Totems

Freedom (detail), IDA-198

Freedom (detail), IDA-198.

Totems

Works by Indigenous detainees from the Alexander Maconochie Centre

Online from 3 July – 16 August 2020


I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land, the Ngunnawal people. I acknowledge and pay my respects to their continuing culture and the contribution they make to the life of this city and this region. I pay my respect to all Elders past, present and future.

Totem’ is a virtual art exhibition of 40 detainee artworks selected from the ACT Corrective Services Indigenous Detainee Art Catalogue and showcases the connection each artist has to their totem animals, to the spirits of creation and to their traditional lands. Each piece contains a story and the feelings of longing that come about when a person is away from family and country for an extended period.

The Aboriginal culture is a rich tapestry of beliefs, traditions and ceremonies. One belief is that each person has their own special totem, which could be a natural object, plant or animal, that is passed down to members of a tribe or family as their spiritual emblem. Totems are believed to protect and guide people throughout their lives and come with responsibilities which encompass the sacred sites attached to each tribe’s traditional area.

The ACT Government and ACT Corrective Services remain strongly committed to continuing initiatives aimed at improving outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the ACT, and particularly those who are caught up in the criminal justice system. ACT Corrective Services delivers a number of programs, including Indigenous specific cultural programs, aimed at improving the cultural wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, reducing recidivism, strengthening families and enhancing cultural connectedness. This exhibition is an example of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander detainees connecting with their culture through the creation of art.

Shane Rattenbury MLA
Minister for Corrections and Justice Health


Totems are often animals that are native to the area a tribe is traditionally from and form an important part of the food source during ceremonies and other culturally significant times throughout a person’s life. An example of this is when a woman is pregnant, she may be permitted to eat the meat of her totem animal, or a young man may eat the totem animal during his initiation into manhood, whereas at other times, eating the sacred animal is forbidden.

Each person in the tribe has a responsibility to learn to perform ceremony that relates to their gender and roles in the tribe. There is also a responsibility for people to learn the songlines and dances passed down to them in order to fulfil their spiritual obligations to the family.

Responsibilities include physical maintenance of sacred sites and spiritual management of the ceremonies related to those sites. This responsibility plays a part in defining the roles set within the tribe and strengthening the families’ connections with each other, the land and the spirits of creation.

This exhibition is a visual display of the connection each artist has to their totem animals, to the spirits of creation and to their traditional lands. They are a breathtaking portrayal of the power of totems.

ACT Corrective Services logo

The Alexander Maconochie Centre wishes to acknowledge the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander detainees featured in this exhibition, ACTCS Indigenous Services Unit, ACTCS Executive Team and the Minister for Corrections.