Carole Johnson, John Moriarty, Chris Fondum and Jenny Isaacs, 22 March 2011
PETER STANLEY: We are turning to another phase in Bob’s life and career. I am very pleased to introduce as the facilitator of this session Jenny Isaacs, who was Bob’s predecessor at the Australia Council. She is an author, a curator, a consultant, a speaker and a specialist in Indigenous art, and that forms the substance of what we are about to discuss this afternoon and in this session which goes to 2.45. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Jenny Isaacs.
JENNY ISAACS: Thank you very much. All the welcomes have been done and the marvellous background that you have heard about this morning that covers Bob’s stellar national and international career, but there is a period of time of about seven or eight years when Bob seemingly diverted out of the museum world into an entirely new world not just for him, I guess, but for most white Australians at the time - and that was to remote Aboriginal Australia. We know his stellar career up to that point as a museum person, but suddenly he became – just as was described this morning by Neil who had a wonderful description of him as ‘elegantly and deftly moving like a politician through the museums of the world’, Bob took on that role and capacity in Aboriginal Australia in the early 1970s. I had been in this role for three years before Bob came into the picture and I knew him well. I used to go to Adelaide a lot, and he came to Sydney so we were in a sense crafting and masterminding the future, and really it was Bob’s mind at work. I was a child [in awe of Bob] because I was only about 23 at the time.
Nic mentioned in his dates that it was about 1967 before tribal people and urban people met - I say ‘tribal’, I am going to use old-fashioned terms that are politically incorrect today but it will maybe put your head into the picture that I have had to return to in my mind to do this today. In 1963, to give you a picture, Tiwi dancers and dancers from Arnhem Land came down to Melbourne to Her Majesty’s Theatre organised by the Elizabethan Theatre Trust. The program and the press that I have recently read about that performance tells you what Australia thought of Aboriginal people at the time: ‘There were going to be throbbing drums. The primitive savages from remote parts of Australia were going to … your hairs would rise on your arm when you saw these savages appearing at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne.’ There in amongst them were some of the leaders of the Aboriginal communities who eventually became part of the Aboriginal Arts Board and the movement that resulted, people like Declan Apuatimi who became a world famous bark painter taken up by Lord Alistair McAlpine, and Eddie Puruntatameri as a young boy dancing an imp dance on the stage of Melbourne who became a pioneer in the field of ceramics and the first Indigenous potter to start his own studio that still continues on Bathurst Island today. It gives you a sense of history.
Also another phrase used by Neil was talking about Bob’s incredible capacity to link and go beyond the material culture to see that people are part of material culture, and the way you get minds and people moved to change their attitudes and conservatism of the past was to give them a big picture of the possibilities for mankind - not just Australian culture but mankind itself. That links together with the rock art history, the history from Altamira to Africa to Australia that Bob was on a hunt for to find the missing connections to prove the antiquity of Australia and its connection, and how he pushed back those dates and made the world sit up and take notice.
When it came to the Aboriginal world, his masterful political tactics and his love of people, his tremendous warmth, simplicity and generosity of spirit was felt by Aboriginal people. I once asked Wandjuk Marika how he knew that Bob would become his friend and brother and do his will when he became the chair of the Aboriginal Arts Board. He said, ‘Oh, we know, we look into the eyes. We can tell. He is the chosen one to do what we want him to do.’
Today at lunch John Moriarty and I were chatting about what we would say and he was saying that that seven years was so fundamentally important in Australian culture as it exists today because traditional people and urban people came together in what I can only call a conflagration. It had not happened. How could that not have happened in 200 years? In Arnhem Land people called urban Aboriginals ‘yella fellas’. Wandjuk himself used to say to me, ‘They’ve lost their culture, they don’t know nothing,’ and this took a lot of negotiation, coming together, warm friendships - and these often happened in and around the Aboriginal Arts Board meetings.
So I come to how Bob and I began to work together when he took over the directorship of the Aboriginal Arts Board after a massive seminar where we invited 800 people to Canberra to, as Carole describes it, basically thrash out a charter for the government and how the Aboriginal people themselves - all the committees that reported to the Aboriginal boards were all exclusively Aboriginal - would design the way government could support the future of Aboriginal culture and art. Supporting traditional art on the one hand, giving tribal communities the scope to build museums, to develop their visual arts, and to move into public performance of ceremonial arts such as Nic [Peterson] was describing in terms of what were called corroborees. But perhaps more importantly to build on the genesis of urban programs, which had certainly happened in the time I was there, with things like Black Theatre, NAISDA, which Carole will talk about in a little while, and develop - even more importantly perhaps - literature and writing programs so there would be Indigenous voices for the future of this country. You only have to look in any library in any museum in the country to see how successful that was.
I would have to say we have all agreed here thrashing it out, and all the people I rang to try to get them to come - we agree that it simply would not have happened without the mastermind of Bob at work behind the scenes.
Today I am delighted to have with us someone who regards himself as a ring-in because he was due to drive Mary Duroux, the elder from the south coast, but she got ill this morning. That is Chris Fondum who was the first secretary of the Aboriginal Arts Board - he is a wealth of information for any of you who want to know the detail. Above him is [an image of] the first Aboriginal Arts Board at one of their typical meetings. Someone said they had to move to a formal situation - forget it! The Aboriginal Arts Board operated in very unusual ways, and perhaps I will ask Chris to take up on that.
CHRIS FONDUM: First let me give Mary’s apology because she so much wanted to come. I rang her last night and I think it was partly anxiety but she was having chest pains. She’s getting on a little bit and decided she wouldn’t make the journey. But I have undertaken to report back and perhaps even take a photograph of you, Bob, if that’s possible later on.
Someone did mention all the meetings we had in Sydney. I can’t remember too many meetings in Sydney. Bob probably pioneered community cabinet meetings. Part of the whole philosophy of the thing was to get out, particularly in the early days, to meet the folk and make Aboriginal Australia feel that the board was part of their lives. It was partly soliciting applications and just generally enthusing the community. Often as not it wouldn’t just be a board meeting in a remote place or a place where there were significant Aboriginal communities, there would be concerts put on just to complicate it a little bit further - and they were great. A lot of board members were artists themselves. There were always many performing artists and so forth in the local communities that we went to, so it was quite a celebration.
This is a photo. The photographer is Bob Edwards. Most of those are founding board members plus. If I can run across the top from left to right and identify them: Chicka Dixon with his hand on his chin; Ruby Hammond from Adelaide. Above Ruby is one of other project officers, I am not sure whether at that stage he might have been working at DAA, Chris McGuigan. Next to Ruby is not a board member, a blow-in from Cairns called Clarrie Grogan who was just parked there. Underneath Clarrie with the camera to his eye is Eddie Mabo, who wasn’t a founding member - it might have been his first meeting.
The next row Vai Stanton from Darwin, Wandjuk Marika from Yirrkala, and a young man I think possibly from Aurukun. Eric Koo’oila is not in the photo but he was certainly at the meeting. This is at Laura where we are all sitting under the Big Horse gallery. We have just forded the creek and looked at some wonderful cave galleries. Our erstwhile leader in this adventure was Dick Roughsey who I will come to in a moment.
Going across we have a young man from Aurukun, Machmud Mackay, who was general manager of Aboriginal Arts and Crafts Pty Limited at that stage. Next to Machmud is Raphael Apuatimi, brother of Declan - I am pretty sure. Next to Raphael is Tim Leura Japaltjarri, and then with the stick across here is Percy Tresize, whose property we were staying at down on the river flat.
Coming back across again there is Terry Widders, a founding member; Kate Khan, our exhibition officer who wanted to be here today, and Jenny has a statement from Kate to read. Me in my younger days next to Kate. Coming down a bit further, Dick Roughsy sticking his head out behind Harold Blair, a famous Aboriginal tenor. Lying back in typical fashion is Mick Miller and then finally we have Ken Colbung. There is a couple of people who were at that meeting who aren’t in the photograph. I have mentioned Eric Koo’oila, I don’t know why he’s not there. Albert Barunga was there and he was possibly a little old to be fording creeks and so forth, and Mrs Kitty Dick, our member from Weipa south, was also at that meeting.
So there they are. What a wonderful group of people they were. They, together with Bob, forged this wonderful enterprise called the Aboriginal Arts Board and the programs it set in place which continue until today. I particularly remember Eric Koo’oila being there because the moment we arrived in a bus from Cooktown or somewhere and we’re looking around tor somewhere to stay at this pub. There was a few of us eyeing the front verandah. It was fairly warm. I know a big, black snake came crawling out from under the verandah and Eric, quick as a wink, just pulled off this very heavy leather belt he had and cracked it on the snake, and that was the end of the snake. A few of us decided we might actually sleep inside the pub that night.
JENNY ISAACS: My reading of that image is thinking of Bob taking it. You have to think of the Bob that many of you know who don’t know that Bob. When he mixed out in the bush, he was like the Bob you saw with his Land Rover, generous and urbane and totally relaxed in remote Aboriginal Australia. However, Bob was always, as today, impeccably dressed in a blue suit and in the bush a safari suit, or some such equivalent in the Dunstan era.
When those of you who may be students go to the resources of this wonderful museum where Bob has given his magnificent collection of papers, books and so on, and you go to the papers and records of the Aboriginal Arts Board which he has deposited, keep this image in mind when you look at the minutes of board meetings and have a quiet smile at the diplomacy, magnificent carriage of the wishes and aims and expectations of people from all over Australia meeting and killing snakes and wanting a future for their very depressed and miserable families and a way to make a life in the future. Then read the minutes and realise that these minutes were what the government was reading in order to decide how much the Aboriginal Arts Board would have the following year. And you will applaud Bob Edwards even more. So there was that side of the Aboriginal Arts Board.
I wasn’t going to tell any anecdotes because this was going to be recorded and I thought there are none that are really for the public record, they are all so hair-raising. Then good old Dick Kimber said, ‘Go for it, mate.’ There’s one, because I know if they were alive and here with me today they would acknowledge it and say, ‘Yeah, that was like it was,’ and that was Bob’s skill at getting everybody to turn up for the meetings. This is where I came into the picture because, although I had left, I then had young children and I lived in a ramshackle house with a few other people. [Neil, I have been choosing your phrases and linking them, but this is one I still have up my sleeve. You referred to Bob finding a home and comfort and inspiration with the Mallets in London and called it ‘High Bohemia’. Well in the early 1970s my house was what you called an artistic collective. We all had hair to our waists. Carole lived there, Thancoupie lived there, the famous photographer Jon Rhodes lived there, the Bostocks were frequent visitors and Gary Foley used to come regularly - it was a scene. And from that place partly some of the programs from the Aboriginal arts predecessor board were hatched for the tent embassy in Canberra: things like urban theatre program, $2,000. What did that pay for? Buses that carted everyone who turned up at the Aboriginal medical service that week down to Canberra, and Carole to lead the dancers that she was training to perform the fantastic beginnings of what is now the Bangara Theatre - you will hear a lot more about that in a minute.
Anyway, this was a place heaven sent to Bob, because a taxi would arrive the day before the Aboriginal Arts Board meeting. In both Dick Roughsey’s era and in Wandjuk’s era there were usually one or two people who needed a mattress for the night and, put it this way, who might not have made the 9 o’clock start. So friendships were forged and family relations that still exist right throughout Australia were formed because of deep friendships over that time, and Bob’s remarkable linking of people.
At this point I am going to turn to Bob’s acumen in the visual arts, which of course is the world he has remained in to the present by reading something Kate Khan has contributed to honour Bob. Kate was Bob’s right-hand person in the Aboriginal Arts Board running the exhibitions program, particularly international exhibitions. She wants specifically to talk about Papunya paintings. In the time I was there, Geoff Bardon, who started the whole movement off, had ended up really with a back room full of boards that he couldn’t sell. Nobody in Australia was the slightest bit interested because they weren’t made with ochre and they didn’t look primitive. It was a time in primitive art of the world where Aboriginal art as such was not exhibited in a single Australian art gallery, let alone international, and when the famous books on art around the world would have a very minor two pages at the back on Oceania where they would mention that Aboriginal people had no portable art to speak of and therefore did not make art. It was very hard to know how to support Geoff Bardon because of the reluctance of Australia to be the slightest bit interested in these little gems. Kate says:
When you see the success of Western Desert art today on the world scene, it is hard to believe it almost did not survive. I think its status and standing rests on Bob’s deep respect for the people combined with his canny marketing skills and foresight.
The early 1970s were desperate times for Papunya art. There were paintings everywhere and no market. Artists were selling their paintings in the Alice Springs pubs for $20.00, a far cry from today’s prices. The Board was often the sole buyer of the paintings and as Bob has said ‘we had paintings stacked everywhere … walls, floors coming out of our ears … nobody wanted them … what were we going to do!’ It’s ironic that today these early paintings attract the highest prices at auction and are eagerly sought by collectors. In fact, export permits are now required before permission is even given to send these early paintings overseas.
Bob thought the best way to attack the problem was to promote the art in overseas exhibitions. In that way a new market would open and the domestic art market might also pick up. In Australia, the so-called ‘dotty’ paintings were not generally accepted and not regarded as ‘real’ Aboriginal art. The other problem was the differing values placed on painting itself by the artists and their market. The elders faced a high value on the subject of a painting; for example, the painting of a special area of ritual significance, and they regarded that as more important than any artistic merit placed on something else by a potential purchaser. Peter Fannin [who was the person that followed Geoff Bardon at Papunya to help with the art], in a letter to the Aboriginal Arts Board drew attention to a painting of an important yellow ochre site. The colour of the painting, predominantly yellow, was not bought or of interest to any dealer, yet it was extremely highly valued by the artists who demanded a very high price for it. That sort of scenario happened right across the board in Australia at the time and would cover bark paintings as well.
Briefly the board initiated a program of commissioning paintings for overseas exhibitions, and it would appear in the minutes as a grant to such and such a community to develop a program in painting or whatever. But in fact the board managed to amass enough paintings to send overseas and then leave them there in museums and other institutions to stimulate interest in a totally unknown world, which was the Aboriginal world of Australia.
The company Papunya Tula Artists was formed at the time, and the artists were the shareholders. That must have been an original and very revolutionary act, which had the potential to put governments offside but was masterfully handled by Bob. The industry was suddenly on a business footing, something it had previously lacked. Kate goes on to say:
It didn’t solve all the problems and for years the board covered the debts of the company. But out of these desperate times came the success that is Western Desert art today, thanks to the Aboriginal Arts Board and Bob’s deep respect for the people and their culture, combined with his passion, vision and drive for the enterprise to succeed.
I think that reinforces what Neil said earlier. I would like add one more little anecdote that Kate said because it’s a beauty. She would often go to the openings of these international exhibitions and at the time I was curating and helping her with that. There was one in particular she recalls that opened in Japan. It was a bit of a coup in a major gallery in Kyoto:
Everything was fine and the paintings were hung. Then I returned to the gallery a little time before the exhibition was officially opened and was amused to find that the Japanese curators had placed small stuffed koalas over the top of each painting. I think they were trying to emphasise the connection with Australia [of these alien objects] without quite realising the intimate connection that the paintings had with Australia itself.
I like that one.
I have mentioned the tent embassy and the dancing that took place there. Urban Aboriginal art got a huge shot in the arm with the appearance in Australia of the Eleo Pomare dance group from Harlem. Carole Johnson’s name was across the billboard as the principal dancer. Carole stayed on in Australia and went through very troubled times. She’s the most persevering person I have ever met in my life, operating on minuscule grants from one moment to the next, until the arrival of Bob Edwards and his concept that he developed of how to create a genuine Indigenous college that would create a new art form for Australia. Without wanting to pinch her lines, I know we have seen its culmination in at least the two or three Olympic Games.
CAROLE JOHNSON: I came in 1972 and that was the year that the Tent Embassy was established. I can remember seeing on television the images and people talking about the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. The dance company that I came with, Eleo Pomare, was very involved in social comment. In fact, we believed that dance or the arts could help challenge people’s thinking if it was entertaining and if it really touched the emotions, it would challenge people’s thinking. So I came from that kind of background.
We knew that there were Aboriginal people and there were black people like ourselves in Australia and we knew a little bit about the background. So Eleo actually created a ballet about the land rights situation. He didn’t use Aboriginal in Australia, he used the native American and the colonists. We also had anti-war pieces and we had pieces that evolved the history of African-Americans from Africa to the present-day riots. As well we had beautiful Handel works, works about religion and things like that, and a work based on a Garcia Lorka story. Dance had to be challenging and interesting.
We knew we wanted to meet up with Aboriginal people and we made sure we did. We did an unofficial workshop with a group of people in Adelaide. From there we made tickets available, and then Jenny made tickets available for people in Sydney. From what they tell me, the dance spoke very much to the Aboriginal people because they felt that it was about them almost – that many of the works was about their total situation.
I knew I wasn’t going to stay with the company because I happened to believe when I came here that Australia was close to Asia and I wanted to do a South-East Asian tour. Then I found out it wasn’t. But I had organised through our State Department the possibility of this tour but I thought I will stay in Australia because I became very friendly with Jenny, and in Jenny’s kitchen so much happened in terms of meeting all of the various Aboriginal people and artists that were trying to accomplish something and do something. Some of them might have been called activists but they wanted a change for the people.
One of the things I remember coming to Australia in that first year is the Aboriginal people themselves just thought how downtrodden they were and how bad the situations were. I went to some people’s homes like the Bostocks and I think I was at Ruby Hammond’s home in Adelaide. These were people who had very well-kept homes and they were trying to do something in the community. But these very people would say, ‘But it’s really bad, and they would take me around and want to show the worst. They’d just say this is how bad it is. People are sick, they are not eating.’ They’d show you the abject poverty, even though most of the people I knew were people who were striving to make major changes in their culture, and people were very much afraid - afraid also to do something.
These people like Poporko, Gary Foley, the Bostocks, Ruby Hammond and John Moriarty - all these people were there wanting to make a change. I became very much involved with this because I felt that maybe I could help with my dance. I was allowed to develop an urban dance workshop. People think, ‘What does that have to do with Aboriginals?’ It wasn’t about the movements per se because, as earlier said, the movements aren’t the dance; it’s what you are dancing about; it’s how you put it together; it’s what you are saying; and it’s the stories you are going to tell through the movement. So the urban Aboriginal people were telling the stories of their situation. We were able to perform this at the Tent Embassy.
We started developing a dance that actually told the story of what was happening. One of the dances I used, and I used American music at the time and then changed it to Aboriginal music later, was ‘Oh there’s grieving in the plum grove, there’s been another lynching,’ and people were feeling that happened there. By dancing the story of what was happening actually at the Tent Embassy that eventually was pulled down by the police, Aboriginal people had come from Adelaide and as far as Cairns and got together, and for the first time they saw urban Aboriginal people doing dance that was meaningful. They knew they had the traditional dance, but that wasn’t something that many urban people felt could do or knew how to do or could be permitted to do.
But this dance where they were telling their own stories through their own movements and movements they might come in contact with in a disco, this could be theirs - this they wanted to develop and this is what we worked on. I felt, ‘Well, maybe I can help in this area,’ so that’s what I did. We started, and that is the genesis of what later became NAISDA. It was a school that maybe we could develop into a company.
I went away after six months and came back, and by that time the seminar had happened and the Aboriginal Arts Board was established. I feel like I went to that seminar through the stories more of Brian Syron, but by that time Bob Edwards was director of the Aboriginal Arts Board. I had that charter of declaration of what they were going to do in the area of traditional arts and what they were doing in urban arts. I thought, ‘Well, okay, I will start trying to follow as much as possible the dream of encouraging the arts and bringing art development and dance development into the urban community.’
One of the things that I can remember Steve Mam saying when he saw us dancing is now that the urban people are dancing and telling their stories, we have all of the dance covered. We have the traditional dance of Aboriginal people from the tribal areas – I have only two minutes left. It’s such a fantastic story. Anyway the dance was totally covered by the time the urban people, the tribal people and the Torres Strait Island people, and this is what we tried to put into the dance. Without Bob we were struggling all the time and we had to put in for this grant and then another grant. I would talk things over with Bob about some different types of programs. We inched our way so that we first got a three-month grant and then we’d get six months, and then a little bit to do this project and then we’d get a year grant. It developed. I think it developed because he saw the success of what was happening in terms of urban dance. I don’t know that he loved urban dance or even thought it was that important, but he knew it was important to the people. He could see that what we were doing might have a future, which it has had and certainly stimulated.
One of the things that probably without his help we might not have become the institute that we have become is that he introduced us to the Sydney College of the Arts. He thought if you are going to establish an institute, and the arts board really couldn’t support a school - this is what we were at the time, and we had to be - he provided that link and was very supportive in making sure that we developed in that area as well as in the arts area where we were given funding to do arts programs and dance programs. But for the training, which is what had to happen before we could become the dance company that is Bangarra. So we developed from nothing into a little urban workshop, into the workshops that were funded totally by the board, to the institute NAISDA, and then into Bangarra, the dance company. That took about 13 years.
If people can realise that without the early work, what the whole world saw at the Olympics in terms of the big Aboriginal performance in 2000 couldn’t have happened without NAISDA and all that work because every leader of each group - be it traditional, be it Torres Strait Island or be it the urban group – had had some relationship. The tribal people had been teachers to the urban students, and many of the urban leaders had been students at the dance. So I have to thank Bob and all of the work that was done for what is here today. [applause]
JENNY ISAACS: I really twisted Carole’s arm to come because I knew how spectacular the success of that story was and how incredibly pivotal was Bob’s strategic reorganisation of the structure of the beginnings of Aboriginal performance in this country. In the same sense as you have heard about museums, he created behind the scenes, knowing already that it could exist, that national identity for Australia that the world has come to accept but that has always been there. They think that’s Australia’s national dance group now.
Now I would like to turn to a dear old friend from way back in Adelaide years when I first met Bob, and that is John Moriarty. John is a stellar Indigenous leader of today and was even then. His numerous positions would fill two pages. He’s chairman and co-founder of Jumbana and of John Moriarty and Associates. He went to Flinders University, he had a Churchhill Fellowship. He is a honorary doctor of the University of South Australia and a board member of numerous organisations, more recently the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust, the National Indigenous Council, the National Aboriginal and Islander Health Council and the South Australian Museum, amongst many others. I am delighted to introduce him today to talk about what Bob’s life and person has meant to him.
JOHN MORIARTY: Thank you, Jenny. What can you say in a few minutes for a bloke like this? Fantastic. I first met Bob way back in the late 1960s. I was involved in all the national politics in Aboriginal affairs and came to Canberra in my little Volkswagon over Easter while I was going to university trying to pay for my fares over. I reckon I did that trip about eight times on and off fighting for the 1967 referendum, which we were successful in bringing about. But during this time in Adelaide I suppose we had a great deal of leadership there. I kept touching Bob with his work and my work continually for all these years. When I think back to the museum days, I thought the map that Norman Tindale did and then Bob took over the Tindale’s position in the South Australian Museum and the work he did in those early years to define the tribal areas throughout the country when it was not a political issue. I think that was a great step for Aboriginal people in those days. Bob took on that role because he has kept that same integrity at the museum. He wanted to get in to all these levels on the cultural aspect but he never forgot about the people. He was one of those that was instrumental within his quiet way to weave the politics into it at a low level that he achieved without all the hassles that we did on the front of chasing governments to make these particular changes.
I was happy to meet Bob in those days and I became a member of the South Australian Museum board. I was grateful for that, because it gave me an insight into what that museum really had for us. It still has, as Philip mentioned this morning, the greatest collection of Aboriginal artefacts and memorabilia that goes back many, many years and is the best in the world. I think we have a strong culture there that Bob helped not only to partially develop but also to bring it up to those other different levels.
I would like to swing away from that for a moment, because I think it is important that the Aboriginal aspects on the political side be swung right away from where there has been accolades given to certain people for certain things. But it should come back in a proper way. For instance, if you look at the Aboriginal flag, I go back to NAIDOC, the National Aborigines Day Observance Committee. That committee was run by mainly the Methodist church and other church people too until I became chairman way back in the 1960s. Bob was a very strong supporter of that in his own way, linking in the cultural aspects with exhibitions or pushing Aboriginal art and other things that were important on the cultural side.
During NAIDOC – Carole mentioned the Tent Embassy going on - some of us that were right to the forefront on the political level with Gough Whitlam and even with Gordon Bryant, the member for Wills. Bob Hawke took his position. Gordon Bryant was one of those fellows that fought long and hard for Aboriginal people right at the grass roots. He travelled a lot. He was our first federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and I thought he did a great job but then he was removed because he was too close to the Aboriginal people. But from that movement stemmed many things, the Aboriginal Arts Board was established and Bob was the first director, although he held the position for some time before he took over as the first person officially given that position.
During this time, too, the Aboriginal flag was being developed and I was in the home in Adelaide with a fellow called Harold Thomas who was from Alice Springs. Harold was a budding artist. He was adopted by the family of Reverend Wallace and they lived at St John’s church rectory in the city of Adelaide. I asked Harold because he was one of these fellows with Malcolm Cooper, Gordon Briscoe, Vince Copley and Jerry Hill who were members of the Aborigines Progressive Association, an Aboriginal association that was much spurned in those days because we were fighting for Aboriginal equality, and that wasn’t the done thing in those days. We even demonstrated outside Parliament House on North Terrace and we were asking for land rights during the Dunstan era. We were frowned upon by even some of the city Aboriginal people there, even though some of those Aboriginal people that were demonstrating fought in the Second World War and they were not allowed back on their reserves because they had an exemption. They couldn’t go back for funerals or even see their families. We had those people fighting for Aboriginal rights demonstrating with us.
Back then Harold Thomas was asked by me and Malcolm Cooper – but I kept pestering Harold because I knew Reverend Wallace and I used to go around their place quite often – to design the Aboriginal flag, and he eventually did. But that was done at the South Australian Museum. Don’t tell the museum staff that, but Bob Edwards was instrumental in having Harold sit there at that desk and paint that Aboriginal flag. He consulted with me and said, ‘Can we use these colours? That’s you but red is absolutely important, and the black and the yellow.’ The way he described it, I said, ‘That’s brilliant.’ That went up and was first displayed at a political demonstration in Adelaide. We were ostracised for that as well, but that’s the birth of the Aboriginal flag and Bob was instrumental in that. That is probably something you wouldn’t even hear out there.
You also had the Jillbrooky trail which was mentioned this morning. Bob, when I was the director of the Aboriginal affairs department during John Bannon’s era in Adelaide, Bob happened to mention that to me. He said, ‘What do you think of this Jillbrooky trail?’ I said, ‘Tell me about it.’ He told me and had the records behind it. I don’t know where I got the money from, but we had those rock monuments placed in those very spots down towards Victor Harbour during that time. The first time the Jillbrooky trail was physically measured and constructed in a way that people can drive up and read a little bit about the ancient history of Aboriginal people of that era as told through that particular legend - of course Bob was right at the centre of that.
Then you look at how NAIDOC developed. We in Adelaide were the first - I convinced the lord mayor of Adelaide, Wendy Chapman, who was ostracised for the Hindmarsh Island bridge issues much later. Wendy Chapman was the first lord mayor in any capital city in Australia to have a National Aborigines Day Observance Committee meeting and celebration in a Town Hall with the Aboriginal flag flying plus cups of tea, biscuits or whatever it was that was needed – [note passed] is this telling me to shut up?
PETER STANLEY: In the nicest possible way.
JOHN MORIARTY: Where was I? Cups of tea. It was the first time that NAIDOC celebration were brought into a capital city Town Hall to be celebrated for and on behalf of the Aboriginal people. That was a great thing. Of course who was always in the background? This fellow here. We took the political hard knocks. Bob and I were very close on the artistic side.
On another occasion while Bob was involved at the arts board, I became the vice-president of the second world Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture to be held in Nigeria. That’s a mouthful so it was shortened to FESTAC. That FESTAC was held in 1976 and we had 35 tribal Aboriginal people, plus people like Kath Walker with her poetry and dancers that came over. But significantly Bob had organised to have a gift given to the Nigerian government of Papunya paintings. It’s been on my mind for years now. In fact, Bob and I have a meal occasionally at my place when he’s not tending to his Kath and I was intending to talk to Bob saying, ‘Why don’t we resurrect all of those art pieces over there’ because those early pieces of art, like Jenny mentioned, would be priceless nowadays.
Coupled with that, also while I was the director of Aboriginal affairs in South Australia, it just so happened that Ron Radford had come around with a committee - he was not the director of the Art Gallery of South Australia at that time – and he came around to me and said, ‘We would like to accept a gift and it just so happens from Bob Edwards’ arts board as the Papunya art collection.’ I don’t just mean two feet by three feet, I mean the very large original ones that were supposedly to be gifted to the Art Gallery of South Australia. Ron and his committee came around to me as director, as I was at that time, ‘Would it be appropriate that a collection such as this be granted to the art gallery and also to be exhibited there for all and sundry to see?’ I was ecstatic and of course I gave my imprimatur to that, and the collection was given to the South Australian gallery. I think that was one of those times it is just a landmark issue.
When you look at that Papunya art, I think with Bob’s involvement with those people out there in those early days, as Dick Kimber was saying with old Darby and so on – I had a lot of dealings with Darby and the Yuendemu people while being an assistant director in the Aboriginal affairs consultation branch here, I was able to meet and mix with those people. They sought a lot of advice from me, because they knew I had come from Borraloola and they knew who I was. I would talk about my tribal name, my skin name and so on, and it would be smoothed out and say, ‘There’s your cousin, there’s your brother,’ and so on. I still have dear friends up there today, even though many of those have gone.
Those eras were absolutely fabulous for Aboriginal people in the context that Bob brought together people of great tribal knowledge, people that had the traditional culture there with them, people like Dick Roughsey. When I spoke to Dick, he knew I was from Borraloola. He came to me and he said, ‘Listen here nephew,’ because he knew our ceremonies cut across to his area so he was able to come to me and I was very close to his brother Lindsay Roughsey. So we had a very strong connection there. When I get back to old Dick and his involvement with Percy Tresize, I think that was another attempt to get Aboriginal stories in another way across to people with those books with Dick and Percy Tresize. I thought they were great times, and Bob was right at the core of that.
I know I am jumping around but Bob has done so many things. When I look at the rock art photographs and the way the rock art was brought into focus of the Australian community, I was one of those that went out of my way to congratulate Bob on the great work. Just one more in closing, I think Bob is one of those persons that have been right to the core of where Aboriginal issues were politically and artistically and I think he came through on the social issues so strongly that he even converted a lot of the museums in this area. I think he has done a great deal for us, including my people up north. Thank you very much, Bob. [applause]
Disclaimer and Copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.
© National Museum of Australia 2007–21. 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