Bindi Cole's unflinching honesty has occasionally dunked her into the murky waters of controversy, but despite its personal focus, her art holds a mirror up to society as a whole
Artist Bindi Cole catalogues her life with the same gritty stringency as Tracey Emin or Sophie Calle. While she works across many mediums, her formal training as a photographer owes much to Ponch Hawkes and Sue Ford. Cole's exhibition at SAM delves into love, forgiveness and redemption through photographs, videos and installations. You're as likely to find her exploring her Wadawurrung heritage as her time spent in an English jail (and not as an artist-in-residence). She's also exhibiting a selection of art works made by artists currently living in Victorian prisons.
Bindi, one of the most powerful works in the collection is 'Seventy Times Seven'. Can you tell us about that?
It’s seven Aboriginal community members saying, “I forgive you” over and over. There was a briefing period where I would talk to them about the power of forgiveness – the power that it has to set you free, to release things, to stop you from being a victim to things. Then I would talk a bit about how I’ve seen it work in my life. I would encourage them to think about something that they had been holding on to for a long time and needed to be set free from. So sometimes that process was long, sometimes it was short. Generally people were really willing and it was always very moving to see people be vulnerable. I never asked specifically what people were forgiving, so I don’t know. I just wanted them to focus on it themselves without telling me what it was.
You originally created the work as a reaction to the apology to the Stolen Generations, but now it’s very topical again. Around the same time, Andrew Bolt had targeted you as a fair-skinned woman who was trying to cash in on her Aboriginal heritage. Now he’s very much in the news once more with the Coalition’s push to repeal section 18C of the racial discrimination act. Are you being asked to comment on the situation all over again?
I was initially getting quite a few requests to write stuff or to respond to things, but I spent so many years of my life fighting Andrew Bolt. He had been vilifying me in the press for about two years. Then we took him to court and then it was another two years, so it was four years of my adult life in which he was a major topic. Even though they are trying to change the laws, I still feel like we have had such a victory over him. The very fact that they’re trying to change the laws, in my mind, feels like a little kid who has lost the fight is now he’s trying to change the rules so that he wins.
All artists put themselves in a vulnerable position by making public their art, but you catalogue your life particularly stringently. Do you have to give yourself a pep talk when something’s about to be made public?
I definitely used to, but probably I have Andrew Bolt to thank for really thickening my skin. Instead of making me retreat, it made me more fearless in many ways. I think if I was holding on to the resentment of it all, I might have a problem but I really feel like I’ve forgiven him and let it go, and as a result I am more empowered in my own voice. That doesn’t mean that when I make work, I’m not scared. I still get scared and nervous every time I make something new and put it into the world, but I think it’s only going to be good if I am a bit scared because I am taking a risk. In some ways I feel a sense of catharsis when I expose myself, and the more that I have done that, the more that I feel freer.
Your Twitter bio says ‘ex-con’ as you spent time in a UK jail. Was that the tipping point for you becoming an artist?
That was definitely the tipping point for me. I had always felt like I was creative – I had been taking photos as a child and developing them in my bedroom in a little black bag and developing tank, and I’d been writing and acting. But then my mum died when I was 16 years old, and even before then I started getting into drugs. I spent the next ten or so years on drugs basically. I was working and doing different things, but I was also trying to be high all the time, and that culminated in me going to prison. Being high meant that any plans that I’d had to study or be creative or develop anything went out the window.
And then when I went to prison I had a couple of years to sit down and think about things and to explore how I wanted to live my life upon release. One of the things I realised was that I had always been creative, but I had never had an outlet for it, and that perhaps if I could have an outlet for that, I would be a healthier, happier human being. That turned out to be true. So within a year of getting out of prison, I was at TAFE full time doing a diploma in photography. I am a firm believer that having a healthy expression through art is really healing because my life reflects that over the course of the last ten years.
Were there any big breaks that got you started?
There were definitely some key people who I bumped into along the way, who saw me trying and gave me a few volunteer opportunities to go and take photos somewhere or participate in something that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do. These people were mainly friends of my mum’s from back in the day, who were also writers, producers, that kind of stuff, and so they would give me a few opportunities. Ponch Hawkes helped me prepare my folio to get into TAFE and I will always be grateful for her for that.
As soon as I finished studying, I just decided that’s it, I am a photographer, and I am going to start exhibiting. Somehow that declaration worked and then I had a great opportunity with Next Wave Festival to do a small photographic series of myself and my family in black face. I think that was probably the initial catalyst that got me some attention – and the attention of Andrew Bolt as well. But opportunities kept flowing slowly out of that. I do one little thing and I get another opportunity and I just keep pursuing it. I love having a voice, because before I went to prison, when I spent all those years on drugs, I had very, very low self-esteem. I felt like I had no voice and I thought I wasn’t worth listening to and that I had nothing valid to say. Whereas now you can’t shut me up.
It sounds like prison was the best thing that ever happened to you.
In a way, it kind of saved me. Not “in a way” – it completely saved me, but not because prison is a saving place, just because I used it to my advantage and finally had access to resources that I had probably needed all along to sort myself out. Prison was the place where I began to develop self-esteem, because for those couple of years my head was clear, I wasn’t on drugs. I was able to think and had access to a lot of therapy and I utilised that. I did two years of rehab and therapy.
You also discovered God in prison, which you have both written about and made art works around. To be blunt, do you think that lost you some supporters?
Oh, I am absolutely certain that it lost me some supporters… it also lost me some friends and some family, so it was across the board, not just in my public profile as an artist. But at the same time that a whole lot of people probably shifted away, a whole lot of people shifted towards me. So it was more like a sifting of my life as opposed to a loss. And that’s a really good thing, because I had the opportunity to see who was real and who wasn’t and who was going to stick around and who wasn’t. And to be truthful, the opportunities for me as an artist have not diminished, but have grown. I mean, I am still getting funding; I am getting amazing opportunities to put work into the Sydney Biennale and to the NGV and declare the very thing that is dividing.
On Thursday, June 19, Cole will discuss her work with curator Elise Routledge at 6pm as part of the 'SAM Out Late!' series.