Billy Bain, standing amidst his first solo art show.
Billy Bain is an Indigenous Artist Who Absolutely Rips
With clay, paint and fibreglass.
Two days after seeing Billy Bain’s exhibition "Blokes", I woke up on the couch at an infamous Newtown skate house with the inescapable feeling that the Sydney I’d thought we'd long lost to the investment bankers mightn’t be as far gone as I'd thought.
My previous day was spent on mescaline touring the north shore in a stretch limousine drinking champagne in aid of a visa wedding. Although enjoyable, it echoed the mindless affluence that had me fleeing the city vowing never to return years prior. But this stint was bookended with Billy’s fun, thought-provoking art, and chatting to Taiwanese skaters about China and Hong Kong, and it filled me with a sense of buzzy optimism that inspired me to jump in my newly-serviced Toyota Townace and drive straight to my Northern Rivers lover in one hit.
The cast of Billy Bain's first solo show "Blokes".
On the surface, Billy Bain had a pretty typical Northern Beaches, surfy upbringing. However, a couple of crucial factors set him on an interesting trajectory that’s led to his first solo art show (at the prestigious, and really quite fancy M Contemporary gallery, no less). The first is artistic curiosity (and, clearly, talent) courtesy of his mother, Cath, and the second (oversimplifying the complexities of growing up) is his Indigenous heritage, also courtesy of his mum's side of the family.
Billy confesses that painting's not his favourite medium, but "The Bowlers" looks mighty nice hanging on the wall.
“I just loved comic books growing up,” Billy tells me over a schooner in the sun outside Darlinghurst institution Darlo Bar, when I ask him where art fitted into his coming of age in Avalon. “Anything that was counter culture and subversive - MAD magazine, the old Simpsons Comics (remember them?) anything I could get my hands on. And mum was always painting and making stuff.”
Billy's surfing isn’t a point to differentiate him from other artists, it’s Pro Junior legit. But he stopped writing “surfer” and started penning “artist” on his immigration form some time ago (although which is more likely to get you frisked is still up for interpretation). Billy chose art, so to speak, which led to him attending the prestigious COFA (UNSW College of Fine Arts). Transitioning from living in Avalon under the guidance of his old man (ex-pro, G-Land tsunami survivor and surf industry stalwart Rob Bain) to living in Darlinghurst and having to re-acclimatise to the woke inner-city art crowd was clearly the making of Billy Bain the artist. And he toes the line beautifully between those worlds. In short, he’s an interesting bloke to converse with who speaks informatively and unpretentiously on a wide variety of subjects (not universal among newly-graduated art students in my experience). Which leads to the fascinating topic of his indigenousness, which is crucial to the core concept of his debut show.
Billy’s Dad’s a self-confessed “Ten Pound Pom” (working class Brits who emigrated to Australia post the Second World War), but his mum is descended from the Darug people, one of the Sydney tribes who were largely wiped out in the establishment of what is currently the 15th most expensive city to live in in the world. Billy grew up in with the knowledge of his Indigenous blood, but it had been buried deep within the bloodline, meaning that Billy and his mum knew little about their connection to country until they started researching. Interestingly, Billy contributes a part of this inquisitiveness to his tertiary education, saying that, "Art makes you conceptualise things, which has definitely kept my curiosity up."
"People have a misconception that all Indigenous heritage and stories are always passed down orally from generation to generation, but I didn’t have that, and lots of other people with Indigenous blood don’t either," Billy says when we graduate from out the front to the pool table. "Mum and I were just lucky that there was traces of it scattered through various records. Things really started to make sense when I started to find out more about that side of my lineage."
There's few scenes more stereotypically Australian than smoko.
"Blokes" sees Billy riffing on the conception of stereotypes, particularly those centred around the beach, and reimagining them through an Indigenous lens. It's obscene that when you think of Australian stereotypes the figures that come to mind (clubbies, surfies, tradies, bogans etc) are white, and that's the status quo Billy's exploring. The skin tone of his sculptures is the colour of the clay he uses, which has an interesting link to country. Billy says that the stereotypical characters he parodies are so ingrained in his subconscious that he doesn't need a visual muse. "Ah man, when you grow up at the beach and you're dealing with Australian stereotypes, you know what they look like," he says.
Billy, away from the clay and mid G-Land freight train.
My biggest take away from hanging with Billy was his total lack of entitlement. Being picked up by a gallery and offered your own solo show is as invaluable as it is rare for an artist in the fledgling stages of their career, and Bill's nothing but grateful for the platform he's been afforded. Billy graduated COFA, mowed lawns for a few months over the summer, got hit up by M Contemporary and spent the year working on his solo show, half of which he sold before his opening night last weekend (and a fair chunk since). Identity politics is being flogged to death in the arts currently, and much of the meaningful elements get lost in the outrage, ultimately making it an exclusive space, which is the opposite of what the movement claims to strive for. Billy's art's fun and thought-provoking, and the conversations it facilitated even between the two of us were informative and rewarding. In short, as a white dude living in a non-white country I had a good time and learned a few things. Billy's art suggests that those two concepts needn't be mutually exclusive, and that, perhaps, is what makes it so meaningful.
If you're in the vicinity of Sydney then we'd highly recommend getting yourselves to Billy's exhibition, which is running for the next three weeks.