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David Hansen, Sotheby's Australia, 30 September 2014

HELEN ENNIS:  Thank you very much to Carol Cooper for illuminating the extraordinarily rich visual earth of Barak. Now we’re going to turn to another artist, and another authority on the nineteenth century and Australian art. It’s David Hansen and he’s going to be speaking about Panga. Please welcome David.

DAVID HANSEN: Let me begin by acknowledging that we are meeting on Ngunnawal-Ngambri land - always was; always will be. I offer my respects to the Aboriginal people of this place, to those Indigenous Australians who are visiting today, and to all their elders, past and present. Let me also say that I look forward to such acknowledgement and such respect finding permanent, national, constitutional expression sooner rather than later.

I also wish to add just a little to the possibly embarrassing quantum of encomia being loaded on to Andrew Sayers’ shoulders today. The release of Aboriginal Artists of the 19th Century coincided with my being appointed to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. I can still recall the impact of the discovery that such an adventurous and thorough work of scholarship (pre Internet), a book which could truly be described as both ground-breaking and definitive, contained one, just one drawing by a Palawa, a tiny 1835 sketch of a native hen by the young man Probelattener, or Lacklay. The work has remained a talisman for me in reflecting on the early ethnocides in Tasmania and elsewhere, as the book in toto has remained a profound inspiration for my own work as an Australian art historian.

Did I say ‘definitive’? Aha. Stay tuned for some dull empiricism. Late last year, in its Latest Acquisitions catalogue no. 381, Berkelouw Books offered for sale a nineteenth century bibliographical curiosity: a scrapbook of pencil sketches, with some associated photographs, manuscript letters and other documents. Formerly in the collection of retired pastoralist Frederic Bonney, the album had descended from Bonney’s sister in Staffordshire to more distant relatives in Sydney. The Misses Maclellan appear to have sold it to the eccentric zoologist Charles Melbourne Ward for his Gallery of Natural History and Native Art at Medlow Bath in the Blue Mountains, whence it was presumably acquired by Leo Berkelouw.

What makes this scruffy scrapbook extraordinary can be found in the inscription on the title page: ‘Sketches / by an Aboriginal youth named “Panga” / living at Momba near the River Darling N. S. Wales / Self taught – Age about 17 years / 1881 / these sketches were made mostly between 1875 – 79.’

The Frederic Bonney who assembled and documented the collection was an Englishman, one of the 11 children of Thomas Bonney, Anglican clergyman and headmaster of Rugeley Grammar School. During the 1860s and 1870s, Frederic and his elder brother Edward leased various parcels of land in western New South Wales which eventually became ‘Momba’ station, a vast pastoral estate extending some 120 kilometres north along the Paroo River from its confluence with the Darling, at present-day Wilcannia.

The Bonney brothers’ uncle, Charles Bonney, MLC, had been one of the first ‘overlanders’, droving stock from New South Wales to the Port Phillip District and South Australia in the late 1830s. Charles visited England in 1858, and it was in all likelihood his financial success and business connections that prompted Edward to venture to the colonies in 1859, where he took up several stock runs in the Darling-Paroo district. Frederic followed in 1865, and over the next 15 years the Bonneys consolidated their holdings into a property of almost 85,000 sq km, described by The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser as ‘one of the finest in the Australias.’ [1]

However, it is not as a successful pastoralist that Frederic Bonney finds his lasting memorial, but as one of those all-too-rare Europeans on the colonial frontier with an evident sympathy for Aboriginal people. He wrote:

An unfavourable opinion prevails regarding these poor people which results possibly from a prejudice created against them on account of their unprepossessing physiognomy and from an erroneous idea of their moral qualities … It may astonish those who are given to consider the aborigines of Australia as a race scarcely human to be informed that their general intelligence, common sense and shrewdness, are quite equal if not superior to that of the poorest classes in Great Britain and they are naturally honest, truthful and kind hearted. Their manner is remarkably courteous and to little children they are very kind. Affectionate and faithful to chosen companions, also showing exceeding respect to aged persons and willingly attending to their wants. [2]

Bonney’s collections of photographs (some by the itinerant photographer Charles Pickering, others taken by himself) document quite clearly this sympathetic interest in the local Paakantyi people. Some simply record the appearance of the ‘Momba’ property, its buildings and products. An interesting literary footnote to the picture of the homestead on the left [image shown] is that the central figure of the group of men is Charles Dickens’ son Edward, or ‘Plorn’, who arrived at ‘Momba’ at the age of 15 in 1868, and would eventually become its manager. Other images feature both group portraits and close-ups of Aborigines, including figures in traditional dress and body decoration.

Two substantial groups of these photographs are held in public institutions: the Mitchell Library holds Bonney’s own collection of notes, notebooks, correspondence, newspaper cuttings and printed material, as well as more than a dozen photographs. The National Library of Australia’s ‘Butter Album’ contains 104 photographs within a bound volume formerly owned by Bonney’s English neighbour and friend Dr John Kerr Butter. Further, singular Bonney photographic images are also held in the Woore family collection at the Mitchell and in the State Library of Victoria. [3]

This extensive and impressive archive of photographs has been published twice in recent years, initially for local community consumption in Robert Lindsay’s The Bonney Photographs, and again in a more widely-released anthology co-edited with Jeannette Hope: The People of the Paroo. Bonney images are also discussed (and one reproduced) in Jane Lydon’s Calling the Shots: Aboriginal Photographies, published earlier this year.

Furthermore, during his time in New South Wales, Bonney also assembled an extensive collection of native artefacts: spears, boomerangs, clubs, axes, baskets and the like. A photograph of the interior of his English home, Colton House, shows these items in nineteenth century ‘trophy’ display; some of them are probably those given by his brother, Professor TG Bonney, to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. [4]

Most significantly, from the time of his first arrival in the district Bonney had made notes on Paakantyi culture - from word lists and place names to more detailed accounts of myth and ceremony. This research miscellany was arranged and edited as a paper presented to the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland in 1883, which document remains the primary written source on the traditional culture of the people of the Paroo. [5]

But Berkelouw’s Bonney scrapbook represents a further dimension of his evident ethnographic enthusiasm; its 117 individual drawings introduce a previously unknown figure into Andrew’s canon of Indigenous art of the colonial period. Bonney’s manuscript notes record that:

A youth named Panga, who was not the brightest at his work, had a rare talent for drawing which he developed by sketching with a piece of charcoal on a piece of bark or scratching with a nail on a tin pot. He received no assistance from Europeans - in fact had no opportunity of doing so until quite recently, when I found sketches about the camp which showed so much talent I gave him pencil and paper and I have most of the sketches he made. At that time he was probably 17 to 18 years old - he lived under my charge for 15 years. He was taught to write a little by an overseer, Mr William Sutton. [6]

‘Panga’ apparently (and rather delightfully) translates from the language Bonney called Weyneubulckoo as ‘kangaroo in a snug camp on a cold morning’. The boy was also known to settlers as ‘Jimmy Panga’. He features in a number of Bonney photographs, initially in a group shot with relatives [image shown: that’s him fourth from the left in the back row], then in a more formal portrait, and eventually as an artist, captured in the act of drawing. As Tim Bonyhady suggested to me last week and mentioned earlier this afternoon in a considered and gracious act of thunder theft, this may well be the very earliest known photograph of an artist at work in Australia, predating Rodney Cherry’s famous image of Arthur Streeton on the beach at Sirius Cove by more than a decade.

Sadly (if not altogether unexpectedly), little is known of Panga’s life after the years with Bonney. The scrapbook contains a letter he wrote after his employer’s return home in 1881, expressing the ‘hope you been gettem along another one country first rat[e],’ (transcribed and translated in Bonney’s hand as ‘Hope you have got to the other country (England) first rate’) and which enclosed ‘2 fellow photograph mine thinketh that fellow belong to mine very good.’ (‘Two photographs. I think mine very good.’)

Ten years later, a brief newspaper report stated that:

At the [Wilcannia] police court … James Lee was charged with assaulting an aboriginal named Panga at Momba, and inflicting a wound on the scalp with a bottle of beer. He was sentenced to three months’ hard labour, and for supplying aboriginals with liquor he was fined £3 and costs.’ [7]

Intriguingly, a photograph in the present album implies a continuing relationship between Panga and his old boss: inscribed ‘received with letter Nov. 25th 1892’, it shows a mature, bearded Panga, together with his wife Maggie (possibly Maggie Campbell). Finally, ‘Jimmy Panga, 50 years, Aboriginal’ is recorded as having died on Salisbury Downs station in 1913, and been buried in the station cemetery. [8]

But what of the works themselves? Perhaps not surprisingly, many of Panga’s drawings are straightforward visual records of day-to-day life on a nineteenth century pastoral station. Notably, more than two dozen of the little sheets feature horses and riders, testifying both to Edward Bonney’s racehorse-breeding interests and to Panga’s work as a stockman. There are portraits of Frederic Bonney in his familiar pith helmet, of the Bonneys’ overseer RE Guise and of other white men. There are also numerous images of buildings, bullocks and wagons, of men butchering meat and cutting fence-posts. Several pages present disconnected scatterings of everyday objects: knives, saddles and hammers, boots and belts and buttons, even a Jew’s harp.

Some of the more unusual and intriguing sketches show such things as men playing football (both soccer and the proto-AFL Aboriginal game locally called opinnia), ‘step dancing in a public house’, a blackfella being crushed by an old man kangaroo and another being rushed by a bullock, even an optimistic image of frontier colonial justice, inscribed by Bonney: ‘Policeman with / two prisoners / 1 blackfellow / 1 white man’ as well as this curious cypher with the letters of Panga’s name arranged to form a human figure [image shown].

However, the primary interest of the scrapbook lies in those sketches which describe Paakantyi culture. A number of landscape sketches present the local environment in a meandering, Aboriginal perspective, somewhere between plan and elevation, between the style of the Lake Tyrell Bark and that of Ginger Riley Munduwalawala. There are individual portraits of fellow tribespeople - some wearing possum skin cloaks, and some possibly identifiable by reference to Bonney’s photographs. A number of drawings enumerate the Aboriginal toolkit - boomerangs, clubs, hatchets, spears, shields, baskets, possum-skin seed bags and so forth - and there are various images of local wildlife: kangaroos and wallabies; emus, brolgas and swans; snakes and a goanna.

Some works illustrate specific aspects of traditional life: a native holding a duck-catching net; another at his bark humpy receiving a message-stick (curiously, delivered by what looks like a white man); even the image of ‘a youth during ceremony of initiation’. One particular scene, ‘Questioning the corpse before burial’, illustrates a ritual similar to those which are recorded elsewhere in Australia, both earlier and later, and which is fully described in Bonney’s ethnographic paper:

The burial of a body takes place immediately after death. The feet having been tied together by the big toes, and the hands bound by either the wrists or thumbs and little fingers, the body is wrapped in a rug and bound round with a rope, and the bundle tied onto a long stick called moolairee. Two men are selected as bearers … Should the friends of the deceased have any doubt who caused the death, some questions are put to the corpse … by one of the principal old men in the camp … The old man, with a bough or boomerang, strikes the corpse, and asks such questions as these: - Were you camped at such and such a place when you were taken ill? Did so and so kill you? If the answers are not given by a movement of the corpse it is carried a little farther, until it answers by moving in the direction of the sorcerer’s camp; should he be in the camp where the body is it turns round, and when the right name is mentioned it moves forward rapidly, the men running with their burden to the grave. In this way they find out to their satisfaction who they must punish for the death of the deceased person. [9]

What is probably the high point of the collection is a series of ten images of corroboree, in which individual figures and coordinated lines of dancers are described with great precision in terms of pose and choreography, in the detail of body decoration (again, closely comparable with that shown in Bonney’s photographs), in the ritual garb of hair string public aprons and conical hats and in the objects held by the dancers: dance paddles (purpurru), string crosses and bunches of green leaves.

The style and technique of Panga’s drawings is certainly naïve, sometimes mannered, occasionally even crude. It is true that in his oeuvre we do not find the ceremonial authority of William Barak, nor the wit and grace of Yackaduna (Tommy McCrae). Nevertheless, taken collectively, Panga’s work must be regarded as a unique and valuable record of life on the Paroo in the 1870s as drawn from the perspective of an Indigenous stationhand with residual traditional knowledge, experience and memories.

This album presents us with a hitherto unknown Aboriginal vision and voice, one which combines knowledge of the old world and curiosity about the new, a generous, expansive humanity and a kind of obsessive, even autistic graphophilia. The very fact of its survival and re-emergence after more than a century must be cause for art-historical celebration. Thank you very much.

[1] ‘Colonial Markets’, The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, Maitland, 3 April 1875, p.7

[2] Frederic Bonney, notes, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, (MLMSS 259), quoted in Jeanette Hope and Robert Lindsay, The People of the Paroo River: Frederic Bonney’s Photographs, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water NSW, Sydney, 2010, p. 83

[3] In the Mitchell Library, Bonney’s manuscripts are catalogued at MLMSS 259, his 13 photographs at PXA 562, and the Wore picture at PXB 680. The ‘Butter Album’ is NLA Album 1026. The State Library of Victoria picture is in the Duncan Scott McGregor Collection, H92.244/7

[4] Colton History Society, Staffordshire, UK, Parrpic 90

[5] Frederic Bonney, ‘On Some Customs of the Aborigines of the River Darling, New South Wales’, Journal of the anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 13, 1883, pp. 122-137; Bonney also had an offprint of the paper published (Harrison and Sons, London, 1883)

[6] Frederic Bonney, notes, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, (MLMSS 259, pp. 170-171)

[7] ‘Country News’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 December 1891, p. 6

[8] New South Wales Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages (Deaths, Tibooburra - DC 4489 / 1913)

[9] Bonney,  ‘On some customs …’, op. cit., pp. 12-13

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Date published: 27 November 2014

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