The Larrakia Legacy of Billiamook

Larrakia people bore the brunt of colonial expansion in the Northern Territory when Darwin was settled by beraguds (white people) in 1869. Gary Lee writes of Billiamook, one of the first Larrakia to interact with the settlers and the first Aboriginal artist to have his work exhibited and recognised as art.

Larrakia people bore the brunt of colonial expansion in the Northern Territory when Darwin was settled by beraguds (white people) in 1869. As Larrakia people remark today, it was our bad luck that Garamalal (Darwin Peninsula) was chosen as the location for the new township of Palmerston (later named Darwin). One of the first Larrakia to interact with the settlers was a sixteen year-old named Billiamook who went on to become an interpreter and informant for the beraguds, for whom he worked over several decades. Although he became a well-known identity around the new township his achievement as an artist and his contribution to the social fabric of early Darwin is virtually forgotten.

Billiamook and another Larrakia man Mindilpildil, along with several other inmates of Darwin's Fannie Bay Gaol, were the first Aboriginal artists to have their work exhibited as art. Then Superintendent of Fannie Bay Gaol, JC Knight, sent their commissioned drawings to the 1888 Centennial International Exhibition in Melbourne where they were exhibited in the art rather than in the ethnographic section. Knight titled these drawings The Dawn Of Art causing much interest and admiration at the time as nothing like them had been seen before.
The exhibition Billiamook, curated by Gary Lee and Sylvia Kleinert, Charles Darwin University Gallery, 17 November to 3 December 2004, presented contemporary Larrakia artists' responses to Billiamook's legacy and to Larrakia heritage and society of the past, facilitated through facsimiles of Billiamook and Mindilpildil's 1888 drawings and colonial Larrakia photo portraits juxtaposed with contemporary Larrakia paintings, photos and weaponry.

Larrakia artists, the late Prince of Wales, Gullawan, Duwun and myself responded to Billiamook with a diversity of works connecting us spiritually with our Larrakia past. Gullawan's demalapel (green sea turtle shell) referenced the Larrakia saltwater affiliation with finely rendered warrgu (mangrove worm), demebili (barramundi) and maruidj (mud crab). The same connection was made in Duwun's acrylic on canvas work Family, showing a family in a canoe on their journey to God, and in homage to the subject of one of Billiamook's drawings. Prince of Wales' distinctive Body Mark canvases linked directly to Paul Foelsche's unique photographic prints of Larrakia in ceremonial body paint. My digital colour print of my sixteen year-old nephew Shannon as Billiamook celebrates the beauty and pride of Billiamook the man, of contemporary Larrakia, and of our ancestors captured in Foelsche's remarkable portraits.

Billiamook's legacy lives on in Larrakia art practice and artists today. Larrakia involvement in the very beginnings of Aboriginal art as 'art' and the continuing evolution of Larrakia art have yet to be fully researched. The 'Billiamook' exhibition is a positive start in that direction.

Support independent writing on the visual arts. Subscribe or donate here.