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John Moriarty collection

Caution: This website includes images and names of deceased people that may cause distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Black and white photo of a young boy with his mother.
John and his mother, Kathleen
(Morr-my-bina). Photo: Merle Griffin.

At a glance

  • Borroloola, Northern Territory
  • Stolen Generation
  • John and Ros Moriarty
  • Aboriginal Affairs
  • Balarinji Design Studio
  • Merle Griffin photographs

A cultural leader

John Moriarty is a distinguished Australian who comes from the Yanyuwa people at Borroloola in the Northern Territory.

John is best known for his cultural and artistic leadership resulting from the successful establishment, in partnership with his wife Ros Moriarty, of the Balarinji Design Studio.

The John Moriarty collection at the National Museum includes precious objects from his childhood, photographs and diaries. The National Museum also holds the extensive Balarinji art and design collection.

Photo negatives from Borroloola, early 1940s, taken by Merle Griffin, later given to John Moriarty and now part of the Museum's collection

  • A black and white photographic negative that depicts an Aboriginal child and three adults standing on the edge of a riverbank next to a canoe.
  • A black and white photographic negative that depicts an Aboriginal child and adult standing in a canoe on a river.
  • A black and white photographic negative that depicts an Aboriginal man wearing a hat with a pipe in his mouth sitting in a canoe on a river.
  • A black and white photographic negative that depicts an Aboriginal man and woman standing on a riverbank next to a canoe with a child and adult sitting in the canoe.
  • A black and white photographic negative that depicts an Aboriginal man wearing a hat paddling a canoe along a river with a dog and four passengers sitting in the canoe.
  • A black and white photographic negative that depicts an Aboriginal man wearing a hat paddling a canoe with his back to the camera.
  • A black and white photographic negative that depicts an adult standing on a riverbank next to a canoe.
  • A black and white photographic negative that depicts an Aboriginal man wearing a hat bending over next to a child with a woman and dog sitting in the background.

More about the photographic collection and the remarkable story of how John met Merle below

Early years

John Moriarty was born into the world of the Yanyuwa people on the banks of the McArthur River, near the small town of Borroloola around 1938. John's mother Kathleen (Morr-my-bina) was a tribal Aboriginal women and his father, John Moriarty, was an Irishman from County Kerry.

When he was four years old, John, along with other classmates, was taken from the school he attended at Roper River. He was sent via Alice Springs to the Mulgoa Home at Mount Wilson in New South Wales, and later to the St Francis Home in Adelaide.

John was part of the ‘Stolen Generation’ of Aboriginal children who were separated from their families and placed in government or church homes so that they could, supposedly, be better assimilated into white Australian culture. Despite hardships suffered in these institutional homes, John also found friendship and support.

Black and white photo showing a man behind a partially visible soccer ball, with a member of the opposing team standing directly behind him.
John Moriarty represented South Australia 17 times and was the first Indigenous Australian to be selected for a national team.

Sporting and academic achievements

In 1960 John was the first recognised Indigenous Australian to be selected for a national soccer team. He represented the state of South Australia 17 times in soccer competitions.

After finishing high school at St Francis College and learning a trade as an apprentice boilermaker, Moriarty returned to study and in 1970 he became the first Aboriginal person to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree at Adelaide University.

In 1971, he received a Churchill Fellowship to study the world’s First Nation people.

John received an Advance Australia Award for service to industry and commerce in 1995 and an Honorary Doctorate at the University of South Australia in 1997.

He became a Member or the Order of Australia (AM) in 2000 and won the Flinders University Convocation Medal in 2001.

Indigenous affairs

Photograph of John Moriarty sitting at a desk with books on the shelves behind and a pen in his right hand
John Moriarty. National Archives of Australia, NAA A8739, A8/8/74/15

John has been an active member of various Indigenous political organisations. He has worked for the Aboriginal Affairs departments at state and federal levels.

John has held numerous board appointments. He was a chairman of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board of the Australia Council and the National Aboriginal Sports Corporation of Australia.

Read an extended interview with John Moriarty on the Collaborating for Indigenous Rights website 

Balarinji Design Studio success

The Balarinji Design Studio established by John and Ros Moriarty in Sydney in 1983 celebrates Aboriginal heritage through contemporary Australian design.

Balarinji has achieved a prestigious national and international profile, most notably through the Qantas 747-400 series of Dreaming aircraft. John acknowledged the success of the Qantas project in his 2000 autobiography Saltwater Fella: ‘It’s meant a great deal in my struggle to promote my culture.’

Ros Moriarty

John, Ros and Tim Moriarty, 1981
John, Ros and Tim Moriarty, 1981.

Ros Moriarty was born in Tasmania and is a graduate of the Australian National University, Canberra. Ros was a journalist with Radio Australia and has held senior positions with the Federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs in Canberra and Sydney.

Ros and John were married in 1982 and since that time Ros has focused on raising their three children, and building their business. Ros is managing director of the Jumbana Group and creative director of Balarinji Studio.

Ros received the Advance Australia Award for service to industry and commerce. She founded the Nangala Project’s Indi Kindi pre-literacy program. In 2010, Ros published her award-winning memoir, Listening to Country.

John Moriarty personal collection

The National Museum purchased John Moriarty's personal collection in 2009. It consists of a few precious objects, personal papers (including scrapbooks, diaries, and correspondence), photographs and colour transparencies, publications and printed material, audio cassettes and film.

The objects in the collection mark important stages in John’s life. There is a small pandanus basket that John’s mother made and sent to him when he was living at the St Francis home in Adelaide. John recalled his happiness at having proof his mother was alive and that she loved him.

The collection also includes a soccer trophy and three blazers, as well as John’s first woollen dressing gown, given to him when he arrived at the St Francis home. These objects were treasured and kept by John through many moves after he left the St Francis home. They are now part of the National Historical Collection.

Photograph of small pandanus basket
A small pandanus basket made and sent to John Moriarty by his mother, Kathleen (Morr-my-bina). National Museum of Australia. Photo: Jason McCarthy.

Photographic collection and Merle Griffin

The largest group of material in the Museum’s John Moriarty collection is photographs. Many were taken by John in his work with the Department of Aboriginal Affairs from the 1960s to the 1990s, at locations including remote Aboriginal communities. There are also images from overseas study tours and holidays and trips to visit his family in Ireland.

A unique part of his collection is a group of 37 black and white negatives taken at Borroloola in the early 1940s by professional photographer, Merle Griffin. Some of these photographs were published in articles that Griffin wrote for Walkabout magazine. Remarkably, quite a few include images of John Moriarty’s lost childhood, taken with his extended family on the banks of the McArthur River. Even more remarkable is the story about how John learnt about these images, and how eventually he was given the original negatives by Merle Griffin.

Images of lost years

A black and white photograph that depicts an Aboriginal boy sitting in a canoe eating a piece of watermelon.
John eating watermelon at Borroloola, early 1940s. Photo: Merle Griffin.

The story, as told by John in Saltwater Fella, is that during his first trip overseas in 1963, he met a woman on board the ship to Europe, who was a friend of Merle Griffin. On her return to Australia, she mentioned to Merle that she had met a young man called John Moriarty from the Northern Territory. Merle recognised the name and when John arrived back in Australia in 1964, a letter from Merle awaited him. They met, and formed a bond when Merle showed John her photographs of his family in Borroloola. Although he had no recollection of the photos being taken, they brought back incredibly strong images and feelings for these lost years.

Merle Griffin is a slightly enigmatic figure. Born in Tasmania in the 1900s, Merle was educated in Melbourne. She was a lively and adventurous woman who liked singing and amateur theatre, travelling and photography. Merle never married. She was a member of the Melbourne Walking Club and the Kooroora Club, which encouraged literary and debating pursuits.

Merle worked at the Melbourne Post Office for many years and was later active in her retirement, trekking in the Himalayas in her eighties. She lived into her early nineties and remained a valued friend of the Moriarty family.

A man and three women standing at a bench, with photos and a lightbox on the benchtop.
John Moriarty on a 2013 visit to the National Museum with (from left) Sharon Goddard, Carol Cooper and Karolina Kilian. Photo: George Serras.

Balarinji and the National Museum

John and Ros Moriarty discussed the idea of gifting the Balarinji business and design archive to the National Museum of Australia in 2008. The Moriartys believed that they had reached a watershed moment with the archive, and needed to take a new direction.

The Balarinji archive mirrored design activities in a pre-digital age. After 25 years of operation, the studio had now become digital with all design work being carried out by computer, rather than by hand drawn and painted design processes. It was time to draw together the artworks and the large body of associated archival material used in their creation, and ensure that this history of innovation in Australian design was recorded, preserved and made publically available.

Front of a large aeroplane, painted in Aboriginal designs on a red backdrop.
The Wunula Dreaming 747-400, with its distinctive Balarinji design. Photo: Qantas Airways Limited.

In 2009 the National Museum acquired John Moriarty’s personal collection and the Balarinji Art collection of 316 original artworks, mainly gouache on paper.

The Balarinji Business and Design Archive collection of more than 30,000 individual items was gifted to the National Museum through the Federal Government’s Cultural Gift Program.

Nangala Project

The Moriarty family in 2010 embarked on a new not-for-profit venture, the Nangala Project, funded largely by their business success.

The Nangala initiative includes the ‘Indi Kindi’ program, launched in Borroloola in 2012 and aimed at improving literacy and numeracy outcomes in 0-5 year old children in remote communities. The ‘John Moriarty Football for Under Six’ program aims to improve school attendance through positive sport activities.

Further reading

Kleinert, Sylvia and Neale, Margo, eds, The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture, Oxford University Press, 2000.

Moriarty, John, Saltwater Fella, Viking, Victoria, 2000.

Moriarty, Ros, Listening to Country, Allen & Unwin, New South Wales, 2010.

Sayers, Andrew, Australian Art, Oxford University Press, 2001.


This highlight was written by Carol Cooper, Senior Curatorial Fellow, National Museum of Australia.