Billy Benn




Billy Benn Perrurle was born circa 1943 in Artetyerre (Harts Range) and passed away 15/10/2012. His two older sisters, Ally and Gladdy Kemerre, taught Bill how to paint on skin when he was a teenager, while living at Kurrajong/Urapuntja (Utopia). Bill also remembered the Chinese wife of a mica miner, Jane, showing him how to paint. Their father, Jimmy Kemerre, was also an artist, making more traditional artifacts, wooden sculptures, boomerangs and spears. Jimmy worked in the mica 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. Bill worked extensively in his country. He began working as a young boy, aged approximately 10, in the mica mines of Harts Range with Simon Reef’s younger brother Norman. He recalled a lot of Italian people working there, and the large flagons of wine they carried with them, imported from Italy. He also recalled the lunches of spaghetti….”Good food, those Italian people”… Billy was not paid for his work, instead receiving tucker and clothes. Later he 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 Bill grew up to be a man. He spoke 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, 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. He 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 varnish. 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. The Mwerre Anthurre Artist collective was founded around his talent in 2000.

It was many years before Billy was able to return to his homeland. Meanwhile he continued to paint primarily Harts Range, his father’s country. His images were found from memory and feeling. By painting his land, Billy brought the country into himself. Only when he had painted every hill from his country, would he stop and return home. Bill’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 Bill. 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 Bill remarked only on Albert Namatjira being a great painter.

Bill’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 Bill’s breadth and continuance of horizon, never curving at the edges but continuing their travel overland and on into the distance.