Robert Campbell Jr., Abo history (facts), 1988, synthetic polymer paint on canvas. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Purchased 1988.

Reflecting times: The art of the precursors

All art is a reflection on the artist's time. This statement rings true throughout the span of Indigenous art in Australia, and finds its apotheosis among Indigenous artists working now. What follows is a historical excursion to highlight a selection of works of art made by the precursors of the current generation. These are individuals who, at the time, appeared to have stepped outside of the traditionally prescribed range of subject matter to explore contemporary events.

This is not a new or recent phenomenon, nor is it contingent solely on the arrival of settler colonists. In antiquity the rock painters of Arnhem Land tracked the changing ecology and environments of the region from the end of the last ice age, where freshwater species gave way to salt and sea creatures. In more recent times, images of the Makasar fishermen and their prau appear in rock art and later on in the bark paintings of Arnhem Land, Groote Eylandt and the Kimberley.

The bark paintings of the brothers Mawalan (Rirratjungu, c. 1908–1967) and Mathaman Marika (Rirratjungu, c.1920–70) reveal historical happenings: Mathaman’s Makasar boiling down trepan (1964) depicts the prau sailing towards the eastern Arnhem shore at the beginning of the wet season, and sailing away at the end complete with a crew that now includes Yolngu (Aboriginal peoples of eastern Arnhem Land). Mawalan’s The coming of the Makasar traders (1964) places the history of contact with Makasar in the time after the Djan’kawu ancestors gave birth to the first Yolngu: not a white man in sight.

For coastal peoples, ships may be regarded as agents of change: they were a favourite subject of the 19th century Yuin/Dhurga artist Mickey of Ulladulla (c. 1825–1891) on the far south coast of New South Wales. Mickey was among a group of artists in south-eastern Australia who documented a changing way of life. His contemporary Tommy McRae (Kwatkwat, c. 1830–1901) is perhaps the best known. His Hunting ducks with stick, boomerang and rifle (c. 1890), is a deceptively astute observation heralding a new world.

Tommy McRae, Hunting ducks with stick, boomerang and rifle, pen and ink, private collection.

The gun played a prominent and dominant part in the establishment of settler society. Some events were so extraordinary that they were recorded by artists separated by time and space. In Broome, in the mid-1960s Jack Wherra (Ngarinyin, c. 1924–1980) carved an image on a boab nut of a man saving himself from a punitive shooting party by hiding inside a bullock’s carcass. Rover Thomas (Kukatja/Wangkajunga, c.1926-1998) records the same episode in One hid under the bullock’s hide (1991) painted at Warmun on the opposite side of the Kimberley. The event occurred on Texas Downs Station in 1915. Wherra’s work is part of a series of carved boab nuts that depict the history of the pastoral industry in the Kimberley, from pre-contact days through to Aboriginal stockmen, card games and even the arrival of anthropologists heralding a new era in Indigenous-settler relations with the scientific investigation of Indigenous societies and cultures.

The pastoral industry has had an overwhelming influence on the lives of Indigenous peoples across the continent. In Men’s camps at Lyrrpurrung Ngturra (1979) Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri (Anmatyerr Arrernte, c. 1929–1984) mourns the degradation of the Western Desert ecology by the introduction of cattle through the metaphor of a ceremonial scene about a great Ancestral Hunter: he once preyed on kangaroo and emu, now he can only find goannas and snakes to feed his people.

In most societies, conflict and war are historical markers. In Arnhem Land, Jack Wunuwun (Murrungun Djinang, 1930–1990) records the annual wet season visits of Japanese fishing fleets in The Japanese boats (1989). As did Wherra, Wunuwun records the presence of anthropologists: in the top right corner is an image of Donald Thomson who was commissioned by the government to broker a peace between the Yolngu and authorities after a fracas with the Japanese at Caledon Bay in the early 1930s. As a boy, James Eseli (Kala Lagaw Ya, 1929–2009) saw the bombers and fighter planes of the Allied Forces take off from Ngurupai (Horn Island) in the Torres Strait on missions to New Guinea. The events are commemorated in “story dances” where participants wear headdresses replicating a range of aircraft.

Jack Wunuwun, The japanese boats, 1989, natural earth pigments on eucalyptus bark. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Purchased 1990. © estate of the artist licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency Ltd

Mawalan uses the visual language of Yolngu bark painting to render his impressions of Sydney. Sydney from the air (1963) maps out the city, buildings and roads, coast and harbour, while the insightful and telling Sydney (c. 1960) shows Sydney’s busy CBD streets teeming with people wearing hats. Here, the regular grid compositional structure of Rirratjingu clan designs transforms into a street map and the lines of dots into the streetlights. In his episodic Abo history (facts) (1988) poignantly completed in the bicentennial year, Robert Campbell Jr (Ngaku, 1944–1993) tracks the history of colonisation up to the tragic cases of Indigenous deaths in custody. So does Freddie Timms (Gija, born 1944) in his commentary on racism in contemporary Australia, Blackfella, whitefella (1999) where symbolically the white man sits above the Asian, the African and, at the bottom of the scale, the black Australian.

The struggle for equality is ongoing. Narritjn Maymuru (Manggalili, c. 1914–1982) understood the need for Indigenous law to be recognised in modern Australia. His reinterpretation of Australia’s official coat of arms is replete with Yolngu symbols of the coming together of different entities, peoples and cultures. The works discussed above are not mere responses to European presence and settlement. They are powerful statements about contemporary life from the Indigenous perspective, on personal, local and national levels. Moreover, these works of art embody the agency and empowerment of Indigenous peoples in both the past and the contemporary world.

Card image (detail): Jack Wunuwun, The japanese boats, 1989, natural earth pigments on eucalyptus bark. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Purchased 1990. © estate of the artist licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency Ltd.

Curator and historian Wally Caruana ranges across many examples of Indigenous Australian art to show how the contemporary and the traditional are woven together to embody the empowered agency of the artists and their culture.