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.

2 thoughts on “IDENTITY: Robert Campbell Jnr

  1. Pingback: JUSTICE: Albert Namatjira | mcraeblog

  2. Pingback: Aboriginal Art: Five Stories | mcraeblog

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