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Justin Williams’ paintings take inspiration from an infamous Australian cult

By Yaya Azariah Clarke

How do you know if your surroundings are ordinary? For some, ordinary is a city life – living by the flash of a New York minute or being immersed in the cacophony of Lagos’ streets. Whereas for others, it’s a life close to nature’s grand scenes; clear blue waters, lush plants and wildlife. This is the case for the artist Justin Williams, whose childhood surrounded by vast expanses of greenery has served as one of the central influences to his folk-infused work.

Justin is originally from a small town in the foothills of Dandenong Ranges in Victoria, Australia populated by low mountain ranges and forest area. During his childhood, his family relocated to an area off the Great Ocean Road, on the south coast, overlooking beaches, wildlife and towering cliffs. “While growing up, art wasn’t really something that was around me,” he tells us. But what did spark Justin’s curiosity was the was the beauty and richness of his great grandparents history, their move from Alexandria, Egypt to a large migrant community in Melbourne’s suburbs. “The objects and artefacts from their old life fascinated me,” he says.

Throughout Justin’s oeuvre, there is a powerful presence of folklore. There is often a central character on his canvas (or what seems to be a central character), spilling a narrative to a tight-knit group or simply into the ether. There’s a stroke of mystery with a heavy dose of the human condition; pensive thoughts and people searching for something – objects, answers – beyond themselves. Justin believes this feeling is because “the places I moved up to and grew up in weren’t normal or scenes you can find anywhere in the world”, especially when he considers his familiarity with a local cult – The Family. “They had properties in the forest and when I was younger it felt like folklore because of all the stories I heard about what they were up to,” he tells us. “As I got older and became more interested in them, I moved back to this part of Victoria, this time deeper into the forest, and I found out that the cult was called The Family,” he says.

The Family – founded in the 1960s – gained traction in the ‘80s after allegations of child abuse and the illegal adoption of children. It has since remained in the margins of discourse surrounding cults due to its mixing of eastern and western religious teachings alongside its leader Anne Hamilton-Byrne’s claiming she was reincarnation of Jesus. “It’s just something you get in rural areas outside of larger cities,” he tells us. “The more I asked myself why I wanted to depict these people in my work, the more I realised it was to do with looking at myself in the mirror as an outsider and feeling like I never belonged growing up,” he says.

For Justin, this theme of belonging has a large impact on his approach to the work. Veering away creating in a project-based format or centering his shows around specific themes, he has grown more interested in “work over a lifetime” developing long-running stories and scenes and situations in his paintings. When working on the works in his current show Synonym, he leaned into stories he had visually told in the past, developing different versions and creating new perspectives for the characters. “I guess in this way, it’s all a self portrait.” This approach also reflects in his process. Building up the canvas with abstract brushstrokes and shapes, he then “beats the narrative into the work” before oversaturating the canvas with a plethora of materials and then stripping it back to its ghost-like, patchy effect.

Sometimes it’s a wonder how an artist can continually draw from the same emotions, feelings and stories and still come out with such a range of scenes. But Justin’s got the knack because he knows how to pair fiction and reality (or an infamous cult and his individual story). He attributes his continued desire to paint to a journey of “making friends” with his self-doubt. “It’s kind of a justification and destruction process. I want to let the work come into the world.”