Ben Ward was born on Argyle Station in the East Kimberley, Western Australia, where his half-Miriwoong, half-Afghan father worked as a stockman. Today, Ben is a senior cultural custodian of the Miriwoong people. Ben is one of three Indigenous finalists, and at 65, the oldest emerging artist in the John Fries Award 2015.
After a working life as a mechanic and stockman mustering cattle in the East Kimberley, Ben became strongly involved in land rights and in the 1980s helped set up Kununurra’s Waringarri Aboriginal Arts in Western Australia. Over the course of his life, he’s been a health worker, a field officer, a station hand and involved in community education. Between 2011 and 2013 (and now again in 2015), Ben was Chairperson of Waringarri Aboriginal Arts. It was not until 2011 that he began painting regularly.
“Age is nothing. It’s who you are in your heart and in your mind. That’s what makes you who you are,” he told Vanessa Mills on ABC Kimberley Local Radio.
Ben is driven to teach young Aboriginal people about their cultural connection to traditional country through his art. At the art centre, Ben provides leadership, skills and knowledge in support of younger artists and arts-workers in order to maintain and promote the strength of Miriwoong art and cultural identity
“I began painting to share my cultural knowledge with others. Art gives me an opportunity to express myself and tell the traditional Miriwoong stories. Mentoring young people is also something that I feel very strongly about and I see that working in the arts will help young people maintain their cultural knowledge. If you can’t get any messages out to the younger generations in the world about what… this area is about, it’s good to put it in a painting.”
Ward’s painting practice focuses on depicting his country from his own unique perspective and often depicts his country before the construction of the Lake Argyle Dam which flooded the majority of his Country. In his latest series, he employs triangular designs of juxtaposed coloured ochre to depict the river systems, mountains and ranges of his country from memory.
“All that’s underwater now, and that’s what I paint. Everything that’s underwater…..I remember every bit of it”.
For the John Fries Award, on an enormous piece of plywood, Ward ambitiously paints the vast tracks of land and water of Miriwoong Country, from Yardanggarlm, Dingo Springs to Lake Argyle and Gemilarrgen, Top Dam.
Through a myriad of sharp angles and shapes, river systems, waterfalls, rocky outcrops and ranges are depicted. Important Dreaming sites are subtly conveyed, only recognisable by symbols that appear to be nuclear waste signs.
Ward points out this is quite intentional, as these important sites have been trampled over by non-Indigenous people with little regard to the cultural significance of these areas to their traditional owners. Ward’s strong responsibility towards teaching young Miriwoong people and others in preserving the cultural knowledge of these areas and these sites is clearly exemplified in the title of his work: “This is Miriwoong Country, not my Country, our Country.”