Aboriginal Art: Five Stories

For Aboriginal readers: These blogs contains images and names of people who have passed away.

This is one of my favourite paintings.

I don’t know its name, and at the moment I can’t find out. It might be Ngayartakujarra because that’s where the people who painted it (those above) are standing, the immense salt lake that whitefellas call Lake Dora, a very culturally important water site now in the Karlamilyi National Park. Strangely I can’t find the painting on the internet but I did find the photo above. And that’s it in all its upside-down back-to-front over-exposed glory. They’ve painted their Country.

I know this painting well because that very canvas is in the Potter Gallery at Fed Square in Melbourne where it looks a bit like this.

Unhappily my camera has distorted the colours. It’s too green, too cream — the real thing is underpinned by the uncompromising white/grey/pink of the salt pan — and the colours in the songlines are far more vivid. I’ve somehow lost the blues. And that’s a shame because the harmonies and contrasts in the coloration is one of the reasons it is such a great painting. Its scale marks it out as an important work, and its carefully enunciated parts tell you that it is full of stories even if you can’t read them. But unusually there is also quite a strong gesture towards a more familiar type of map-view representation. It’s Martu Country near Punmu, gloriously rendered.

One of the reasons I like it is because I’ve been there. There is a thrill of recognition.

Punmu is at the eastern end of the Pilbara, a tiny community which, like a lot of such places, comes and goes. It was established in the 1980s as a ‘Back to Country’ outstation. The large cleared red area is Culture Site Number 2, a football ground where the Punmu Bulldogs play. Its remoteness from some things can be suggested by the fact that the Rawa school which I was visiting had just got a new room under Kevin Rudd’s school building program. It had cost $1.2m (in the days when $1.2m was $1.2m) to transport it from the coast where it had been pre-fabricated.

But it is not remote from other things that matter. From an article about Martumili, the art cooperative that produced this painting: ‘Punmu has inspired many significant paintings based around the warla jukurrpa (salt lake dreaming) and the traditional knowledge of the important waterholes and sites around the community. Senior artists based in Punmu are working hard to pass down knowledge of culture and Country to younger generations to keep the community strong.’

This area is also Rover Thomas‘s birth country. He was born at Yalda Soak near Well 33 on the Canning Stock Route. (Don’t bother trying to find it with Google maps. Bit north of Punmu.) One of his works, a print, is called Punmu — The Universe. Magic.

It mightn’t look exactly as it it did when it was created because Adrian Newstead’s car that was transporting it from Canberra to Rover’s home at Warmun in the Kimberley was stolen in the Balgo Hills. The prints were recovered from the Mary River, this particular one having been in the bottom of the river for 10 days or so before being retrieved.

That’s an Aboriginal art story.

* * * * * * *

Can whitefellas write about Aboriginal art?

That’s two different, and difficult, questions really. The first: are whitefellas allowed to write about Aboriginal art? Well they do, but then Donald Trump has been allowed to be President of the United States.

There’s a sometimes angry school of thought that answers, emphatically, no. You’ve taken everything else off us. You’re not taking that too. Mind your own business. Show some respect. Fuck off really.

And, (this is the second) anyway, as if you could! What do you know about Aboriginal culture and lore and Law? Aboriginal art builds on and from traditions and knowledge which are hundreds of centuries old or, if you want to be serious, have no relationship with western ideas of time at all. Many Aboriginal languages, for example, have a tense which incorporates past, present and future all at once, what Bill Stanner called in White Man’s Got No Dreaming, ‘it was, and is, everywhen’. That’s a long way outside your purview. You wouldn’t know where to start trying to understand something like that. Do you know any more about more recent Aboriginal experience: of racism, of dispossession, of being ignored politically? Have you experienced it? Felt it?

My answer to the first question is, and just as emphatically, that you can write about what you like. What you write about it, how well and how insightfully and respectfully, is another and more serious matter.

To duck past this issue I could shelter under an Acknowledgement of Country, say, just here. That seems like standard practice. I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this Country, and pay my respects to Elders, past, present and emerging.

Yes. Well … It hardly seems enough does it? A ritual incantation like ‘I love God and my Country. I honour the flag and shall cheerfully (cheerfully eh; there’s a twist) obey my parents, teachers and the laws.’

Ritual incantations have their place. That I can still recite this one after 65 years is telling. But they are slight and by definition formulaic. Easily ignored; a momentary wave of a flag. Ok, it could signal. That’s over. Phew. Now let’s get on with the proper stuff. The other Potter Gallery at Melbourne University includes ‘and recognise that their sovereignty was never ceded‘. That’s stronger; but, you know … words.

Openly admitting my considerable shortcomings, this blog is offered in its entirety as an acknowledgment of Country and of how much I gained from the modest access I have been granted to the life and times of Aboriginal Australia.

But just while we’re identifying the wrestlers in this ring, one pressing issue to deal with is how to avoid suggesting that ‘Aboriginal Art’ can even be an idea.

There are rock paintings in Arnhem Land which have been confidently dated at more than 28,000 years old (among the oldest figurative art in the world and about six times older than Egypt’s pyramids). Others could be more than 40,000 years old. Millennia later in the second half of the 19th century Tommy McRae (also known as Yakaduna, and no relation) was making a living out of selling his wonderful sketches.

Victorian Blacks – Melbourne tribe holding corroboree after seeing ships for the first time 1890s [not his title]
National Gallery of Australia

Closer to the present, art made by Aboriginal people has shot off in a hundred directions. No dots, for example, in Reko Rennie’s punchy Initiation. But it’s still full of vigorous markers of Aboriginality. Among other things, those ‘abstract’ patterns all have deep roots and meanings. ‘Always was always will be’ is the strong form of Acknowledgement of Country.

Reko Rennie Initiation 2013
300 x 520cm
National Gallery of Victoria

There are a lot in of dots in Maria Josette Orsto’s transfixing Miyinga (Scars) another recent work. It’s not from the Western Desert, the home of dot painting, but from Melville Island off the north-western coast of the Northern Territory. Tiwi people. Her skin group is Japijapunga (the March Fly), her dance is the Trick Dance. It’s in natural ochres on canvas. She says: ‘I love doing art because (it) bring no sadness, no thinking about anything bad.’

Maria Josette Oresto Miyinga (Scars) 2017
seen at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney

These examples are all often filed under ‘Aboriginal Art’. Draw generalisations from them at your peril.

The idea in the public imagination of Aboriginal Australia as a monolith — in time as well as space, maybe some amalgam of the Stone Age and the 1950s, except for footballers and Stan Grant — should be qualified.

Australia is about the same size as Europe, and a case could be made that the inhabitants of pre-European Australia were almost as diverse as those of the Europe of those times.

This map, the AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia, an artwork in itself, may be familiar, but its implications are rarely considered by gubbas/ gardiya/ wadjela/ ballanda/ migali (a range of contemporary Aboriginal words from different parts of the country for whitefellas). In 1788, before colonisation, there were somewhere around 250 families of languages (and tribal nations), and somewhere between 600 and 750 languages with discrete character. There were and remain groups with their own distinctive physical features and varying ways of living with and managing the land and water. What would you expect really, given the complexity of Australia’s environment?

That is just historically. Multiply that by the distinctions which now arise from living in big cities, country towns or remote communities, by the contemporary coverage of the whole range of socio-economic groups, by the extraordinarily varied cultural influences Aboriginal people experience, by family history … Despite some serious and profound common underpinnings, ‘Aboriginal Australia’ is hugely diverse. And Aboriginal art is a lot more than dot painting.

And ‘art’. Is that the best word? Mr Ainsworth was remembering men’s ‘art’ he saw at Mutawintji National Park in western NSW, and thought not. Not always anyway. The most accessible of this ‘art’ is in a cave, Thaaklatjika, and the markings are understood to have been made by a Miikika, a ‘Clever Man’. The subject is a yarra (a stick ornamented with feathers and human hair) used to beat the bad spirits out of the sick. The painting is not about this process or a rendering of this process. It is a part of the process. It is a painting certainly (various shades of ochre on a rock wall), but not intended as art, not intended as something to satisfy anyone aesthetically. It is functional, at work in a host of ways: to explain, record, remember, remind, but it is also part of the business. Like a lot of western religious art in fact, it has attributes which transcend its obvious visual values and form.

This question will recur. Are we talking about art here or ethnography, artwork or artefact? You can just let that sit for a while and make your own mind up whether or not you need to make your mind up about that.

To manage these issues I’ve chosen five ‘artists’ to represent what I think are some big ideas embedded in any discussion of ‘Aboriginal art’. Just a taster, but with a bit of salt. For me, each of the works is just wonderful.

As I’ve written the pieces they’ve turned into stories about paintings and artists rather than items of art appreciation. Not only that, but whitefellas get more of a go than might be considered appropriate right at this point in time. But everything has a context. It’s unavoidable. As Philip Batty says in the piece about Emily: ‘[Contemporary] Aboriginal art is an intercultural phenomenon, shaped both by its Aboriginal producers and non-Aboriginal consumers.‘ And, he could have added, by the productive interaction between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians as well as by all the mean streets of injustice, dispossession and disrespect.

Although it won’t matter much I have meant them to be read in the order below. The preliminary headings are somewhat arbitrary. Each could be applied to all. And keep at it. Don’t let fatigue cause you to miss out on the astonishing story of Emily Kame Kngwarreye.

THE COSMOS: Narritjin Maymuru

Creation Stories of the Manggalili Clan c 1965
77 x 224 cm
Held by the National Museum of Australia

The white, that’s my bones. Red is blood. That there yellow is body fat. And black, that’s the colour of my skin.’ Narritjin talking about his painting. ‘Some people can explain what’s in the meaning of a painting, but sometimes we don’t … There is a story beyond that painting that is attached to us … But whatever there is, there in that painting, it represents who we are and what we are and gives us the strength and the power for that.’

Narritjin was a senior member of the Manggalili people of the Yirritja moiety, a ‘great intellectual, ceremonial leader, artist and strong advocate for educating non-Yolgnu people about Yolgnu art and culture’. (Yolgnu are the people of East Arnhem Land. Moeities are part of a kinship structure which operates widely in Aboriginal societies.)

His home country was Djarrakpi (Cape Shield) at the very eastern end of Arnhem Land, but he spent a lot of his life working with the Mission at Yirrkala 100km north. (The Christian churches divided up remote Australia for their missionary work. So the Catholics ‘took’ the Kimberley, the Lutherans the Centre, Anglicans the Cape and Gulf, and Methodists Arnhem Land. It’s interesting how much evidence of this there still is. For example there are still more Catholic schools than government schools in the Kimberley.)

Yirrkala Mission was set up in 1935 with very little apparent impact on traditional life styles. The Yolgnu had been trading with Macassans from what is now Sulawesi in Indonesia for many hundreds of years and were used to visitors. The source I am working from (an Aboriginal writer) says, ‘In no sense did [the Yolgnu] believe that they had given up any rights to their land or way of life’ [as a result of the coming of the missionaries]. Over the years I have been told several times by influential locals from Arnhem Land communities that this part of Australia has never been conquered. (The greatest threat to that status has come from mining companies.)

The religion which emerged from this partnership is still in evidence, at times highly individual and most certainly syncretic with bits from everywhere. This is often expressed through paintings. But this painting, only 55 years old, represents a vastly older tradition.

The tools: ochre on carefully prepared eucalyptus bark. There are thousands of such panels in existence, some very old and some, like the Bark Petition to the Australian Government (at right), very famous. A brush made of human hair is used for the distinctive fine cross-hatching (rrark) which marks artworks out both as being from this region and, depending on the pattern, belonging to a particular clan.

Other artists may seek and be granted use of a particular rrark. After a visit to Arnhem Land, contemporary southern artist Lin Onus made such a request for a series of his paintings. This is Koi at Sankei-En. Just to complicate things further, Sankei-En is a garden in Yokohama and koi the Japanese carp which fill the ponds of formal Japanese gardens.)

Creation Stories is a ‘public’ painting so its meaning can be at least partly described.

The background story. Wangarr is the period of creation, during which ancestral beings bestowed land and waters, ceremony, sacred objects and madayin miny’itji (sacred designs and motifs) upon the various clans of the Yirritja and Dhuwa moieties. The powerful Wangarr beings travelled across the landscape during this time, their activities creating the features of the landscape including rivers, rocks, mangroves, mud flats, sand dunes, trees and islands, leaving those elements of country imbued with names and character as well as spiritual essence and meaning. The ancestral beings ‘sang’ the names of everything they created or interacted with, making certain species sacred to the clan on whose land or in whose waters the naming took place.

It was during this period of creating that language, law, paintings and songs, dances, ceremony and certain stories, all derived from ancestral events, were given to the founding members of each clan. Together, the land and the waters and this sacred clan property form a clan member’s djalkiri, his or her foundation (also ‘foot’, ‘footprint’ or ‘tree roots’ in Yolgnu Matha, the local language).

In nomadic lives art is one means of maintaining and transporting these stories.

In the painting, Guwak, the koel cuckoo, is sitting on top of a cashew tree. In the top right hand corner is Marrgnu, the possum. These two figures along with emus are the main ancestral figures of the Manggalili. There are huge digging sticks to the right and left of Guwak. The wavy lines are tide marks and the line of dashes represent possum tracks. Along with diamond-shapes and chevrons, these are the clan’s madayin miny’itji, sacred motifs.

Possums are climbing up and down the tree and the digging stick leaving behind the string spun from their fur from which the shape of the Cape has been defined. The spider sits between the possums spinning a web, the fog that every morning shrouds the lagoon.

Guwak died from drowning in a tidal wave generated by two ancestral turtles (see the bottom corners of the whole painting), and appears dead in human form in the centre panel. On the right hand side are women, the two Nyapililngu, who came to the area naked and without skills but who learnt to spin possum string which among other things became the mountains. The one at left is collecting shellfish modestly dressed in a sheet of bark. In the next panel are two cicadas which cry out at Guwak‘s death. In the bottom left hand corner one of Nyapililngu waits for Guwak on the beach with the overturned boat, mourning by cutting open her forehead with a digging stick, now a traditional way of expressing grief. In the next panel is the snail which provided the shape for shelter. On the other side are a series of emus and Guwak in human form with fishing spears.

The bottom sections of the painting are about funerary rites, but these three panels in the middle refer to the process and meaning of death.

In the centre is the anvil shape of the smoke from the Nyapililngus fire (another clan motif) suggesting the welter of conflicting emotion accompanying death. On the left is a sand crab picking the beach clean accompanied by reef herons engaged in the same task including feeding on the sand crabs — a cycle of cleansing and transformation as memory fades. On the right are tracks of turtles dragging themselves over the sand to lay eggs and of humans looking for turtle eggs in one of which is a foetus. Life will begin again.

The painting has far more messages and implications than a creation story. It has a geography for example. It can be read by those who can as defining Manggalili Country. The Nyapililngu on the left of the picture delineate the dunes which are one boundary. The tree in which Guwak sits has a place in a landscape defined by the string that the possums have been spinning. The figures at the right have their topographical correspondences.

It also contains moral and spiritual direction for behaviour understood and communicated by Elders and the Law-givers of the group.

All that and so much more.

The underlying elements of this cosmology have resonances throughout most of the country. The existence of what are widely referred to today as jukurrpa (originally a Central Australian and Western Desert word) — meaning the origins and powers embodied in places, objects, songs and stories, connecting people to country and to each other through shared networks of knowledge, what Europeans named ‘dreamings’ — was and is a widespread component of everyday belief.

Traditional art, including some created in contemporary urban settings, will always draw on, embody and realise these structures and stories. At the same time art produced in remote Australia is not always ‘traditional’ in this strong sense. Sometimes it is created simply for delight in form and colour, and sometimes just to pay the bills.

Creation Stories has enormous intellectual interest but there is also something aesthetically enticing about its controlled busyness. There is a lot to look at. The figures are silhouettes, sometimes decorated sometimes not. (This tradition also includes ‘X-ray’ creatures.) It is balanced vertically and horizontally, but without troubling to be symmetrical. It is the work of a master pattern-maker.

But with painting from Arnhemland, it is often just the wonderful rrark that gets me in.

Rrrark on a Yirridjdja pole, painted by Kenan Namunjdja,
who lives and works at Mankorlod and Maningrida.
Seen at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney.

And now to a great mystery … READ ON.

TIME: The Bradshaws/ Gwion Gwion

World pre-history has no parallels even remotely comparable in age or skill [to these paintings]. Truly the Bradshaw artists were the Ice Age’s Michelangelos.

— historian Ian Wilson, Lost World of the Kimberley

For 120 or so years these intriguing rock paintings — sophisticated, finely outlined then painted, and now lithified, actually grown into and become part of the rock — were known by the non-Aboriginals who discussed them as ‘Bradshaws’. Today it would be more acceptable to call them Gwion Gwion, their name in Ngarinyin. In their spread across the Kimberley, an area as big as Spain, they are also known among local Aborigine groups as djimi, giro giro (kiera kiro or girri girri), and guyon (or kuyon).

Gwion Gwion can refer to the work of the artists who are believed to have painted them, children of Djilinya, a mythical female or, alternatively, the long-beaked bird Guyon (‘sandstone thrush’) that pecks at rock faces to catch insects which sometimes causes their wing or other body parts to bleed. (That’s the northern Kimberley story. In the central Kimberley they say the beak bleeds.) The blood trickles down the rock to create these images which are almost uniformly and unusually a very dark browny-red, ‘mulberry’ as it has been described. They are detailed, precise and have all sorts of ornament.

The chief Bradshaw fans have divided them into four types:

  • Tassel figures: have tassels hanging from their arms and waists, along with various other recognisable accessories, such as arm bands, conical headdresses and boomerangs. This style is the earliest, most detailed and most common.
  • Sash: while similar in appearance to the Tassel figures, the Sash body is more robust and has a three-pointed sash or bag attached to the figure’s belt.
  • Elegant Action Figures: are almost always shown running, kneeling or hunting with multi-barbed spears and boomerangs. These are difficult to place in the style sequence as they are the only figures that are not superimposed over a painting from another period. In fact they are the only style that has not been defaced.
  • Clothes Peg Figures: were named (by Walsh, see below) after their resemblance to old wooden clothes pegs. They are also referred to as Straight Part Figures. In a stationary pose, segments of their bodies are missing, such as their waists, arms and feet, the result of different colour pigments, such as whites and yellows, fading over time. Many of the images are shown in aggressive stances. At least one panel [below] shows a battle with opponents arrayed in ranks opposite each other.

These are clearly not Aboriginal categorisations. Nor are the more readily encountered detailed descriptions of the figures.

A fine Sash Bradshaw displaying a wide range of the accoutrements found associated with this Group. The long head dress has a single feather mounted through its upper extremity, with double tiered tassel extremity. A Prong Variation of the Winged Headdress feature is mounted to the right side of the head. A neck-mounted dillybag is visible beneath the right armpit, and a cluster of four Chilli Armpit Decorations beneath the left. … [Etc. Etc.] The Bradshaw Foundation

In the same area the very different Wandjina figures can be found.

These figures can be clearly placed. They belong to the Mowanjum peoples of the Kimberley and that attachment is active and strong. They are cloud and rain weather spirits. A number of the paintings have been convincingly dated in their original forms from about 3800-4000 years ago. It has been suggested that this art style was generated by the end of a millennium-long drought occurring across northern Australia and the beginning of regular annual (and life-giving) monsoons. Wandjina typically have no mouth. One explanation for that is that rain would never stop if they did.

These paintings are still believed to possess great power and therefore are to be treated with great care and respect. According to Mowanjum belief, annual repainting in December or January ensures the arrival of the monsoon rains.

The automatic response might be to think that Wandjina must be much older than Gwion Gwion. But as this photo illustrates it is not uncommon to find Wandjina superimposed over Gwion Gwion. Leaving a puzzle.


The Gwion Gwion have drawn, and transfixed, European ‘enthusiasts’ since land speculator Joseph Bradshaw stumbled over his first set near the Roe River in the Kimberley in 1891. He was looking for suitable pasture with his brother and seems to have been lost. He reported his finds in the subsequent year. His drawings, pooh pooh-ed initially, proved to be remarkably accurate and detailed. He also made his own comments including the much quoted:

Joseph Bradshaw

The most remarkable fact in connection with these drawings is that wherever a profile face is shown, the features are of a most pronounced aquiline type, quite different from those of any natives we encountered. One might think himself looking at the painted walls of an Egyptian temple.’

In 1938 Doctor Andreas Lommel, a member of Germany’s renowned Frobenius Institute, lived for several months in the Kimberley researching Aboriginal rock art. After his second expedition to the Kimberley in 1955, he stated his belief that the rock art he referred to as the ‘Bradshaw Paintings’ may well predate the ancestors of present Aborigines.

And so we’re off and firing. As well as inviting the attention of unusual and highly imaginative whitefellas, Gwion Gwion really do seem to have some magical powers. You see them and you MUST construct your own story around them. And it WILL be the right one. OKAY?

Here’s one of ever so many.

‘As the Bradshaw Paintings progressed in time they displayed a distinct trend of decline into barbarism. The decline is noticeable in artistic skills, composition, themes, motives and aesthetics. There is a noticeable increase in imperfect figures, and short stocky human forms appear together with the slender Bradshaw figures. Both homo-forms are clad in the Bradshaw tradition. The finely choreographed graceful postures gradually transit into wielding of weapons.

‘The cause of multilateral decline is seen in the emergence of an external pressure, infiltration, inherent internal decay and eventual annexation by barbaric and warring new comers, probably the earliest wave of invasion (from the Indian sub-continent) by what is referred to as the Australian Aborigine. Such a quiet conquest infers the Bradshaw People were peaceful and hospitable, unaccustomed to deceit.’ (‘Unaccustomed to deceit!’ You can read that into 20,000 year-old rock art?)

This is ‘Anthropologist GL Seymour’ and the publication which quotes is called Australia for Everyone, guidance for visitors to Australia. I can find plenty of other material like this, but I can’t find any other reference to him on the net except for quite a number of word-for-word transcriptions of the passage above along with his summary. ‘The invaders eventually overtook the rule [sic] and overwrote the sophisticated culture, concluding that what the British did to the Aborigines, they themselves appear to have done to the Bradshaw People upon their arrival in Australia’.


Bradshaw’s name lives on in The Bradshaw Foundation, an international organisation dedicated to rock art founded by sculptor John Robinson who grew up in Australia but subsequently lived in England. He is one of those who have been much moved by a trip to the Kimberley for the purpose of looking at rock art. American billionaire Robert A. Hefner is its current President and Hungarian industrialist Damon de Laszlo is Chair of its Board.

This is part of what the Foundation’s website has to say about Gwion Gwion rock art today:

The Australian Rock Art Archive currently focuses on the rock art of the Kimberley region, featuring the Gwion Gwion rock art, also known as the Bradshaw paintings, and the Wandjina rock art. The Gwion Gwion rock art is claimed to be the earliest figurative art in the world. Sixty-five thousand years ago, our ancestors crossed by boat in groups from Timor into Australia. It is just possible that some members of these groups were assigned the task of recording their beliefs, hopes, fears, and spirits by painting on the rocks of carefully considered locations. If that is the case, the cave paintings of the Kimberley region of north west Australia could be among the earliest figurative paintings ever executed.

The approximate date of the colonisation of this continent is based on scientific evidence. The date of the Gwion Gwion rock art is not. In fact, the mystery surrounding this distinctive style of rock art, who the artists were, when they were painted, and for what reason, is part of their attraction. Unfortunately this mystery has sometimes been used as a political vehicle to hijack the art, and in so doing, obscures their beauty and sophistication.

Speaking of which:

‘Commenting on the idea of a referendum to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the constitution, Liberal Democrat senator David Leyonhjelm says there are doubts about whether Aboriginal people were the first occupants of Australia. “There are some anthropologists who argue that”, he said this morning. Senator Leyonhjelm cited the cave art known as the Bradshaws or Gwion Gwion in the Kimberley in Western Australia, although he mistakenly said they were in the Northern Territory. “There are some anthropologists around who say they are so distinct from more recent Aboriginal cave paintings, that they suggest that there was a previous culture … to the Aborigines,” he said. “The fact that there is even a doubt raised about it would suggest to me that it is not necessarily a good thing to put in the constitution.“‘ (ABC News: 25/6/18)


I’ve seen three sets of Gwion Gwion. This is my rather ordinary photo of one.

Grahame Walsh (at right) saw thousands. (8742 have been recorded to date.) Before his death in 2007 he had created a set of 1.2 million slides of rock art now in the custody of the Kimberley Foundation.

He is the author of what is believed to be one of the truly magisterial works of its type, ‘Australia’s Greatest Rock Art’, constructed at the Government’s behest as part of the Bicentennial celebrations. One hundred individual sections cover the rock art of every Australian state and territory as well as every major rock art region and style: materials, craft details, location, antecedents, context. 390 colour plates. Weight: 3 kgs. Awarded the Thompson Medal in 1990 by the Royal Geographical Society. Today you can buy a new copy for $1200, second hand for $800 to $380 (pretty scruffy).

In 2004 he told Michael Winkler for ‘The Age’: ‘[Australian rock art] is my life’s obsession, and I’ve devoted everything I had to it. Health, wealth, personal happiness and friendship, I’ve sacrificed the lot in the quest. Now I’m 60, two buggered knees, my wife’s gone, and I’ve got no dough — but I’ve gained a higher understanding of the cognitive development of humankind than probably anyone else in this country.’ And all that after failing Year 10, leaving school at 16, becoming a newspaper photographer and then a park ranger in Queensland’s Carnarvon National Park.

He believed that the Bradshaws provide irrefutable evidence of another people (the ‘Erudite Epoch’) preceding the Aboriginal peoples of the Kimberley.

Besides being utterly consumed by his mission, it seems like he was a nice guy, well meaning, open, even innocent. In the video below the widely respected Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, Rupert’s mother, proclaims Walshe’s insight and integrity. You can judge for yourself. The video also provides a very good look at the country and situations where Gwion Gwion occur.



Why does any of this matter? Are these just academic questions?

Well no … they aren’t. If Walsh was right, for example — and his views still have plenty of adherents — Aboriginal people have lived in the Kimberley for 10,000 years or less. But more to the point, they displaced the original ‘owners’. What does that mean for land rights cases for example? While whitefellas only have to have something for five minutes to establish ownership, the way the law is set up means that Aboriginal people have to establish occupancy virtually in perpetuity for their rights and title to land to be formally recognised (remembering this law supplants the operative idea of terra nullius, ‘nobody’s land’).

But even more importantly it cuts right into the notion, so important to Aboriginal culture and life, of permanent and enduring connection to the land, something that no one else has a right to. Always was, as well as always will be. Always.


The photo which accompanied Michael’s story was taken in Alan and Maria Myers’ house in North Carlton. The dingo rather takes pride of place but look at the two other artworks.

Maria Myers played a fundamental role in the setting up of the Kimberley Foundation (‘Researching, preserving and promoting Kimberley rock art’). In a 2013 story on the WA 7.30 Report she says: ‘I’d like to get the piece of Australia’s story that’s locked up in Kimberley rock art and I think it’s also a big part of the story of the emergence of modern humans in the world’.

The Kimberley Foundation currently boasts Laurie Brereton as Chair of its Trustees, Maria Myers is now Deputy, and ‘Twiggy’ and Nicola Forrest are its chief patrons: heavy hitters, big money, considerable power. As well as its own quite sophisticated operations, the Foundation funds a Chair in Rock Art at the UWA and a Chair in Archeological Science at Melbourne Uni (where Alan Myers is Chancellor). In 2002 the Foundation was an enthusiastic supporter of Grahame Walsh and the most important source of his funds.

But in 2017 the Foundation decided Walsh was wrong.

‘The late Grahame Walsh’s meticulous recording of the Kimberley’s most remote art-decorated caves went on to become the bedrock of current research that appears to disprove his own theory of discontinuity. Kimberley Foundation Australia Chair Maria Myers, who knew Walsh well until his death in 2007, says a decade of scientific study of rock art based on Walsh’s legacy is revealing a different picture of prehistoric artistry in the Kimberley.

‘Walsh believed that no continuous link existed between the painting of the Gwion or Bradshaw period … and the beginning of the Wandjina period of wide-eyed spirit figures. They appeared to be made by different peoples, he concluded. But in the ten years since Walsh died, “We have found more and more sites that we don’t know whether to put in the clothes peg period or the early Wandjina period,” says Myers. “They are what Grahame always said he couldn’t find — they are transitional. So there is no period of discontinuity between the two.”’ (‘Rock Art Researcher Got it Wrong’ The Australian 25/9/17.)

Another amateur, Dr David Welch, a medical doctor based in Darwin, played a crucial part in the development of the new schema. His monograph ‘From Bradshaw to Wandjina: Aboriginal Paintings of the Kimberley Region, WA’ (2016) tells the story, this time as a result of working with dozens of Aboriginal groups and getting their stories.

The broadly agreed chronological sequence at present is

  • firstly rock markings: incisions, grooves, hollows which might relate to ceremonial life, identity markers, changes in the landscape
  • naturalistic: large sometimes life size animals, fish and plants. Hand prints or stencils
  • Gwion: see above, except
  • static polychrome figures (formerly described as ‘clothes peg’ figures): schematized, usually straight human forms; dominated by groups of people rather than deities, depicting headdresses, multi-barbed spears and spear throwers. They are finely painted in red and orange, with faded white and yellow paints, creating the illusion of unpainted or ‘missing’ parts
  • painted hand: enormously varied with bichrome and polychrome depictions of objects, humans, animals, plants, lines, finger dots and non-figurative motifs. This diversity may show the marking of clan estates during the Holocene Period
  • Wandjina figures: see also above.

And just how old are any of these? The Wandjina figures can be carbon-dated to 3,800-4,000 years before the present (BP). The ‘painted hands’ seem to belong to 7,000-10,000 years BP. Information about the age of Gwion Gwion art has been drawn from the brilliant and widely noted dating of a series of fossilised mud wasp nests built over paintings. (‘When the mud wasp collects sand off the floor she’s also picking up tiny pieces of charcoal.’) The oldest of these to date has been 18,000±1,500 years BP.

The naturalistic period presents some intriguing cases.

This is believed by some scientists to be a painting of a marsupial lion found under some small Gwion Gwion paintings. As far as we know marsupial lions became extinct more than 45-50,000 years BP, although Kim Akerman, the primary author of this article, thinks 25-30,000 years might be more likely.

It is generally agreed that the earliest rock markings were made at least 40,000 years BP.

And who was making this art? Very hot off the press from a group of South Australian researchers in partnership with Aboriginal families and communities:

[Via access to historical collections of hair samples,] we were able to map the maternal genetic lineages onto the birthplace of the oldest recorded maternal ancestor (sometimes two to three generations back) and found there were striking patterns of Australia’s genetic past.

There were many very deep genetic branches, stretching back 45,000 to 50,000 years. We compared these dates to records of the earliest archaeological sites around Australia. We found that the people appear to have arrived in Australia almost exactly 50,000 years ago.

Those first Australians entered a landmass we collectively call “Sahul, with New Guinea connected to Australia. The Gulf of Carpentaria was a massive fresh water lake at the time and most likely a very attractive place for the founding population.

The genetic lineages show that the first Aboriginal populations swept around the coasts of Australia in two parallel waves. One went clockwise and the other counter-clockwise, before meeting somewhere in South Australia.

The occupation of the coasts was rapid, perhaps taking no longer than 2,000 to 3,000 years. But after that, the genetic patterns suggest that populations quickly settled down into specific territory or country, and have moved very little since.

The genetic lineages within each region are clearly very divergent. They tell us that people – once settled in a particular landscape – stayed connected within their realms for up to 50,000 years despite huge environmental and climate changes.

We should remember that this is about ten times as long as all of the European history we’re commonly taught.

This pattern is very unusual elsewhere in the world, and underlines why there might be such remarkable Aboriginal cultural and spiritual connection to land and country.

As Kaurna Elder, Lewis O’Brien, one of the original hair donors and part of the advisory group for the study, put it:

Aboriginal people have always known that we have been on our land since the start of our time, but it is important to have science show that to the rest of the world.

What a story.


Part of his heritage. But what on earth do they mean for the rest of us?

And now for something completely different … READ ON.

JUSTICE: Albert Namatjira

NOTES: None of Albert’s paintings, all water colours, included here look anywhere near as good as they do in reality. In real the colours quiver and melt into each other in a way they just don’t when digitally rendered (a process which is always looking for and defining borders, in or out, yes or no, sharp not soft) or for that matter when they appear in the pages of an art book. The shadows are both more profound and more intelligible. The perception of depth is much more evident and dramatic. See them in the flesh if you can. Anyone could have taken the landscape photos below in this extraordinary country, but I did. They were taken while walking through the Western MacDonells on the Larapinta Trail, one of the world’s greatest walks, starting at Alice Springs’ Old Telegraph Station and finishing at one peak of Mt Sonder.

What a dreadfully difficult relationship Albert Namatjira had with the whitefellas that had taken over his country: adored at one moment and treated appallingly the next — at the same time even. It would have been torture. That might be a function of celebrity; it might be the afflictions that come with being in so many ways The First; and it might be being black in a whitefella’s world. Almost certainly all three. Adam Goodes would understand perfectly.

The extraordinary Mt Sonder, or Rwetyepme (‘roo-chip-ma‘)

His story has been better known than it is today. In the 1950s prints of his Mt Sonder with or without ghost gums belonged on the wall or mantlepiece with the family photos under the flight of pottery ducks and the mirror with the bunch of flowers semi-silvered into it.

Albert was a hero, an important figure in the post-war wave of national self-identification that Australians were undergoing at the time, an exploration full of both insecurity and bumptious assertiveness. He belonged with the wattle, the cricketers, Vegemite, Holdens, the Melbourne Olympics and a home of your own with a Hill’s Hoist, his dignified and handsome face beaming over the lot of them as though providing benediction. ‘We’ could put that face on a stamp knowing that it wouldn’t cause us any trouble. ‘We’ could almost … well, almost, claim him as One of Us.

Hermannsburg, 1938. Araluen Gallery, Alice Springs, NT

He was born in 1902 to Western Arrernte (‘urrunda’) parents who had chosen to ‘come in’ to Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission at the western end of the MacDonnells. (Hermannsburg was known as Ntaria beforehand and is again now.) In Arrernte, these ranges which extend for more than 600km are called Tjorita, and were formed by the wanderings, clearly visible here, of the giant caterpillar Yeperenye.

Under the influence of the firm but reasonably benign form of Christianity espoused at Hermannsburg, he was christened and his name changed from Elea to Albert. ‘Namatjira’, flying ant dreaming, was his father’s Arrernte name. He called himself just Albert until he felt he needed to do otherwise.

For 13 years he learnt what any kid would learn on a mission with a full program of education coupled with a fourth ‘R’, religion, joining the other three. He remained a dedicated Christian until his death. But at 13 he was initiated, meaning going to live in the bush for six months, enduring designed hardship including specific physical ordeals, being taught the Law and customary practice, learning the stories and songs of his country and of his own jukurrpa — establishing his place in the Aboriginal world in fact.

He became a cameleer, for some time working a route between Oodnadatta and Hermannsburg, about 800 kms one way, … and one way to immerse yourself in this remarkable country. He also worked as a ringer and stockhand to try to bring some money in to the impoverished mission.

In time he married Ilkalita (christened as ‘Rubina’), a member of a neighboring community and one of the mainstays of his life. The couple built a house near the mission, and Albert supported his growing family (eventually with ten children) by doing odd jobs. These included making and selling small pieces of artwork. In 1932, the year he turned 30, two Melbourne artists visited the mission. Rex Batterbee was one.

Albert, Axel Poignant, another artist and film maker, and Rex. 1946

Batterbee’s story deserves a detour. What on earth was he doing there? He was born and brought up in Warrnambool (about as far away from Hermannsburg as you could get on the continent) before enlisting for the First World War. During fighting at Bullecourt, he was shot through the chest, face and both arms. He was invalided to Australia and hospitalised for several years, his left arm remaining crippled. Unable to resume farm work, he studied commercial art in Melbourne, but decided instead to become a landscape painter.

In a further unlikely turn of events, Rex went on a series of outback tours in a T-model Ford rejigged as a mobile home with his friend John Gardner. It was during the third of these excursions that they arrived at Hermannsburg and were asked by the missions’s superintendent Pastor Friedrich Albrecht — a complex and interesting man, a Pole by birth who lived at Hermannsburg for almost 30 years and spoke fluent Arrernte — to exhibit what they had been painting.

This would have been a moment, the first time the mission folk had seen their country represented in this way. How to respond? Shock? Puzzlement? Anger? Withdrawal in horror at this appropriation of their dreamings? The crowd shouted for joy upon recognising each location and pulled each other hither and thither to see each new work. Word of the exhibition spread at unintelligible speed. During the two days of the show more than 300 Aboriginal people saw it.

Rex Battarbee Central Australian landscape 1936 34 x 55cm National Gallery of Australia
A photographic version. He must have been sitting just a little west of here. What a mountain this is. Simply majestic.

Albert’s response appears not to have been complicated. He was absolutely clear that he wanted to paint too. Batterbee describes him as ‘waiting’ for their return two years later. He had visioned up in his mind that he could look after the camels for me while I taught him to paint. As one indication of the nature of mission life Batterbee had to ask Pastor Albrecht for permission to employ Albert as a camel-boy. It was on this series of excursions that Albert did his first water colours.

He was a very clever man with great ambition to become an artist, a marvellous pair of hands and marvellous eyes, and he had no mistakes to unlearn. That is why he was so easy to teach, he was just like a sponge or a piece of blotting paper. He absorbed everything, and it was easy to eliminate mistakes because you only had to tell him once and he never did it again.

At the same time Battarbee recognised that Albert was teaching him about his, Albert’s, country, not just by the aesthetics of his choice of locales but by his explanations of their significance. It does seem to have been a meeting of minds. Albert’s warmth, good nature and charm is strongly evident in the 1947 film ‘Albert Namatjira: An artist’s life’ in which he acts out various components of his life and development. (See it now on Kanopy. It’s worth it.)

Pastor Albrecht took 10 of Albert’s paintings from this experience to a church conference at Nuriootpa.

Kangaroo in Landscape is one of those paintings. You can see how his colour fields are still filling in outlined drawing. This is one of the important changes in his work as it became more sophisticated and practiced: paint straight to the paper.

Despite rock bottom prices, only four sold. In a gesture of solidarity and encouragement Albrecht bought two himself. A year passed with sporadic sales of paintings, mulga plaques, boomerangs, carvings, and other artefacts. Then Albrecht decided to get back in contact with Battarbee.

He’s as keen as ever and working hard to improve himself. He’s been painting when he can even when the others go walkabout. … Perhaps you could contemplate taking some as part of your exhibition. Adding thoughtfully: This may spoil the unity of your show, which would be distinctly to your disadvantage. As time goes by we shall have more opportunities of bringing his work before the public. This, too, suggests something about the nature of mission life. It doesn’t do to make simple judgments.

Three of Albert’s water colours were included in Batterbee’s next exhibition with a collection tin nearby. Eight pounds were donated. In 1938 Batterbee arranged an exhibition of 41 of Albert’s paintings in Melbourne. They sold out in three days. From that point on he never had trouble selling paintings. That seems to be the moment everything changed.

It might be noted that W. H. Gill who directed the gallery where Albert’s exhibition occurred gave Batterbee a note: ‘I suggest you take some good photos of the man … I consider it would be best to show him purely as a Native and not wearing Any European Clothing so as to maintain and convey to the public that he is a pure Aboriginal and not Civilised.’

Batterbee later moved to live in Alice Springs where among other things he set up and provided art classes for local Aboriginal people. In the photo below one figure appears to have been pasted in. But it’s where he felt he belonged. And bless him and his curiosity and his confidence in the truth of common humanity.

* * * * * * *

When Princess Margaret turned 21 in 1951 Australia’s gift to her was a Namatjira. Her level of appreciation is not recorded. During her sister’s first visit to Australia in 1954, the Queen was invited to view a specially mounted exhibition of Albert’s work in his company. Always far more polite than Margaret, she said she liked it.

* * * * * * *

Colour. That’s one reason. Colour. Can you believe what he’s up to? There can’t be country that looks like this. It’s simply too … fierce, overdone.

Talipate, Western MacDonnells c. 1950. Benalla Art Gallery

Look at the purple! You can’t have purple in the foreground. It’s to indicate distance, to mellow things down … hang on … what’s this?

Simpson’s Gap, Runutjirba.

But a huge range of skills besides colouration is on show: structure, management of distance and depth and the turn of the plane.

See, for example, the way the light before the storm is managed both in the coloration of the sky and on the rocks in the left foreground. Albert once told William Dargie he knew ‘how to make a tree look the same colour whether it was in the light or shadow’, and that a famous painter, who Dargie doesn’t identify, didn’t. (It was Hans Heysen. Don’t tell anyone.) Albert does. And that’s what you’re looking at. Probably without noticing.

* * * * * * *

How big was Albert? Huge. This letter sent from India asking for an autograph had no trouble finding him.

His career took off almost immediately and just kept growing, over a decade becoming well outside the capacity of the Mission to manage. The Aranda Arts Council was established to supervise production, pricing, release and sales. Many of the artists — and Albert was not alone in selling paintings, he was just the chief figure in the Hermannsburg School — went elsewhere. (One reason was that the Council paid on sale rather than consignment.) Albert was among them. As his paintings proliferated, unlicensed, onto prints, post cards, tea towels, trays, beer coasters and anything else you can imagine, for 11 years Albert would bring four paintings a week to John Cummings who would sell them from a gallery next to his pharmacy in Alice Springs. Cummings was one of the better dealers. Albert was also doing business with people who would give him 20 quid for a painting to be sold a week later for 300.

By this stage a celebrity, he had become a photo opportunity, for art lovers, for tourists, for random passers by, for sticky-beaks peering into his property and house, for journalists and, because of all that, for governments.

Without him even knowing, in 1957 he became Australia’s first Aboriginal ‘citizen’, and what a strange and offensive idea that is.

‘Welfare’ Ordinances governing life in the Northern Territory (and in other states in varied form), passed as law first by South Australia and later as it took control of the Territory by the Commonwealth, meant that all Aboriginal people who lived in the NT were under the control of the administration. Couldn’t live where they wanted, couldn’t build a house, couldn’t claim a basic wage, couldn’t buy alcohol or drink in pubs and, of course, couldn’t vote.

The initial colonial wars were appalling, but we can pretend they were distant, sporadic, conducted by thugs, and possibly poorly attested. This business, however, is within living memory, and was universal, durable and institutionalised. You can’t argue about it or pretend that it might not have happened. A Government edict establishes a group of people as third rate, simply by being members of that group. It denies them rights so fundamental it is hard to think of them as rights at all. They are not ‘citizens’ of the country where their forebears have lived for many thousands of years. What does that make a ‘citizen’? I’m afraid it can only mean a member of a group of cruel insensitive exploiters.

Albert and Rubina became citizens simply by having their names removed from the register of ‘Full-blood Aboriginal Wards of the State’ (and not at their behest, but by the cunning plan of the publicity machine of the Australian Government). Their children’s names were still on the list as were those of all their relatives, and it hardly needs saying but the system of obligatory sharing is deeply embedded in Aboriginal culture. Bark paintings of animals, for example, may map the directions for distributing the kill.

Albert had been struggling with this. His ‘family’ had become more and more extensive and as a result his outgoings were eclipsing his income. He never became as wealthy as the whitefella press was inclined to suggest and at what should have been the peak of his fame and earnings his family was reduced to living in a series of makeshift shelters. One of his expenses was having water carted to them.

His life and financial situation were openly and intrusively discussed in public and by the press. Pastor Doug Nicholls and the Aboriginal Advancement League went chasing royalties and license fees on his behalf. John Brackenreg, director of Artarmon Galleries where most of his work was placed, thought that it would be ‘in Albert’s best interests that any additional royalties should accumulate [ie be retained at the gallery’s pleasure]. Unless of course he specifies otherwise in writing.’ (That’s where the copyright to ALL his paintings ended up until three years ago. After an intervention by Dick Smith of all people, copyright was returned to the family on October 14, 2017.)

And now to the part of the story that people are inclined to remember.

He had started drinking.

Albert never drink before. At Sydney, he had a friend, they share a little bit wine. Those people taught him to drink them artist friends. He come back to Alice he was number one artist and he started to drink because he had learned in those places. Then he gave drink to his relatives.

After Albert was citizen, he started to drink. Trouble is that government gave us wrong citizen, for drinking. Instead of different kind of citizen, living citizen. Once this drinking come in, this destroy all the people in Australia. And Albert. (Nhasson Ungkwanaka, Albert’s pastor)

The actual offence arose from the investigation of the death of a woman at a party at Morris Soak out of Alice where he had been living at the time.

After receiving the Queen’s Medal at Govt House (NSW)

Albert Namatjira: first Aboriginal Australian citizen, recipient of the Queen’s Coronation Medal, first Aboriginal subject of the winner of the Archibald Prize, most famous artist in Australia, charged with supplying alcohol to members of his extended family.

Charged, found guilty. Two appeals. The press is howling. Pro, anti, shame on the government, shame on Albert, shame on his family, shame on blackfellas. Shame job all round. Six months, reduced to three months to be served in a fairly liberal facility at Papunya, but still …

Following sentencing, Albert was heard to say in court:

I cannot go on like this. I cannot stand it any longer. I would rather put a rifle to my head and end it all than go on. Why don’t they kill us all? That is what they want.

He died ten weeks after his release. He hadn’t been well for some time and an accident with the bonnet of the truck donated to him by Ampol led to the amputation of the index finger of his left hand. He was admitted to hospital with angina, a failing liver and pneumonia. But you could readily be forgiven for thinking he had died of a broken heart.

Gordon Bennett, 1989 Valley of the Ghost Gum

* * * * * * *

Critics have often been vocal in their dislike of Albert’s art. Gum tree one side, or gum tree the other, kitsch, dated and, brutally, ‘too white’, ‘too assimilated’, ‘turned his back on his people and his country’. (‘The dull and studied watercolours one might expect from an old maid’: much-vaunted anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss wrote in 1966.)

I have thought some the more anodyne versions of that criticism myself in the past without knowing why. Osmotic consumption of ill-digested second-hand opinion I would say. Art is profoundly subject to fashion; things come and go and I might have thought Albert’s art like a lot of representational landscape painting was something that had come and gone. Something my mother would (and did) like perhaps.

Then some years ago I saw a dozen or so of the Araluen Centre’s collection in Alice Springs. Of his 2000 works it is believed that most of the very best are in the hands of private collectors and we may never see them, but these stood out as really exceptional paintings, charismatic paintings, the sort you look at and think how did he do that? How has he drawn me in so deeply? I saw the ‘Seeing the Centre’ retrospective of his work in Canberra in 2002 celebrating the centenary of his birth and I was sold. In this case his works were surrounded by other artists of the time including Rex Battarbee, and his many familial artist successors, and it was Albert’s works that leapt out of the crowd. As with a lot of great art, it is the absolute certainty of his control. He’s well past having to wrestle with his craft; he’s thinking how he can make a picture great.

I have little doubt that one of the main reasons why his work became so popular — Australia’s best known, and loved, painter for decades — is that he was generous enough to show us his country, a country that largely exists in our imaginations.

In the ’50s the proportion of Australians who had had a look at this part of the world would have been tiny. But its place in the lore of the country — still the British outpost, built more firmly on colonial foundations than it is now — would have loomed large. Four-wheel drive SUVs have made the country smaller but the Red Centre is nevertheless an iconic idea more than a reality for most of us. It is a strange phenomenon that something about which you know very little shapes your identity. It is an even stranger phenomenon that you can be gladly introduced to it by people whose very existence is problematic for you.

When we paint we are painting as we always have done to demonstrate our continuing link with our country and the rights and responsibilities we have to it. Furthermore we paint to show the rest of the world that we own this country, and that the land owns us. …

Many years ago an Aboriginal man from central Australia, Albert Namatjira became very famous as a painter. Using Western watercolour paint techniques he painted many landscapes. But what non-Aboriginal people don’t understand, or choose not to understand, was that he was painting his country, the land of the Arrernte people. He was demonstrating to the rest of the world the living title held by his people to the lands they had been on for thousands of years.

Not only did non-Aboriginal people refuse to recognise this, but many have said that he wasn’t any good as a painter anyway, that all he was doing was mimicking a European art style and making pretty pictures. No one asked him the name of the country he was painting, or the Dreamings that had made that country important. They thought that all the old man needed was money for his paintings, and nothing else. The buyers did not recognise the Aboriginal law that bound his paintings to the land.

All our painting is a political act.

— Galarrwuy Yunupingu ‘The Black/White Conflict’ in Wally Caruana (ed.) Windows on the Dreaming

William Dargie Albert Namatjira, winner of the Archibald Prize 1956

Robert Campbell Junior. Ever heard of him? No? Well let’s correct that … READ ON.

IDENTITY: Robert Campbell Jnr

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Abo History (Facts) 1988
130 x 200cm
Held by the National Gallery of Australia

You might be finding the detail of this painting hard to see. Its date for example. 1988. Also known as the Bicentenary. Perhaps its title. Abo History (Facts).

From top left: Dad brings a kangaroo home. We might be fishing, chasing kangas or both. Life is good. Whitefellas turn up in ships with a flag. They start chopping down trees and killing blackfellas, although some blackfellas are helping them out. We build a house, they build a house. We’re growing things and fishing together and sharing the produce. Still good. Uh, we’re off in the bush getting stuck into the grog; and they won’t let us use the swimming pool they’ve built. Second from the left, bottom row — them whitefullas, they’ve introduced ‘dog tags’, the thing we hate most in the world. Albert all over again mate. What the hell are ya!

Under the ‘protection’ legislation of 1943 in most parts of Australia individuals were permitted to apply for an ‘exemption’ from the Act [‘Act’ meaning the legislation controlling Aboriginal people at the time]. An exemption or ‘dog tag’ as it was often referred to, meant that an Aboriginal person wasn’t treated as Aboriginal for the purpose of the Act. [Think about that!] They were entitled to vote, drink alcohol, move freely, and their children could be admitted to ordinary public schools. [Which indicates, of course, that these were things ‘Aboriginal’ Aboriginal people could not do.] They were however prohibited from consorting with other Aboriginal people who were not exempt. This renunciation of their traditional lifestyle was promoted as the only opportunity to overcome poverty, gain work and access to education and social welfare benefits.

Thus Aboriginal people could buy alcohol at a bar (if permitted by the barman), on the condition of renouncing their family and heritage. What a deal! Sign me up!

Same frame: we can go to the pictures but we have to sit up the front in a special section roped off for blackfellas. Next: we’ve all been jammed together onto a ‘mission’. We decide to burn it down. Last: Aboriginal deaths in custody. (Current rate of Aboriginal incarceration: 2440 per 100,000 population; non-Aboriginal, 216 per 100,000. Aboriginal people about 2 percent of the Australian population, about 27 percent of the prison population. 434 Aboriginal deaths in custody since 2010. All data, 2020)

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Robert Campbell Junior was born in 1944 and grew up near Kempsey on Burnt Bridge Mission. Dave Sands, a near contemporary and a champion Aboriginal boxer with a fight record of 108 fights: 97 wins (62 by knockout), 7 losses, 4 no contests, grew up at Burnt Bridge too. In his bigger fights he was billed as being Puerto Rican for fear of turning the fans away.

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The Fighting Sands Brothers, 1989
55 x 92 cm

Burnt Bridge Mission. You can read about some of its worst aspects here (Jennifer’s Story from Bringing Them Home) and here (Ian Lowe’s story of being taken away). These stories are both about being taken away from the Mission and there are people today who were brought up on Missions that speak warmly about those experiences contrasting them favourably with what happens in rural towns today. But those two stories speak to the other side. They are, literally, almost unbearable.

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My dear friend Merv Bishop, the man who took this photo, Australia’s first Aboriginal press photographer and probably the first Aboriginal person to work on a mainstream Australian newspaper, spent six years of his life from 1974 working for the Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs making a photographic record of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life around the country, what would have been in some respects a dream job, in others heart breaking. ‘The things I’ve seen brother boy …’, sucking on his clenched teeth, eyes flashing, shaking his head.

That included spending some time at Burnt Bridge. He went back in 1988. The year of the Bicentenary. Among his later photos were these.

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He can take a snap that Merv.

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Robert Campbell left the Mission when he was 14. His art career had begun by doing outline drawings on boomerangs to sell to tourists which his father filled in with poker work (via a heated wire). In his later teens he moved on to scenes on bits of cardboard in gloss house paint that he found leftover at the tip. He’d sell those too, ‘for a carton’. He moved to Sydney and did ‘all the jobs that wasn’t good enough for white people’ — manual labour, factory work, pea picking, brickie’s mortar boy. Sick of this, he went back to Kempsey where he ran into another artist, Tony Coleing, who suggested getting back into painting, this time with better tools: art paint and canvas or artist’s board.

It was then, 1987/88, that the men in red ties began appearing. (Abo History is an early work from this period.) The background patterning, figurative elements, colours and stylistic conventions in his work are all based on traditional Ngaku clan designs found on boomerangs and shields. The National Gallery curator states confidently that the ties are symbols of life and vitality. Other commentators assert equally firmly that they are symbols of ‘suffocation and stifling conformity’. I am inclined to think he found something that would work like a dream to give his figures vigour and interest, and then it became a trademark. A beauty.

Interviewed in 1990 he said:

When I paint, I don’t copy or make a sketch first. It just comes from within me and I keep going. I have a picture in my mind — it’s the spirit in me. It just guides my hand.

I’ve seen some Aboriginal drawings from the Northern Territory in magazines and I kept adding and creating my own style — the Aboriginal spirit in me that I’d lost. When we were on the mission the old people weren’t allowed to talk the lingo, not allowed to teach us. They were too frightened they would be sent away or something. I’m 45 years-old now and yet I’m still searching for that Aboriginal identity that I’ve lost.

One stream of his work is political.

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The Dog Tag, 1989
91 x 120 cm

The Dog Tag has the additional inscription Tyerabarrbowaryaou which in Ngaku means ‘I shall never become a white man’.

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Map of the massacre of Blacks in the Macleay Valley, 1989
79 x 115cms
Art Gallery of NSW

There are records of massacres in his work and a great many stories of dealings with the police. But he also painted the world of his day, the things he was interested in, possibly with an eye to his market as well: the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain, ‘Australia II’s’ victory in the 1983 America’s Cup, the Moon landing, Ash Wednesday, the racehorse trainer Bart Cummings, the boxer Jeff Fenech, Senator Neville Bonner. And he dug more deeply into the day-to-day of his heritage.

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Hunting Tucker, 1993
124 x 199 cm, private collection

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Blue Light Man: the Ghost of Gravelly Hill
private collection

I love the shimmering vitality in his work, but there is always an active mind at work as well as a very gifted hand. It’s that mind and the experience that has formed it which provided another reason for inclusion here.

New South Wales has a larger Aboriginal population than any other state or territory. The rail heads along the Newell Highway (Parkes, Forbes, Dubbo, Narrabri, Moree) and the rich sub-tropical forests and lush riverlands of the north coast produced concentrations of Aboriginal people.

However individual, Robert Campbell’s story would resonate directly in the lives of tens of thousands of Aboriginal people from this area alive today: the Mission background; still somewhere near Country, but not quite; still somewhere near family but parts of that are a blur; lost lingo, lost old time Culture. Something new constructed as culture which includes memories of dispossession and cruelty, grog, intermittent trouble with the law, racism. Struggling with your identity, your place in the world and your future. Sometimes cut badly adrift. But friends, maybe a kind teacher (or priest, or art dealer) among the dross, time spent in the bush, hunting, watching and playing football, doing things together, and feeling that thread of community whatever it might be — but which is not extinguished. Maybe Campbell was more of an Aboriginal artist than he could ever allow.

The first time I went to Walgett, not too many years ago, Marge and I went to the wrong pub for tea. We wouldn’t have minded, but we’d gone to the black pub — no women either — when we should have been at the white-as-white Bowlo. We were gently moved on. Walgett’s pretty bad of course. The shops that are left are all shuttered at night and often during the day.

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Charlie Perkins

And it was the Moree pool that was ‘whites only’ when Charles Perkins and the Freedom Riders arrived in 1965. (In fact Aboriginal children could swim there — before 3pm and as long as they’d been thoroughly scrubbed before entry by the pool staff.)

I never saw this but when I was working at Moree, several people whose views I trust absolutely told me that quite regularly on Saturday nights the whitefellas from the north side of the Namoi would get on the charge (get drunk) and go and take pot shots with their rifles at the Aboriginal camp fires on the other side. That’s 10 years ago. Not that many years ago.

And that’s one of the reasons I think Robert Campbell Junior is a great artist. He looked at this, and more, straight in the eye, put it on paper and somehow, somehow, like a lot of blackfellas I know, not only kept his sense of humour but stayed civilised.

And the big finish. And you can’t get bigger than Emily … READ ON.

MONEY: Emily Kame Kngwarreye

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Earth’s Creation, 1994
275 x 632cm

This is the second most expensive piece of Aboriginal art ever purchased. After appearing as a highlight of the international artists’ exhibition at the Venice Biennale of 2015, it was sold in 2017 for $2.1m. Four panels of synthetic polymer paint on linen mounted on canvas.

And huge.

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Emily Kngwarreye’s paintings are described by leading international art academics as being equal to the works of Monet and great Abstract artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko. Experts have argued that Earth’s Creation, painted at Utopia on the edge of the Simpson Desert in Central Australia … is an even more important painting for Australia than American painter Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, purchased by the National Gallery of Australia in 1973.‘ (The Wikipedia entry)

So there. Monet. Pollock. Rothko. Emily. (Sufficiently big time to have her own design decorate a Boeing 787. How nice that it’s a ‘Dreamliner’.)

In 2007, at one strongly-defined peak of the Aboriginal art market, Earth’s Creation was sold for $1.056m to Tim Jennings, long time owner of Mbantua Gallery & Cultural Museum in Alice Springs. It was initially commissioned for an Adelaide bank but Jennings decided that such a work should ‘come home’ to Alice. In a blog he expanded on why it is more important to Australia than Blue Poles (estimated current value $70+m).

Earth’s Creation was painted by a genius Australian [who was] without any formal or informal art training.

Emily, a female Australian Aboriginal artist, at the age of eighty or thereabouts, combined a deep rooted Aboriginal lifestyle with being a modern, contemporary, abstract painter. …

Aboriginal Art is the bridge of cultures. With paintings of the magnitude and quality of Earth’s Creation, Emily is reaching out to the world. She is putting both Australia and Aboriginal culture on the map.

* * * * * * *

(You’re wondering what the most expensive Aboriginal painting has been? Of course you are, and it’s a convenient segue. But keep all that in mind. They’re the topics.)

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Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri Warlugulong
202 x 337cm
Held by the National Gallery of Australia

I don’t know what Mr Tjapaltjarri got for Warlugulong when he painted it, but the Commonwealth Bank bought it for $1,200 and hung it in a cafeteria for 20 years before it sold at auction on the 24 July 2007 for $2.4m.

The painting includes elements of nine distinct dreamings, of which Lungkata’s tale is the central motif. Lungkata is the Bluetongue Lizard Man, an ancestral figure responsible for creating bushfire. The painting shows the results of a fire caused by Lungkata to punish his two sons who caught a kangaroo and declined to share it with their father. On the right are their skeletons. Art talk: ‘an epic painting, encyclopaedic in both content and ambition’.

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Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri’s Country was out north-west of Alice Springs near Yuendemu. But in 1971 he was at Papunya when a white school teacher, Geoffrey Bardon, began an art program for the kids at the Papunya School. The men of the community took it up and famously painted a mural, ‘Honey Ant Dreaming’, on one of the walls of the school (painted over in 1974 by a maintenance man, an historical misfortune) as well as everything else even vaguely suitable that they could get their hands on. ‘I just could not keep the boards up to them’, Bardon has written. This is the birth of Papunya Tula Pty Ltd, the company/ association/ group these men established to manage their production, … and also the foundation of desert art and ‘dot painting’.

This is dot painting — actually while a wonderful painting not a great example — from about 1993, although with Clifford Possum’s extra flourishes, the brushing out to form the flash points of the storm of the Dreaming he was painting.

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Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri Water Dreaming c.1993
83 x 126cm
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It might be noted that Tjapaltjarri was painting and carving wood art well before this. At right is one of his snakes.

Not much happened for a decade, but in the ’80s this movement exploded. Art centres were established in communities throughout the Northern Territory and Western Australia. In 2010 there were more than 120 such groups in the Centre and across the north from Yirrkala to the Kimberley. You could make money in a culturally legitimate way that brought high levels of satisfaction to individuals and, at least as importantly, to their communities. Today there could be as many as 16,000 Aboriginal artists working in remote Australia. Art commentator Sasha Grishin suggests that, per capita of population, this is ‘the highest concentration of artists anywhere in the world’.

The explosion has not been, to put it mildly, without its difficulties. Clear evidence was provided by the number of whitefellas suddenly hanging round and the range of gambits they employed to take advantage of this situation. There was money swirling round this world such as had never been seen before, and there is nothing like throwing big handfuls of cash into a group of people to disturb its equilibrium. (If you want to read about vicissitudes of the Aboriginal art market try Adrian Newstead’s very fine inside story of this and other periods of Aboriginal art, The Dealer is the Devil.)

* * * * * * *

But even in this eruption Emily Kame Kngwarreye (say ‘(k)ing-gorr-eye’) leapt out of the pack as something very special. From an excellent article in ‘Artlink’ by Margo Neale, curator of her three most important exhibitions:

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Emily Kame Kngwarreye was black, female, spoke little English [fewer than 20 words] and was already elderly when she started painting on canvas, in the middle of the Australian desert, on a patch of country called Utopia [the possibly ironic name of a giant cattle station] some 260 kilometres northeast of Alice Springs, a place she rarely left over her 80-plus years.

She was in her late 70s when she was introduced to painting in acrylics on canvas after a decade of working in batik with the Utopia women’s group. Neither batik nor painting on canvas is traditional; both were introduced, in the 1970s and 1980s respectively, as part of a government re‑skilling program.

Perhaps because painting on canvas grew out of the women’s batik group, painting on canvas became a women’s activity, unlike the situation at Papunya begun by a men’s painting group. These were and remain strongly gendered societies. But Kngwarreye broke the mould. 

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At Utopia it was Kngwarreye’s painting that secured her place in the Western art market and brought millions of dollars* into the community as the undisputed boss of the ‘money story’. She was the golden goose. Emily had no biological children of her own, although many others, so occupied a separate place and this, combined with her strong personality (described as bossy), her age, ceremonial status and past employment as a cameleer (a man’s role) also secured her unique status. The strength of her arms from cameleering was not an insignificant factor in the power and character of her painting stroke. [*Estimated at $20.2m, more than twice as much as any other Australian female artist (Margaret Olley, just for the sake of interest).]

She is believed to have produced more than 3000 works during her eight-year career as a professional artist. (Rodney Gooch, see below, says 6000.)

This ooo ahh story could be balanced off to some modest degree by the fact that she had spent decades making body art for ceremonial purposes. But, imagine. You’re an art dealer and there is this … this machine pouring out high value product at an unfathomable rate. The punters simply cannot buy it quickly enough. No wonder the scam artists, and others, pulled up in their endless Toyota loads scouring Utopia for scraps.

Emily’s work developed in quite different directions over those eight years. Earth’s Creation, where we started, was done ‘dump dump’ style, clumps of paint manipulated (‘pounded’ according to one observer) with implements including a shaving brush. Neale calls this her ‘colourist’ period and it came just two years before her death.

Her earliest works are dot paintings. Ntange Dreaming, below, is one of her earlier works but her very special eye is already manifest in the way the dots have been managed. The double dots — big white, small red and black and so on — are a cunning tactic for generating depth. They also trace lines which could be imagined as suggesting growth and fertility. Her jukurrpaKame‘ (or ‘Kam‘) means the flowers and seeds of the desert yam, and this painting could be construed as being about growth, harvest, fertility. It could, but it has also been described as a self portrait.

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Ntange Dreaming, 1989
135 x 122 cm
National Gallery of Australia

Do we need to know what it means in those sorts of ways? Could we? I am inclined to recognise it as a jubilation of paint with a particularly keen appreciation of colour and settled form. It’s just so … good. So convincing. Art. (Not ethnography.)

Then there are the ‘slab’ pictures of another phase, the Awelye (ritual ceremony) series.

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Untitled (Awelye), 1992

There are hundreds of these, and they relate to body decoration at women’s ceremony. But with their emphasis on line they suggest the shift in direction towards the endless ribbons of some of her later work (Yam Dreamings: if you want to be literal, tracks from where yams have opened cracks in the earth as they mature underground).

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Big Yam Dreaming (1995), all 3 by 8 metres of it, is one of the National Gallery of Victoria’s treasures and is, along with Earth’s Creation, one of Emily’s two poster pieces.

Finally a move to colour fields, some of which are even simpler than My Country (1996) pictured here.

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As noted above, when asked what she painted, she always gave the same answer.

Whole lot. That whole lot. Awelye (my Dreaming), Arlatyeye (pencil yam), Arkerrthe (mountain devil lizard), Ntange (grass seed), Tingu (Dreamtime pup), Ankerre (emu), Intekwe (favourite food of emus, a small plant), Atnwerle (green bean), and Kame (yam seed). That’s what I paint, whole lot.

This sacred rock Alhalkere both is the location of, and is, her jukurrpa.

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* * * * * * *

I have encountered what I would call some of the bottom 10 percent of the 3000 works — knock ups, lines without obvious purpose or pleasure, muddy noodling, colour looking a little like where a brush was cleaned and not much more — in that direction anyway. You’ll find them for sale online for vast prices that you usually have to inquire about. Or I could have been looking at some of the endless fakes. That’s entirely possible.

But as well there is some of her authenticated (and acclaimed) work I like less. For example, I like the paintings from the Awelye period and the Yam Dreamings better than I like Earth’s Creation and its many likenesses. But when she is on form, and she so frequently is, my goodness! There is such confident exactitude in her judgment. Such surety.

Her international career began in Japan. Her work was championed by the distinguished curator Akira Tatehata, in 2008 director of the National Museum of Art in Osaka. He loved her work, was passionate about it, but couldn’t say why. I don’t know how to explain this work. I can talk about it in formal terms, structure, composition, lines, colour but I just don’t know how she got there. I can draw comparison with Brice Marden, with Pollock and particularly with Yayoi Kusama but I know how they got there. … It is a miracle and I just have to proclaim her a genius. But this is only an interim answer. (Quoted in Margo Neale’s article.)

I like the idea of an interim answer because the question is difficult. How does Emily fit into modern art? Some people really worry about that question, and not in moderate or generous ways.

* * * * * * *

In 2013 an exhibition called ‘Australia’ was mounted at the Royal Academy in London. It consisted of hundreds of works one-fifth of which, the first section, were by Aboriginal artists. Emily’s Big Yam Dreaming was a centrepiece.

The critical response went off all over the place including some faint praise (good because it’s like what we’ve already decided is good, that sort of thing). But the general tenor was two thumbs firmly down. Waldemar Januszczak (‘Sunday Times’, 22/9/13) preferred:

original ancient rock art to the dull canvas approximations, knocked out in reduced dimensions, by a host of repetitive Aborigine artists making a buck. Out of a tremendous Indigenous tradition, fired and inspired by an enormous natural landscape, the Australian art world has managed to create what amounts to a market in decorative rugs. Opening the show with a selection of these spotty meanderings, and discussing them in dramatically hallowed terms, cannot disguise the fact that the great art of the Aborigines has been turned into tourist tat.

Brian Sewell of the ‘Daily Mail’ provided his own matchless off spin.

The exhibition is divided into five sections, of which the first is Aboriginal Art — but of the present, not the distant past, at last ‘recognised as art, not artefact’. By whom, I wonder? For these examples of contemporary aboriginal work are so obviously the stale rejiggings of a half-remembered heritage wrecked by the European alcohol, religion and servitude that have rendered purposeless all relics of their ancient and mysterious past. Swamped by Western influences, corrupted by a commercial art market as exploitative as any in Europe and America, all energy, purpose and authenticity lost, the modern Aboriginal Australian is not to be blamed for taking advantage of the white man now with imitative decoration and the souvenir. The black exploits the white’s obsession with conspicuous display and plays on the corporate guilt that he has now been taught to feel for the ethnic cleansing of the 19th century — a small revenge for the devastation of his culture — but the Aborigine offers only a reinvented past, his adoption of “whitefella” materials and, occasionally, “whitefella” ideas (Jackson Pollock must surely lie behind the longest of these canvases) undoing his “blackfella” integrity.

Bang. So stick that up your jumper you colonials. By the way, is the Rum Corps still operational? I fancy a drink.

In the ‘Financial Times’ Jackie Wullschlager tip-toed carefully through some well-prepared background, and then …

The largest Aboriginal work here is an eight-metre canvas of livid tangled white skeins of paint, Anwerlarr Anganenty (Big Yam Dreaming), by Emily Kame Kngwarreye. How authentic is it? A ceremonial leader who began painting on canvas in her seventies, Kngwarreye was promoted as an overnight sensation and became the first Aboriginal artist to sell for more than $1m. Her vigorous all-over compositions recall Jackson Pollock – perhaps too closely. One example is not definitive but, according to Philip Batty, senior curator at Melbourne’s Victoria Museum, Kngwarreye’s later work is simply “a mirror image of European desires”.

Uh oh. Sprung?

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Hmm… is that an Emily I wonder?

What’s this thing about Pollock? The two artists were born round the same time, but Emily lived her life almost entirely on Utopia in the middle of the Simpson Desert. She spoke two languages neither of which was English, of which she had just a few words. She couldn’t read or write in any language. Even if she did it would be fair to say that Utopia would never at any stage have been awash in art books. Besides which Pollock poured, dripped and splashed; Emily painted. She had brushes. If you can’t see the fundamental differences between Blue Poles and Big Yam Dreaming … well, what can I say? They both do big ones and they both have a formidable colour sense. Was that enough to trick the critics, or did they just get on a congregational roll, a delicious English pile on?

And just who is this Philip Batty? Was he misquoted? Taken out of context? A Murdoch Press/ ‘Spectator’ snark? Right here the story unfolds with complex beauty.

* * * * * * *

Philip Batty is not a sedentary rodent immured in an inner suburban retreat which he has never left, sharpening his poisonous claws on a keyboard. Philip Batty is currently the Senior Curator of Anthropology at Melbourne Museum who has co-authored (with Judith Ryan of the NGV) an important book about the origins of Western Desert art. But in his past life he was one of the three people who established CAAMA, the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association, a landmark media organisation (radio network, video production company and later, a television station). Right there, rock solid, huge credentials. But more to the point, for a time, Rodney Gooch worked for him.

When he joined CAAMA in 1983, I was the organisation’s co-director and therefore Rodney’s manager, although I don’t think anyone could ever really manage Gooch. Before taking up this position, he had been a head waiter at an Alice Springs restaurant where he organised and performed in the occasional drag show. He was extremely energetic, gregarious, creative, and generous to a fault. But he could also get into a terrible funk. (These quotes all come from an article by Batty for ‘Art Monthly’, July 2009 ‘The art of the art advisor: Rodney Gooch and the invention of Aboriginal art at Utopia’. The link is problematic.)

Moroccan Caravan. Rodney Gooch and his camels which he trained and with which he crossed the Simpson Desert. Riding them are Sam Todd and Fairlie Beckner. November 20, 1981. (Photo by Joanna Bailey for Fairfax Media). Flair, or what?

Rodney Gooch became the Art Adviser for the Utopia community.

The Art Adviser occupies a special, if impossible place in the world of Aboriginal art. They are usually white, young and enthusiastic and employed in Aboriginal art centres throughout remote Australia. Fortunately, their zealous commitment to the job helps fortify them against the difficult nature of their work.

Apart from the tedious business of running an art centre, they have to go cap-in-hand to governments each year for funding; soothe angry artists convinced that they have been ripped off; work out what will sell and encourage their artists to paint accordingly; stretch and undercoat innumerable canvases; watch for ‘carpetbaggers’ circling around their artists; deal with vehicle break-downs miles from nowhere; and butter up rich buyers at glittering exhibition openings.

Finally, they must do all this knowing that their artists will give away their ‘art money’ to innumerable relatives or spend it on second-hand cars that inevitably fall apart.

As an art advisor working at the Aboriginal community of Utopia in Central Australia, Rodney Gooch dealt with all these problems and more, but he also took the art of art advising to a more entrepreneurial level.

The short version. Gooch began at CAAMA as a producer and promoter of the Aboriginal bands CAAMA was helping to establish. The batik program at Utopia had been set up some years before in 1978 but, like many such things, after a promising start was foundering and the Aboriginal Development Corporation asked CAAMA to provide assistance.

Gooch, who according to Batty had previously shown minimal interest in or knowledge of Aboriginal art, was chosen for the task (quite probably by his Aboriginal boyfriend’s brother who was on the selection committee and knew an entrepreneur when he saw one). He visited Utopia and the very first time came back wildly enthusiastic ‘laden with brightly-coloured batik silks’ to sell at the CAAMA shop.

However, after some initial success, sales fell away. It was art that was making the money in Alice, not craft. The shop was sliding downhill to the extent that it was threatening the liquidity of CAAMA which at that time was bidding in an extremely pressured environment for a commercial television station licence (which became Imparja).

Rodney decided to take a more interventionist approach. He bought best quality acrylic paint and ‘constructed, stretched and undercoated 100 canvasses all exactly the same size’ and carted them off in the CAAMA truck to the women of Utopia. He showed them how to mix and use the paint and encouraged them to shift from traditional desert ochres to more varied, brighter and more vivid colours and avoid what he called ‘computer painting’, highly symmetrical alternating dots. He didn’t have to work to persuade the women. Painting was a lot easier and quicker than producing batik. Of the 100 canvasses he eventually retrieved 82. (He worried even then about the destination(s) of the other 18.)

Gooch developed links with dealers around Australia including the curator of Robert Holmes à Court’s collection of Indigenous art, the largest in Australia. Sales exhibitions were mounted with the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of NSW. Private galleries were chosen to be key stockists. This process both supported and rode on the rocketing interest in Aboriginal art from remote areas. But the big day came when James Mollison, then Director of the National Gallery of Australia, happened by the CAAMA shop.

Mollison told Rodney that Emily was ‘one of the finest Abstract Expressionists he had ever encountered’, although he was somewhat puzzled. How, he wondered, had an elderly Aboriginal woman living in remote Central Australia ‘mastered’ the techniques and aesthetic conventions of an art movement based in New York? How indeed. Emily spoke very little English, nor could she read nor write. In fact, there was only one white person in the world who had a reasonable grasp of Emily’s language (the linguist, Jenny Green). And as far as Rodney and I knew, Emily had never travelled beyond Central Australia.

It seemed to me that Mollison – an urbane man with little knowledge of Aboriginal people – was projecting his own artistic predilections onto Emily’s work and her aesthetic intentions. But who was to challenge the illusions of the most powerful aficionado in Australian art?

Of course, Rodney had no intention of questioning Mollison’s take on Emily. How she fitted into the history of western art was irrelevant. In any case, Rodney’s knowledge of the New York school of Abstract Expressionism was only marginally better than Emily’s which appeared to be non-existent.

Far more important was the fact that Mollision had not only fallen in love with Emily’s work; he had also bought several of her paintings for the National Gallery of Australia. [A footnote: when Mollison moved to the National Gallery of Victoria he organised the acquisition of Big Yam Dreaming.]

In 1991 Gooch left CAAMA and set himself up as an independent art adviser working with selected artists mostly from Utopia including Emily with whom he had developed a close relationship. It was his idea to make paintings on bits of the car wrecks — doors were popular for a time — which litter the desert. He had a gift for understanding the market and its movements and there is no doubt that he added his own considerable flair to ideas for paintings. Who knows? He might have known about Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, Krassner, Clyfford Still and Yayoi Kusama. Well … Pollock maybe, Blue Poles made a very big splash, but the others … only just the barest maybe.

What is in no doubt is that he didn’t paint the paintings. Or that the women of Utopia did.

After noting several problems that Gooch helped to leave behind — carpet baggers, fakers, desperadoes, exploiters of many kinds — Batty has no doubt that his legacy is positive. Nor that if it wasn’t him, it would have been somebody else. Purists will object, Batty writes, preferring to imagine that Aboriginal art emanates from some pristine, pre-industrial past. But Aboriginal art is an intercultural phenomenon, shaped both by its Aboriginal producers and non-Aboriginal consumers. Rodney clearly understood the nature of this cross-cultural relationship.

That’s what Batty said, and of course he’s right. And he did NOT say that, under the influence of a western Svengali, Emily was knocking out Pollocks.

At the peak of his powers and influence and under the spell of Emily’s work, Time art critic Robert Hughes ‘recognised’ the burgeoning Aboriginal cultural flowering as ‘the last great art movement of the 20th Century’. Emily wouldn’t have cared.

In 1993, she collected a prestigious Keating Award and was taken to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Margo Neale writes: An eager entourage wheeled her to a painting by renowned Australian abstract expressionist Tony Tuckson that they were sure she would relate to — after all, everyone else seemed to see connections between her work and his. On tenterhooks they waited for her happy recognition of a fellow genius. Eventually, she erupted into her Anmatyerre language. The translation revealed that she was worried about her sick dogs back at Utopia and wanted to go home. To stimulate a more appropriate response, the curator Deborah Edwards explained Tony Tuckson’s painting process and his interest in mark‑making and action painting, hoping she would see some connection. Kngwarreye responded in language: ‘Oh poor fella, he got no story. No Dreaming.

Art or ethnography? Pretty much both. (And forget about the money. That’s a different topic altogether.)

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The creation of Earth’s Creation

* * * * * * * * * * * *


Some time ago now I read an article in the ‘New Yorker’ called The Painted Desert. It’s a good yarn which you can read by clicking on the title.

Australian Aboriginal desert art is the broad subject. The Papunya Tula Co-op and Rover Thomas get a mention.

But it is primarily concerned with the story of the Ngurrara mob making up their minds whether or not to sell one of two paintings that they used to describe their country in a land claim (of almost 78,000 square kilometres, about the size of Austria). One of the reasons this is a good story is that the claim was, at first sight and eventually, six years later, successful. One Land Claims Tribunal member described the painting as ‘the most eloquent and overwhelming evidence that has ever been presented’. And isn’t it just?

Ngurrara, The Great Sandy Desert Painting, National Gallery of Australia, 10m x 8m

Note the size: 10 metres by 8 metres, painted by 19 Ngurrara artists. The horizontal mid line is the Canning Stock Route.

Getting your case through the Tribunal is a first step in a long and tortuous legal process. The adviser working at Fitzroy Crossing’s Mangkaja art co-op, was asked to contact someone who might offer information and guidance about selling at least one of the two paintings to provide some cash for the ageing artists. Three had already died. After discussions they decided they would sell one but not for any less than $20,000. Imagine. They could be confidently assured that such a monster painting of such huge cultural and political significance would realise more than that, perhaps 50 times more.

True to ‘New Yorker’ form, the article is very long and packed out with any possible material that a journalist could hoover up for colour, and to fill out 30,000 words. But being the ‘New Yorker’ it will have been assiduously fact-checked which is why I was a little bit tossed when the article seemed to be suggesting that Fitzroy Crossing was in Ngurrara country.

No one disputes (no one would dare) that Fitzroy Crossing is located at the confluence of four mobs: Bunuba and Gooniyandi definitely meeting at the town, the Nyikina a bit further downstream towards the coast with Walmajarri off to the south. Ngurrara country is further inland, real desert country. Its language groups do include Walmajarri, but also Wangkajunga, Mangala and Juwaliny. Perhaps this is the sort of thing you can’t readily fact check.

It just so happens that I was in Fitzroy at this very time and in fact bought an artwork at Mangkaja painted by two Kija ladies I know. The larger purpose of my presence was to introduce a couple of senior members of the Australian school education fraternity to life in remote Australia to try to increase their interest and involvement in the education of Indigenous kids. The Presidents of the Australian Secondary and Primary Principals Associations were the guests of honour.

It was during the Wet. The Fitzroy River, when in flood the river with the largest volume of flow in Australia, was lapping over the bridge (the ‘Crossing’) more than 15 metres above its level in The Dry. Visitors tend not to go to the Tropics in the Wet but, as long as the Monsoon has broken, that’s a mistake. The pindan (‘red soil’) country just leaps into life, furiously, actively, noisily, visibly. It’s like some sort of explosive chemical reaction which I suppose, in elemental terms, is precisely what it is. Just add water and step back.

The estimable John Hill had carted us off to some community schools well off the beaten track. Getting in and out had been something of a challenge, a modest sort of adventure in fact. But we had slept and eaten well at the Fitzroy River Lodge well out of the way of anything in town that might have freaked my colleagues out. (A fairly long list. Which is another thing about the article. The writer seems to take every chance she can to press the poverty, alcohol, sitting in the desert doing weird things buttons. It’s easy enough to do but there’s a lot more going on, and a lot that’s more interesting. It’s the tourist’s mistake, one I’ve made often enough.)

Back to Broome to fly home. Four hours of sliding along a road covered with water — in all that time the Willare roadhouse the only sign of human life — to find that the cyclone we’d been monitoring was due in Broome maybe that night, maybe next morning. Ha ho. So straight to the airport.

Broome takes some international flights and occasional direct flights from Sydney and Melbourne, but the main flight in and out of Broome was a sort of extended mail run around the west coast, a Qantas flight with maybe 150 passengers: Perth – Karratha – Broome – Darwin in the morning; turn around to do the same thing backwards in the evening. If you didn’t want to stay for the cyclone that was the flight to be on.

There are two things about wanting to get out. One is you mightn’t want to be in a cyclone, although none of the locals seemed especially bothered. Everything built in Broome in the last 25 years is supposed to be cyclone-proof. The correct way to prepare is to drive to the bottle shop and procure as much of the merchandise as the proprietors will allow, and hope your mate has been to the supermarket for the chops and snags. Looking at the queue of cars curling away from the drive-through, certainly 500 metres worth, the town was preparing.

The second is that you might get stuck for a while wherever you are. It’s not just that you need to wait for a plane to be able to fly after the storm. The whole schedule is kicked out of whack, so you wait your turn. It could be two or three days, but you don’t know. That might moderate what follows.

We’d booked for the next day so I wasn’t over-confident about getting out that night, although you never know. Not much travel in the Wet. We made our representations to the harried staff. There would be pressure for seats and we probably wouldn’t be leaving and there were people who needed to leave more than we did. Families with little kids, and so on.

The Broome airport is pretty much an open air affair, which suits. You can have quite enough of air conditioning. We’re sitting there watching the world go past, and there’s a commotion. Three top-of-the-line Land Cruisers drive up and screech to a halt like something out of a movie. You don’t screech to a halt. There may also have been ‘get out of the way’ type honking. You don’t honk either. Nine, count them, nine people, an entourage, got out, all apparently in a state of acute anxiety, and began shouting at people: people handling baggage, people who were booking, people who were helping with parking, people who were standing in their way. And then they started demanding things. Demand demand demand in strident American voices which included the identifier ‘We’re “New Yorker”‘ as though all gates would open; and when all gates didn’t open, they started metaphorically kicking them down. The main gentleman started screaming at the booking receptionist.

This is him. Tim Klingender, ‘the Sotheby’s expert who mounted Sotheby’s 1994 exhibit of Aboriginal paintings who divides his energy between Sotheby’s clients — whom he calls “the richest two hundred thousand people on the planet” — and Aboriginal communities, where the living conditions and life expectancy rival those of the most dismal outposts of the developing world.’ I am quoting from the article.

The focal point otherwise was a woman with an attack of the vapours, sobbing when she wasn’t making acidulous and strident remarks to the airport staff.

And this is her. Prize-winning journalist and author Geraldine Brooks with her prize-winning journalist husband Tony Horwitz. ‘They have two sons – Nathaniel and Bizuayehu – two dogs, three alpacas and a mare named Valentine. They live by an old mill pond on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts and spend as much time as possible in Australia.’ (‘About Geraldine’, author’s website) Next time you’re reading Nine Parts of Desire, March, Year of Wonders or Caleb’s Crossing, just remember that.

I wasn’t absolutely certain that I had the right crew, but voila!

There was, indeed, a big rain coming. A cyclone moved close to the coast that night deluging roads and closing airports. After three days of being immersed in the world view of the Walmajarri, I wondered briefly if the snake spirits were angry about the artists’ decision to sell the painting. Apparently not: the cyclone never touched down on land. Klingender and I made it back to Broome before the Great Northern Highway became inundated.

The Presidents somehow managed to get on (we know who you are Ted Brierley and Tom Croker), and the crazed nine, (Q. How many people does it take to write a ‘New Yorker’ article? A. Well …) still complaining, managed to bump three families and elbow their way on to the plane. Memorably unpleasant, twenty years later.

I had two nights at the Mangrove Hotel. It blew a bit. There was a snatch or two of Stairway to the Stars, the moon reflecting on ripples in the Indian Ocean. The hotel’s lawn terrace is the prefect viewpoint. Then, with my painting, I went home … to another world entirely.

Bush Tucker, Madeleine and Yangkana Laurel, 2002, Our kitchen wall