such as the National Gallery of Victoria, the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern territory as well as many private collections throughout the world.

His landscapes are typically wild and woolly concoctions of rolling hills and naive foregrounds. For most collectors, Billy’s work holds a special place and his works are consistently thought to be gemlike in their appeal, small, precious and something to be treasured.

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