Tracking Bluey Roberts

Artist and curator Troy Anthony Baylis tracks the long art career of Bluey Roberts whose prolific work from carved emu eggs to paintings on ceramics and public artworks reclaims and subverts the notion of Australiana. Roberts' position is that Aboriginal artists create from history.

Bluey Roberts (Ngarrindjeri/Kokatha people), South Australia, decorator, Bennett's Magill Pottery, Magill, Adelaide, manufacturer, Bush spirits 2009, Magill and Waterfall Gully, South Australia, stoneware, oxides, 47.0 cm (h), 28.5 cm (diameter), South Australian Government Grant 2010, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

Born in 1948 in Meningie, South Australia, Bluey Roberts is of the Ngarrindjeri/Kokatha peoples. His artistic career, spanning five decades, consists of public murals, carved and etched emu eggs, boomerangs, coolamons, walking canes and shields, and hundreds of paintings on canvas, and on found and created objects. Through his art, Bluey tracks the rich diversity of animal and plant life from his homelands of Meningie and the surrounding Coorong, the upper Murray and the Murray River mouth.

Bluey constructs works of art from a range of materials, technologies, and artistic styles - their effect comforts and challenges, all depending on where you sit between the oppositions that Bluey holds in the balance through his eclectic art practice. The objects oscillate between kitsch, serious and the seriously kitsch, between craft, art and highly crafted contemporary artefacts that dispute Western constructs of time. Roberts has deliberately used the commodities of the tourist marketplace and the kitsch treasures that can be discovered there as a source to create work. These treasures can be linked back to Bluey's already established cultural knowledge. He plays with the familiar and what we consider to be all-too-familiar. With this play the artist is able to provide enjoyment and education as well as represent culture.

Cultural maintenance is the key motive for Roberts, but even what culture is, is challenged as time and influences are not easily pinned down. Bluey’s earliest works are undated and reflect his philosophy of time and its relationship to art. He suggests there is no time limit on Aboriginal art and culture, that Aboriginal artists create works from the position of ancient history, of past time.1 And with a twist of irony Bluey makes time stand still, always in the present, by creating permanent art objects. At the same time, he has always been open to inspiration from sources outside his country, styles and techniques as well as material and subject matter, that may not have been considered as Ngarrindjeri cultural practice. This challenges the idea that Aboriginal culture is fixed in time and place.

Although Bluey’s work is much loved and collected, most of it has not been documented. Photographing the work was not something that Bluey pursued. His focus was on documenting knowledge through the vehicle of art-making, letting the object speak the story. Documentation of artworks used to be costly and inconvenient, not like today, when artists can take publishable high-resolution images on their mobile phones, have instant access to the data, then distribute and publish it with the same device.

Some of Bluey’s works are unsigned, making it difficult for collectors to know for sure if they have a genuine Bluey Roberts work, although due to the nature of his technical precision, attention to detail, and tender rendering of subject matter, his work would be difficult to replicate.

A lot of Bluey’s works are not titled. Because stories are contained in the objects and images the artist has created, perhaps titles were considered unnecessary.

These unconventional aspects of Bluey’s art practice makes it difficult to track, review, distinguish or compare one work to the next, particularly without a centralised catalogue of his work.

Tracking the public artworks
Bluey Roberts was the first Aboriginal person commissioned to create a public mural in South Australia, resulting in the painted Kangaroo (1985) at the Children’s Section of the Adelaide Zoo. The mural is considered to be the oldest existing Aboriginal cultural marker in the Adelaide area by an Aboriginal artist.2 The subject matter of the kangaroo, situated in the city of Adelaide, relates to the Kaurna people. For the Kaurna people, the area of Adelaide is Tarndanyangga – the place of red kangaroo dreaming. The internal organs and genitals of the kangaroo have been depicted in a style not dissimilar to the X-ray technique of painting from Arnhem Land. Where did this inspiration come from? Did seeing imagery about Aboriginal art and culture that was published and popular at the time stimulate the artist? Did the artist imagine new possibilities for his own cultural expression? Did the technique provide the project with an identifiable access point for audiences to recognise Aboriginal country and be drawn to the cultural significance of the kangaroo? Does the use of the technique provide an opportunity for children to view the kangaroo’s physical functions in a more critical, educational way than usual representations of the animals as cuddly and domesticated?

River Spirit Dreaming (1989) is another prominent public artwork by the artist. Spanning much of the paved footpath at the main entrance of Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide, the work was created from etched concrete pavers with embedded segments of coloured oxide cement. A giant snake, a tortoise, a goanna, fish, an emu, and a kangaroo, as well as men and women are depicted. According to the artist: "The symbol of the snake represents the rivers and creeks in South Australia. These mean life. All of my symbols that I paint are the Dreaming and the river spirits...the male figures represent my ancestors who hunted and survived for thousands of years. The symbol of the woman represents the food gathering and giving birth to the children … the dance group figures represent a celebration or ceremony. The kangaroo and emu mean brother and sister".3 River Spirit Dreaming employs 'Aboriginal aesthetics’ including X-ray, cross-hatching, dot work, and other patterns rich in meaning. The styles, which Bluey ultimately connects with his own unique design (also rich in meaning), is perhaps appropriate for marking the spot of a national Aboriginal cultural institute: a “place for all to explore and experience contemporary and traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural expression”.4

Tracking the carvings
Some of the most renowned works of art by Bluey Roberts are his finely carved emu eggshells that are adorned with images of native animals depicted in twos and threes. Sometimes a wreath-like shape frames the animals to create elliptical spatial environments, little worlds of culture. These designs are constructed of etched imagery of provenance plants, weapons, and/or geometric patterns. The oval motif was a device often employed in Victorian England: the oval shapes were doorways into treasured worlds given sacred personal importance. Bluey’s eggshell carvings take a cue from the highly decorated emu eggshell objects that were first produced in the Victorian goldfields in Australia in the mid-nineteenth century. Silversmiths fashioned holders for emu eggshells as mementos of the wild Australian terrain, complete with kangaroos, emus, wombats, native plants and representations of indigenous peoples. The designs were capped off with elaborate stands and intricate coronets of sterling silver, providing the objects with totem-like signification. Bluey reclaims the emu egg and the Victorian imagery that produced a kind of particularly Australian visual representation. Artist and curator Clinton Nain observes: “Indigenous communities adopted the emu egg as a medium to tell stories, explain totems and reveal knowledge of land, place and identity…strengthening and retaining links to the past”.5 Bluey has constructed wooden stands to mount the eggs. The construction includes a mechanism that enables the egg to be rotated. Sometimes the stands are made from mussel shells. The joining together of these highly symbolic materials interplays with the metaphoric qualities of both emu eggs and fresh water mussel shells and their associations with life.

Also elliptical in shape is the Aboriginal shield. Roberts carves shields out of the thick bark of red river gum trees before finely inscribing the shield with pokerwork to create images of animals, plants, weapons, geometric shapes, and patterns. Like much of Bluey’s work, the imagery indicates an abundance of activity, with tens, sometimes hundreds of animals, gathering in the picture plane. Coupled with his considerable figurative abilities, the artist achieves great layers of perspective with the hot poker. By wielding a kind of magic with fire, he is able to create deeper tones and shade in the worlds he creates on the wooden surfaces. The use of pokerwork can be dated from prehistory: it has been suggested that early humans created designs from the charred remains of their fires.6 The practice meshes with Bluey’s position that Aboriginal artists create from history.

The artist also makes boomerangs, walking canes, and clap sticks from the red river gum material he harvests from trees. To obtain the material, Bluey employs his knowledge of country: “I first gain permission to cut the wood from the trees…there is only one season, around September; when the sap is running from the trees you can take off the bark…when there is drought, they really suffer, a lot of the big ones died last drought…but lots of new trees are growing now that the waters have risen and the lake is full again”.7

Some of the most curious treasures in Bluey’s oeuvre are carved and polished mussel shells. Some of the shells have been carefully reverse-etched, so that imagery, which includes fish, turtles, and platypi are revealed on the outer black shell surface of the mussel. Other shell works involve gluing emu eggshells onto mussel shells, essentially creating little mosaic objects of shell-on-shell. Bluey’s practice of shellwork parallels the practices of Native American art, although he developed his style of making art from mussel shells independently since the mid 1970s. The artist explains: “We (Ngarrindjeri) used to eat mussels and use them as fish bait, and use the shells as cutting tools. I thought the shells were pretty objects that should not be wasted and would make good jewellery if all polished up”.8

Bluey’s eggshell works extend beyond South Australian material. The artist has etched swan eggs and also experimented with ostrich eggs, but considers the emu eggs to be the most successful because of their colour and resilience.

Tracking the paintings
Bluey’s practice as a painter includes paintings on board, on stretched canvas, and on found and created objects such as boomerangs, bowls, vases, giant Boab pods, and refrigerators. Like the artist’s carvings, the paintings are intricately rendered and non-minimal in their approach to surface coverage.

Most of the larger paintings on canvas depict multiple scenes within the one image, providing the viewer with an abundance of content to discover over time. There are multiple narratives occurring inside the worlds represented in each painting. People are gathering, telling yarns around campfires. The animals seem in conversation with each other. The plants appear to have agency too, perhaps in dialogue with each other while they provide shade and space for the other life.

Making Tracks
The full extent of Bluey’s practice is difficult to track, perhaps even for the artist himself who was taught tracking skills by his late uncle, the legendary tracker Jimmy James. Bluey payed tribute to his uncle by collaborating with Silvio Apponyl to create the etched granite memorial A Special Place for Jimmy James (1990) in Berri, South Australia.

Bluey’s artistic output provides a rich visual history of Ngarrindjeri culture, and perhaps more broadly, imagery that subverts and reclaims the sometimes overly kitsch image of ‘Australiana’ by reclaiming representations of flora and fauna from an Aboriginal knowledge position. Roberts’ depictions of nature, so carefully observed and rendered, appear more as nature, less as artifice. Perhaps this is because it is the artist’s purpose to keep culture alive, and this commitment to culture takes perseverance, and an acute attention to detail. He shows us – not a static culture, but one that has, and always has had, relationships with other cultures through trade and marriage.

1 ‘Bluey Roberts interviewed by Noris Ioannou’, Artlink, Autumn/Winter 1990.

2 Gavin Malone Phases of Aboriginal Inclusion in the Public Space, Adelaide, South Australia, since Colonisation, PhD thesis, Flinders University, Adelaide, 2012.

3 Bluey Roberts, ‘Artist statement’ in River Spirit Dreaming: The Art of Bluey Roberts, Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute, Adelaide, 1989.

4 See viewed 21 March 2013

5 Clinton Nain, ‘Carved out of life’, catalogue essay, Craft Victoria, 2010.

6 Robert Boyer, The Amazing Art of Pyrography, Evanston 1993.

7 In conversation with Bluey Roberts at his home in Meningie, 26 February 2013.

8 In conversation with Bluey Roberts by telephone, 8 April 2013.

As part of the 25th anniversary of the National Aboriginal Cultural Institute in 2014, there will be a Bluey Roberts survey exhibition. Tandanya and the artist are interested in borrowing work for the exhibition and its accompanying catalogue.

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