The Stranger Artist

I blame Nicolas Rothwell! The former most impressive of reporters about Aboriginal art and artists for The Australian also wrote fiction on such matters, which allowed him to apply his imagination, some speculation and add magic realism. At the peak of these fictive leaps is the 2013 work Belomor, ‘where truth and invention meet’, according to its blurb. It flies us from 1747 Dresden via post-Communist dissidents to the dead-end port of Wyndham in 2007 where ‘a painter seeks redemption after the disasters of his years in northern Australia.’ That painter was Paddy Bedford. Not that this chapter has the saintly Bedford at its centre – there lies the flawed figure of Tony Oliver, the Melbourne art gallery guru who finds himself in the East Kimberley with the artist he comes to love and other Gija painters, to found the Jirrawun art organisation. And Jirruwun will, all-too-briefly, challenge the Aboriginal community art centre model; indeed the whole market for First Nations art.

The Stranger Artist has the flavour of Belomor – tracing the history of the organisation and the art, but really spinning the tale of Tony Oliver, largely through conversations with the man himself, colourfully retold.

Quentin Sprague, author of the inexplicably entitled The Stranger Artist, doesn’t mention his own connection to the tale until his postscript. But when Oliver departed his creation after ten intense years, Sprague was mistakenly brought in to keep the wheels turning. In the text, he blames infighting amongst Jirrawun’s board of southern corporate types for the year in which this ‘Rolls Royce of systems for the management of Aboriginal art’ (as I described it in Art and Australia, 2006) ran out of control – one artist was sent a $30,000 bill, another tragically began to drink himself to death. But, with no exhibitions being organised, it was impossible to fund a system that was now paying them weekly stipends rather than selling their art for thousands of dollars.

While Sprague came in only at the death,  I was involved from much earlier, including significant days in a helicopter with Paddy Bedford making farewell visits to his sacred sites – the Emu Dreaming, the Bedford Downs massacre, and perhaps most moving of all, Old Bedford Station where his mother had had a child by the white station manager and both sides of the racial divide had turned on the pair – Gija elders drowning the babe and the white authorities carting her off to the government’s Moola Bulla detribalisation station. ‘I still feel sad for my lost half-brother’, a forgiving Bedford told me.

There’s no doubt that Sprague, with credited borrowings from Belomor, gets much right about Oliver, Jirruwun, the artists and the chaos of post-pastoral Aboriginal life in the East Kimberley. His descriptions of that ancient, worn-down landscape that whitefellar ‘pioneers’ thought they could tame, and their confidence that they were beyond the law when it came to ‘taming’ the natives, comes through in his recognition of how the Bedford Downs massacre in 1920 became incorporated into timeless local mythology.

For this – and other local massacres – was clearly what the artists lead by Timmy Timms, the Songman and Paddy Bedford, the Law, wanted to bring into the open as the first act of Jirruwun. They weren’t the first as Sprague suggests – Rover Thomas had six ‘Killing Times’ artworks in his 1994 ‘Roads Cross’ exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia . But, thanks to Oliver’s encouragement and marketing genius, the Jirrawun artists’ massacre works hit the headlines in ‘blood on the spinifex’ in Melbourne, in ‘True Stories’ at the Art Gallery of New South Wales  in Sydney, and were then developed into a joonba performance, ‘Fire, Fire Burning Bright’ by artist Peggy Patrick for Perth and Melbourne Festivals.

This was more than enough to bring Governor General Sir William Deane on board as Jirrawun patron to counter the ‘white blindfold’ attacks of Keith Windschuttle and to have an exhibition in Parliament opened by two Liberal Cabinet Ministers. It also started a process that would lead Jirrawun to having an annual turnover of $3 million.

Frankly, many in the Aboriginal art world have been awaiting Sprague’s book to find out just how far ‘Oliver’s encouragement’ went in influencing his artists. Bedford had progressed in his map-making work from a very traditional East Kimberley palette of black and brown ochres – as in his 1999 Emu Dreaming – to a dazzling world seemingly based on black and white abstraction, smudged with the pinks and greys of Kimberley dust. His ‘son’, Rammey Ramsey, only started painting with Jirrawun, but was soon painting huge canvases filled with that pink combination of dust and smoke that, Sprague adjudges, were ‘indebted to Tony Oliver’s love for Philip Guston.’ Peggy Patrick stunned Sydney with Warholian multiples of the significant boab tree beside ‘Mistake Creek’.

Yes, Sprague agrees, Oliver loved his post-modern American artists and certainly showed his Jirrawun artists their work. And he was delighted when he (and critics) saw reflections of this work in their output. He also filled in backgrounds for Bedford and Freddy Timms, as many an art coordinator has done. But Sprague also offers a significant reversal at the end, comparing ‘the anxieties’ in a painting by Oliver in tribute to the now-dead Bedford, lacking ‘the certainties of the Old Man’s hand.’

However much Oliver may have wished to undermine ‘the myth of Aboriginal art arriving unbidden for the minds of Elders’ kept ‘confined within carefully policed borders’ by traditional community art centres, Sprague accepts that Jirrawun’s seven, quite individual artists each controlled just what they wanted to paint.

But this dramatic and eminently readable book lacks one vital thing – images of the art made and being written about. I was fortunate enough to follow the text with several catalogues including the Museum of Contemporary Art: Australia catalogue for Paddy Bedford’s 2007 retrospective. It is an almost essential concomitant to The Stranger Artist. And had Quentin Sprague had it, perhaps he wouldn’t have claimed that Bedford only started painting gouaches in 2004, when its catalogue raisonné reveals 178 were made between 2001 and 2003.

It also lacks the voices of the surviving Gija artists. Indeed, the most thoughtful of the artists, Rusty Peters, refused to speak to Sprague. Which, of course, is unfortunate.

This review was originally published in Artist profile, Issue 52, 2020

The Stranger Artist
by Quentin Sprague
Hardie Grant, 2020

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