Some fellas, a few yarns and a yoga mat — that’s Pitcha Makin for you.
No surprise then that this group that met at the Ballarat and District Aboriginal Co-Operative have their work displayed all over the place, from the National Gallery of Victoria to the United Nation’s Geneva headquarters.
Like everything about this group, the number of members varies at any given time. It started as seven, four of whom still remain — Adrian Rigney, Peter-Shane Rotumah, Ted Laxton and Myles Walsh.
Then, of course, there’s the ‘ring-in’, Peter Widmer, a non-Indigenous artist who sees himself as the group’s assistant. Peter was there with Leah Keegan when the Fellas came together at the Co-Op, back in 2013, and he has been there ever since.
As Peter recalled: “I had a history in bookmaking. Fellas had the same desire to tell stories and they weren’t quite sure in what form those might be. But on the day that we met, instead of just sitting down and talking about stuff, we had a big sheet and we started to paint together. It was just the first of many small and wonderful steps that the Fellas have taken since.”
For some of the Fellas, this was their first foray into art. So the group had to find a way that everyone could contribute whether they could paint or not.
As Peter-Shane explained: “We get yoga mat material and we do a design on it. We might make a koala or a kangaroo or something like that on the mat and cut it out. Then we get some double-sided tape and we put on this stuff they use in ‘For Sale’ signs, the plastic stuff. And we stick it on that and we make stamps from it.”
Peter Widmer added: “The process is all around the energy that the Fellas have, from painting to the wonderful work with White Night and projections, as well as bookmaking. We’ve produced one book, Myles Walsh’s story What’s in a Name?.
This was on the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s List of Notable Books. Now we’re in the process of doing another, that Fella, Adrian Rigney has written about his family connection to the Indigenous cricket team that went to England in the late 1800s”.
Recently the Fellas made a series of clocks called Blackfella Time, one of which is divided into seasons and on show at the Koorie Heritage Trust. Another clock has over 60,000 dots around it to show how long Aboriginal people have been in Australia. “Most of the clock faces don’t have hands at all,” Peter Widmer elaborated. “As with lots of the Fellas’ work, it’s about provoking questions in people’s minds.”
Simply sitting around and yarning is how the group often decide on their subjects.
As Peter-Shane recounted: “One of the Fellas, there was a light post near his house and ‘abo dog’ had been written on it. So he comes in and he was a bit upset about it and we said we’ll show them what an Aboriginal dog looks like and we drew a dingo.”
As Peter Widmer added: “Aboriginal people are still pushed away from the centre of things, constantly. What the Fellas have done is stood up and said, ‘piss off, we can be at the centre of things.’ But they’ve said it in a positive way and a really powerful way as well.”
When some dress-up party goers at a football club donned blackface, the Fellas went to work again. This time they created a series of portraits. “The Fellas produced a show which stemmed from the bastardry and stupidity of some people and turned it into a beautiful celebration of actual, real black faces,” Peter Widmer recalled. At the same time, More Than One Nation, specifically created for White Night, focused on the hundreds of Indigenous nations in Australia’s history.
As Fella Ted Laxton said of the White Night work: “To know that we were involved, and people we didn’t know were admiring it and walking away with a great satisfaction that they’d seen something they’d never seen before, it was really good.”
Positivity also comes from the collaboration.
Adrian, who has worked as a solo artist for over 20 years, sees real benefits in being part of this cohort. “As a group, you get to talk, express feelings. This group, we’re all together and it sort of lifts you up if you’re down and out.”
Ted agreed, adding that if it weren’t for this group, he’d be at home staring at the walls.
Peter-Shane, who works as a Family First Educator, also sees benefits for the community and the younger generations. “I can tell them that art takes your stress away.
As Peter Widmer summarised: “There have been lots of terrific Aboriginal artists in Ballarat. The Fellas are unique. They bring a dynamism and they spotlight the work that’s being produced in Ballarat which is really important. It’s their place.
The group also gives back to the community. As Ted explained: “We do a lot of school programs where we work with the kids. That’s the sort of thing that I thoroughly enjoy.” They also share their skills with adults.
As for seeing or buying their work, the Pitcha Makin Fellas have been made Adjunct Research Fellows (Fellas) at Federation University Australia and work from a studio at the Camp Street campus, 2 Lydiard St Nth, Ballarat. You can check out their art in the windows and knock on the door if they’re in.