What started out as a “bit of a pisstake” of localism at his home beach has grown into something far bigger for Billy Bain. The little blokes he’s shaped out of clay have come to life and have been making big calls about Australian society. 

Billy meanwhile – still trying to make sense of it all – suddenly finds himself the darling of the Sydney art scene. “Blokes, presents us with an alchemy – of Whiteness, of masculinity, of autonomy and of identity – within the context of an Australian urban consciousness riddled with subjugation and fear.” The essay that accompanies Billy’s first solo art show needs to be read in an inner-city art critic voice. “Bain presents Blokes as a continuation of his critique of toxic behaviours within Australian culture, particularly within beach, pub and sporting contexts.” It goes on, “The beach space in particular is a volatile site of performativity where the heteronormative white male parades his sexuality, wealth, voyeurism and proprietorship.”

Billy laughs when asked if he’s broken big in the art world. “I dunno, I think I’m half in, half out sort of deal.”  When Surfing World called he’d just surfed Whaley and was about to jump on the L90 bus across the bridge to the city for the closing night of his exhibition. It’s been a roaring success. 

Billy might have been originally taking the piss with his clay figures – clubbies, pissheads, footy players, tradies, pub blewers, beach punks – but they’ve tapped some rich lines of social commentary. “It was a bit more of a wider lot of look at Australian culture, particularly masculine culture, and popular ideas of what a man is in Australia,” explains Bill. “I was just trying to approach that a bit of a tongue in cheek, working with stereotypes of what we think a man is in our culture.” 

There’s a bit of Australian Jesus about these little blokes. Billy grew up with the surf art of Reg Mombassa and Mambo and knows the best way to make a serious point in Australia is to make people laugh. “Someone can unpack my art and really look into the more conceptual side of it, which is there, but you can also just take it on surface level and enjoy it because it’s a funny little character, you know?” 

The real significance of Billy’s blokes however happened almost by chance. Billy has left the clay its natural colour, giving all his little Aussie blokes dark skin. The Aussie Bloke has pretty much exclusively been a whitefella up till now, so to suddenly see an Aboriginal clubbie, an Aboriginal Bali bogan or an Aboriginal cricketer shifts the context. “I like leaving them raw for that reason,” says Billy. “A lot of these stereotypes about being a man in Australia are pretty white, so I was kind of taking those roles and subverting them a little bit by putting an Indigenous person in that position.”

While he inherited goofy blood from his dad, Rob, it’s been his Indigenous heritage from his mum, Cath that he’s really explored in recent years. Billy has traced his roots back to the Darug people from the northwest of Sydney, and the more he’s learned about his own heritage the more it’s changed his view on what it means to be Australian today. He feels a broad shift happening right now. 

“A lot of it is historical acknowledgement and just knowing what our country was built on. The mateships and the barbecues and stuff, that’s all great. I still fucking love having a barbie. That’s all good, but I just think people are starting to be a bit more conscious of the real history of this place. The systemic stuff can take a long time to change, but it does seem like there’s some positive recognition going on.”

Looking at the clay figures, there’s something strangely familiar about them. Something… or someone. Look at them closely. Can you see it? No? Okay, just imagine one of these little clay blokes holding a surfboard, durry hanging out his mouth, wearing Oakley blades and neon boardies, grimly determined, a little goofy battler about to paddle out for his heat at the 1989 Lacanau Pro. Are you seeing him yet? Billy has. “People look at them all the time and ask me, ‘Is that your dad?’ And it’s true, you know, they all look a little bit like him I reckon.”