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Jonathan Jones, Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi artist and independent curator, 30 September 2014

TIM BONYHADY: Melinda’s discussion of the grid and the importance of the straight line made me think of that wonderful line by Roald Dahl where the BFG talks about where he’s gone to Buckingham Palace, and it’s about a ruler of straight lines.

Both Nick [Thomas] and Melinda [Hinkson] have taken us forward from the nineteenth century, and Jonathan Jones is going to take us further. A crucial part of today, when I was talking about the event with Andrew, was to have an artist who was both engaged with Andrew’s book and the work within it as part of our symposium. It’s wonderful to have Jonathan here to do that. Please welcome Jonathan Jones.

JONATHAN JONES: [Indigenous language spoken] Hello, everyone. My name is Jonathan Jones. I am a Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi man from the south-east, and I’d like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people whose country we meet on today, and thank Aunty Susan this morning for her welcome. I’d also like to acknowledge Andrew [Sayers] and thank the organisers for creating such an important space for us today to talk about some really important issues.

I’d also like to make a special acknowledgement today of Aunty Joy [Murphy Wandin], whose leadership, wisdom and humour has been an ongoing source of inspiration for me. Her support has led to many to many of the ideas I’ll discuss with you today and I’d like to take this opportunity to publicly thank her. I’d also like to dedicate this talk to my cousin Emily, who’s here today, and all younger generations of Kooris. This talk is really for you.

Firstly, it’s important to state up front that the publication Aboriginal Artists of the Nineteenth Century - I say publication because I was unfortunately not able to see the exhibition - had an enormous impact on my life and has definitely helped define much of my practice both as an artist and a curator. I first came in contact with the publication as an undergraduate student and the book quickly became my holy grail, the only book I’d work with university and the name Andrew Sayers was definitely said with much reverence.

I felt it was the first time that Koori art history, the history of my people, had actually been acknowledged and the important work of my ancestors had been so recognised. It was the first time I could see myself within a book and see where I’d come from. Although I’m never sure who you write the book for, I always thought you wrote it for me, which was great.

The critical moment, or the light bulb moment, that occurred for me was the rupture in between Andrew’s text that weaved in and out of intelligent readings and important historical accounts that described work of Koori master artists - including Tommy McRae, William Barak and Mickey of Ulladulla who we’ve talked about today - and the text written by Carol Cooper on the traditional carving practices of the south-east. The artistic connections drawn between these two art movements - Koori art masters and traditional carving - starts to inform us about Koori art men’s practice from this region.

It’s from this foothold that I started to do my research, and try in an attempt for myself to define a wider Koori artistic movement. My research has come to consider one particular strand of Koori artistic practice; that is, the region’s unique and continuing use of the line as an artistic device, primarily by male artists. This research has been structured within four distinct periods or generations from pre-contact to today and has established a clear cultural tradition that has endured under massive change. The research uniquely places Koori art within a historical context constructed quite importantly within a Koori framework, which I’ll discuss.

On my research journey, one of the real key issues for me was recognising the striking similarities between the work of Tommy McRae and the work of contemporary artist Roy Kennedy. In fact, I remember talking to Andrew about this the very first time we met a number of years back. Uncle Roy is a Wiradjuri artist who has strong connections to Warangesda Mission through his mum but also Police Paddock Mission, which are both on the Murrumbidgee River near Darlington Point. After a lifetime of itinerant work, mainly knocking around railway yards, Uncle Roy enrolled at Eora College, an Aboriginal TAFE college in Redfern, Sydney. It was here, in his 60s, that Uncle Roy developed a passion for dry-point etching. Slowly carving his memories onto metal plates, Uncle Roy not only calls up connections to McRae visually but also the action of south-east carving practices. The idea is very much manifested between those two texts in Aboriginal Artists of the Nineteenth Century. Interestingly enough, Roy actually remembers watching both his grandfather and his stepfather carving weapons for sale but also for hunting.

Uncle Roy’s works are repeated citations of mission memories. His works captures mission life where both church and the police station loom large on the landscape, while the regimented mission houses and rambling fences underpin almost every image. What was surprising to me was that Uncle Roy had never heard or seen the work of Tommy McRae - never. Yet the work was so connected in so many ways. Both works use small, multiple strokes to create their images: Tommy with pen and ink, Uncle Roy with etching tools that capture a phenomenal level of detail and movement. Both, I believe, express the mind and hand of a carver: the push and pull of positive and negative space to build up a really successful image. Tommy captures people singing out and calling out, weapons in motion and canoes afloat; while Uncle Roy’s eye for detail reveals the diamond windows of the local church, the mulberries on the tree and the powerful currents of the Murrumbidgee. Both are dedicated to recalling the past and their lived memories that chronicle ceremonies and mission life of a time gone by and, in doing so, create time capsules for younger generations, like myself, to read and learn our culture.

I should also mention that, strangely, I was the first person to show Uncle Roy Aboriginal Artists of the Nineteenth Century and needless to say he fell in love with it, connecting deeply with McRae. And like Aunty Joy’s experience, it goes without saying that I never got that book back, which is the probably the best review you can get for a book and which was a repeated occurrence after showing a whole number of community members. I’ve probably bought a lot of books in my time, replacing my own.

Between McRae and Uncle Roy there was a link forming a bigger link from living artists today living in Redfern all the way back to traditional carving practices. But what exactly was that link? In order to determine that, I started to look at men’s work across the region, from across the ages, and across mediums and I started to see the continuing use of the line to create both figurative and patterned elements.

Everyone from La Perouse to Broken Hill, from Moree to Melbourne, from clubs to photography, from prints to possum-skin cloaks could be understood as working with line, including the work of Kevin Gilbert, Mickey of Ulladulla, Robert Campbell Jr, carved trees, Lin Onus, the Victorian bark etchings, Badger Bates, Jim Stanley, south-east clubs, [William] Barak and rock engravings, just to name a few. It’s fantastic to see a few more highlighted today. They all employ and emphasise the use of the line.

I’m also really proud to say that artists from my generation, my contemporaries - most of whom are consciously counteracting colonialism by looking back into the past to the work of their ancestors to make their own work - are often continuing the use of the line. Artists like Brook Andrew, Steaphan Paton, Jason Wing, Reko Rennie and James Tylor are all making powerful images and referencing their ancestors. In this way the line, as witnessed in art-making practices, takes on a new metaphorical meaning. It comes to represent a continuation of culture, the unbroken line of Koori knowledge and space, which is reflected in a statement by Rodney Carter, a Yorta Yorta man, who stated:

… the shields or the symbols upon the shields represent our identity. You can liken them to what we see as title [deeds] for our houses. The lines, the colour, the carvings - they all tell people who you are, and, more importantly, they tell people where you come from. [1]

This concept was also echoed in an important historical account given by [Robert Brough] Smyth when he described, what’s assumed to be a Taungurong club and its designs stating:

Lyl-lil represents a lagoon, probably a branch of the Broken River, and the space enclosed by the lines [shows] the country which the tribe of the owner of the weapon occupied. [2]

Another important cultural reading of the line in relation to country was given by WS Parkes who was told this story by a Wiradjuri elder living at Brungle [Reserve] in 1848. This elder described Wiradjuri country as a line rather than an enclosed area. Parkes, quoting from memory, detailed the line as passing through Brungle, Jugiong, Harden, Cowra, Dubbo, Condobolin, Hillston, Wagga Wagga and Tarcutta all the way back to Brungle.

In an effort to make sense of this enormous body of work from the south-east, lists and lists of artists, I decided to try to look back at a traditional archiving system - a traditional Koori kinship system, if you like - as a way to recall or try to understand how my ancestors would’ve seen the world as if they were here with me today and how perhaps they would’ve made sense of their descendants. The majority of Koori or south-east kinship systems or philosophies, as some of you would know, are divided into two moieties, which are the crow and the eagle. In Wiradjuri Waagan is the crow, or Wahn for Aunty Joy; and Maliyan in Wiradjuri or Bunjil for Aunty Joy is the wedged-tail eagle. In most parts of the south-east, these two moieties, which control everything, are then further divided in four subsets. So this traditional structure has become a framework for my research.

Each subset is represented by the four distinct period or generations within the south-east history, taking into account important social and cultural factors. Each period is then represented by pair of artists or art forms to symbolise the crow and the eagle. I have curated these pairs as they exemplify artistic practices from the region, the period and the social conditions, as well as being highly respected from their community. This traditional structure sees our artistic movement framed within a cyclical line of descent. It’s an idea I guess we’ve been talking about - following in the footsteps of your ancestors - that is self-perpetuating, self-reflective, which is like many artistic movements.

The four pairs are as follows, and these have been trimmed down to fit the structure of this talk. The first section is classic or pre-contact material. This period represented by parrying shields and broad shields have become the two pairs. Although some of these shields are made after contact, they are traditional in form and, for want of a better word, also with content. The shields and their designs, for me, represent the foundation of men’s work in the south-east. Their selection in the project is based on the fact that they represent one of the most unique cultural productions from the region and they’re comparatively numerous - not many, but comparatively numerous - making a large database to study. They’re also quite diverse across the region and are objects of artistic beauty.

Researching these shields has involved identifying distinct regional and national designs, patterns, and creative styles. This has involved analysing major public collections including the NMA’s collection here. For this part of research I’ve been lucky enough to work with Carol Cooper whose sharp mind and research abilities have been the driving force behind many of the breakthroughs in this area. Together we’re working towards mapping the entire region and looking at specific designs and line work that comes from particular regions and then hopefully being able to identify particular artists.

One key example that I can show you quickly is this shield here which is held in the British Museum’s collection. The identification of this shield was made possible through archival research and visual analysis of the 1866 photographs taken at Coranderrk by Carl Walters, where a man known as Redman, being noted from the ‘Goulburn tribe’, which refers to Goulburn River in Central Victoria. From analysing his shield and cross-referencing that against that image, it’s a unique design. We’ve been able to match that shield that’s been unknown for a long time sitting in the British Museum’s archive to Taungurong people along the Goulburn River.

The next group of artists is Koori masters - we don’t need much explanation of these two pairings. The two artists that I’ve chosen to look at are obviously Tommy McRae and William Barak. As we know, both of these maverick artists were working on the frontier and really witnessed first-hand the colonisation of their country. Both grappled with a changing world. However, they continued the use of the line. In fact, their artworks are line composite images, with Barak inserting fantastic blocks of colour to create these beautiful figurative forms. Interestingly, both were known to create shields and were proponents of translating traditional practices into new mediums.

The next section is self-taught artists or senior Koori artists. This includes the work of Uncle Roy and the late HJ Wedge. Both are Wiradjuri and grew up in harsh conditions on New South Wales missions under strict government segregation policies, which, like the actions of the frontier, were designed to destroy Aboriginal culture. Both Kennedy and Wedge started their artmaking practice through the Aboriginal TAFE Eora at Redfern. These artists represent a time in Australia’s history, the 1990s, when Koori or urban art was being recognised for the first time. Yet sadly the raised profile of urban art was often dismissed as just political and void of cultural traditions. Like McRae and Barak, their work encompassed ever-changing mediums and subjects, and both continued traditional practices established by their ancestors - that notion of employing carved methodologies to create their work.

As discussed before, Kennedy is an etcher literally carved into metal plates, while Wedge developed his own personal technique. Not only did his work rely heavily on lineal compositions, but his work would be created first by painting the background of his canvas; and then by using a blunt pencil he would mark out the outline of his paintings. By using heavy pressure on the canvas, he in fact scored the canvas and carved into it, which then provided the outline for his paintings. Sadly, as many of you would know, HJ Wedge passed away recently - or a number of years ago now; it doesn’t feel that long ago. As a key elder who I worked with over many years his voice will be sadly missed. However, I was lucky enough to have discussed the project with him over a number of years and he had been engaged in the research concept. He would often send me these beautiful – they were sort of a mix of pencil and charcoal drawings in response to flicking through Aboriginal Artists of the Nineteenth Century.

The last section is professional or trained contemporary Koori artists. This will focus on two younger artists: Reko Rennie, who is a Kamilaroi man; and Steaphan Paton, who is Gunai from down in Gippsland. Both have taken tertiary education and work within new mediums and contexts while continuing figurative line traditions. As contemporary artists their work is often not seen within this trajectory; yet both are aware of the importance of upholding these practices and have actively been exploring what it means.

Reko works within the cultural knowledge directed by his father as an installation and stencil artist. He literally cuts out plastic sheets and uses them as masks to spray over to create his artworks. While Steaphan, under the cultural direction of his grandfather Albert Mullet, explores Gunai traditions making works as both paper and installations, as you can see here.

These four pairs of artists celebrate and highlight the predominant and inherent use of line informed by thousands of generations of carvers. This line is a visual element that clearly travels through generations of artists, crossing changing environments, social and political conditions. This research testifies to the fact that the south-east culture is an on-going and continuous activity contributing to Aboriginal culture being the world’s oldest living culture. [Recognition of artistic lineage] is part of a bigger cultural revolution within the south-east that has seen Indigenous language being taught across the region, canoes being made and possum-skin cloaks being [worn]. Celebrating this cultural continuum strengthens Koori communities and provides the region with a framework to support future generations of artists.

Mandaang-guwu. Thank you. [applause]

[1] Keeler, C and Couzens, V (eds), Meerreeng-an, here is my country: the story of Aboriginal Victoria told through art, Koorie Heritage Trust, Melbourne, 2010, p 156.

[2] Smyth, Robert Brough, The Aborigines of Victoria: with notes relating to the habits of the natives of other parts of Australia and Tasmania compiled from various sources for the Government of Victoria, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1878, p 284.

ANDREW SAYERS: Thanks, Jonathan. One of the great things I look at every day is the Roy Kennedy etching that you gave me, Jonathan, all those years ago when we started talking about these artists. One of the great things for me about looking at the book 20 years later is the impact it’s had on the work of artists. All works of art history, if we can see them reflected in the work of contemporary artists, is just a great thing. I thought that the response to the anniversary of William Barak in the NGV [National Gallery of Victoria], which you created, Jonathan, was the most superb piece of contemporary art with these echoes of William Barak.

It’s been the most incredibly rich day for me, and I hope it has been for you. I’d like to thank very much Tim Bonyhady and Melinda Hinkson, my two great friends, for thinking of today and making it happen; the National Museum of Australia team – Anne Faris, Heidi [Pritchard] and the whole team, Ken and the tech crew - all of the speakers today and the chairs.

There is one entity I should probably thank and that is the original publishers of the book, Oxford University Press, and Louise Wheatland and Peter Rose, editors at the time, who got behind the book and who really shepherded it into being at a time when it was quite tough to publish that sort of book. And also the National Gallery of Australia under Betty Churcher who gave me all that time to work on the book, which was wonderful. It was a display of belief in this project.

I guess we’re all believers in this ongoing project and, goodness, isn’t it on-going? There were so many ideas today, so many new strands, so many new directions. I’m incredibly excited to see what’s going to emerge as a legacy of the book. Thank you all for joining in this journey today. Now we’re going to have a drink. Please join us in the wonderful National Museum of Australia café. There’s a commemorative poster of today with the wonderful Mickey of Ulladulla on it. Please take one as you leave as a memento of what I think has been the most fantastic day for me, and I hope for everybody here. Thank you. [applause]

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The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy. Some older pages on the Museum website contain images and terms now considered outdated and inappropriate. They are a reflection of the time when the material was created and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Museum.

© National Museum of Australia 2007–24. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.

Date published: 01 January 2018

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