Australian Biography: Elizabeth Durack
In 1997 the art world was shocked by the announcement from Western Australian artist Elizabeth Durack (1915–2000) that she and Aboriginal artist, Eddie Burrup, were one and the same person.
In this interview she addresses her use of what she calls an artistic 'device' or 'nom de plume'. The wider art world – and particularly other Aboriginal artists – saw it differently, especially after work by 'Burrup' had been entered into festivals and competitions for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists.
Members of the Aboriginal art community protested that in assuming her right to make Aboriginal art, Durack was committing more than an artistic hoax: she was appropriating Indigenous culture.
She was interviewed for Film Australia's Australian Biography series in 1997.
Interviewer: Robin Hughes
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project.
I was born not so very far from this place in the suburb of Claremont, in 1915. I was the third baby of the family, and ... and my mother and father thought we'd better have a town house, and came down. [I] was born in the house in Goldsmith Road Claremont. It's still standing - the same house.
My eldest brother was Reg. He was born in 1911. And my older sister Mary was born in ... in 1913, and then the three other boys followed on from there, in more or less orderly succession.
Well, the - we were ... we were the lessees of a big block of station properties: Ivanhoe, Argyle, Newry, Auvergne and Bullita, that stretched across a big area of land in the north, across the West Australian-Northern Territory border, in the east Kimberley region of Western Australia, and the head station was Argyle, and so the flow was between the north and the south all the time. And our father was managing director of the company and he went north every year, so that's how the arrangement was. And of course, in those days, there was the ... the contact between the north and the south was all by boat. Aeroplanes didn't come in until the early thirties and this in the nineteen teens, and 1920s.
She went up occasionally though. We also had a very fine English nurse that helped a lot in the ... in our upbringing. But there were, of course, no educational facilities in the bush at the time and education, like for anyone with a family, was a first ... was a first priority.
Very much so, yes, with its Irish origins.
I think with its Irish origins and the high value that was put on education that was hard to come by in the original country, and then, when they came to Australia, they went to ... well my father and Uncle Jack, when we had the Queensland properties ... the original property, or one of the original properties in Queensland was Thylungra, a well known place, and his mother and father, my grandmother and father, they travelled down by ... by ... overland, to take the boys to school at Goulburn College and my sister Mary kept a link with the college for years after that.
Well, I think there were a couple of earlier Duracks that came out as convicts but they didn't have any ... any family. The branch that we belong to, the Durack branch, came out in the 1840s and settled in New South Wales. They were ... as free settlers and they took up land there. That was our great grandfather and then ... that was the beginning of the family here in Australia.
Well, one thing led to another. They got into land and early exploration of the north-west of New South Wales and further, all of it very well documented in my sister's well known book, Kings in Grass Castles and from there, by the ... Thylungra was established in the 1860s and then by the late 1870s, the area of Kimberley was surveyed by Alexander Forrest and declared valuable, or possibly valuable pastoral country, and that was opened up for the division of leases. And with the big family of boys again, my grandfather wanted to take up land on the Ord but there was a ... Forrest was in a big hurry getting across the Kimberley, because he had sickness in the camp ... to get to the overland telegraph line, also a very well known story in this country, and he didn't ever find out where the mouth of the Ord was. So my great uncle, Uncle Stumpy Michael, he went up on a separately organised expedition, helped ... to be financed by Emmanuel, who was a wealthy man in Goulburn and they ... they came in on the west side of Cambridge Gulf, and discovered the five ... the mouths of the five rivers, including the Ord River. And that was then ... then they established and had a look at the land. I mean grandfather wasn't going to take out a lease. It was pig in a poke, and they got it, and it was the pick of the Kimberley country too.
And so it was your grandfather who settled there, and then your father was managing that whole area when you were born. Growing up as a small child, do you remember how the family related to that area?
Very much so. In my case, it was ... because our dad, when he came down at the end of the year, at the end of the working year in the north, he'd usually have one or two Aboriginals with him and they'd stay with us at the house in Claremont. And one I particularly remember was Argyle Boxer - [he] came down one year. They didn't stay very long, because we had another property, sheep growing property outside Wagin, Ben Ord, and they'd often go down there, and it was a great experience for them. The blacks that came down with dad used to dine out ever after on their trip to the city.
Very well. Yes, very well.
Ah, yes. Yes, I can.
I can remember that being younger than my brother, Reg, and Mary ... They were scampering around and they went up a tree in the garden and I somehow got myself up into a branch of the tree. Then they hopped down, and went somewhere else, and when I looked ahead of me, I saw a great big frog and it was blinking its eyes at me like that [BLINKS HER EYES] and I was absolutely terrified, but it was my first moment of intense seeing because I can remember when I eventually howled my way down from the fork of the tree, drawing the frog. And I would have been about two, I suppose, at the time. So I can remember that I started ... the feeling that I had between me and the frog, and then sort of a feeling, well perhaps it's frightened of me, too, you know. It was a sort of a empathetic feeling between us.
It did, yes.
Oh yes, it does. The eye and the hand often move quite automatically.
Not often. Not often. But the contact was always there and the year was punctuated by our father's leaving for the north and coming down from the north, with all the ... the ... the geological specimens that he brought with him, and the crocodile skins. And it was ... but ... and some wonderful artefacts made by the blacks, too, and boab nuts and all sorts. Big ... mother had a big collection. And that's how we sort of lived between the two worlds. And then when Reg left school - he was a very scholarly boy, really - but Dad thought that he'd ... it might be an idea for him to go north and to see what he made of the country. And of course, of all of us I think the north hooked my brother, Reg, more than anyone. He was the one that hung on to the land longer than the rest ... any of us.
Well, when we got that bit older, we moved from the suburb of Claremont to the heart of the city of Perth and we had a town house on the corner of ... of Victoria Avenue and Adelaide Terrace. It was taken down in 1984, and it's rebuilt with a very big commercial building. There might be a chance to show you while you're over in Perth, Robin. And it's called the Durack Centre, because we had it for many years there. So, it was from there ... It was an ideal location. We were only two or three doors from Loreto Convent, where Mary and I went to school, and across the road was the old Christian Brothers College, where my brothers went to school so that ... that was where the schooling went on.
Mary was always very bright. Very, very bright. I wasn't hopeless, but I was pretty hopeless at maths. [Laughs]
Yes, I think so. Yes, because Mary's gifts expressed themselves very early and I can recall that when she was about eleven or twelve, I think it was, she had already been writing poetry, which was quite remarkable, and of course dad and mother were thrilled about it and they brought out a little self-published book called Little Poems of Sunshine, and ... and then a lot of people would say to Mother, 'Oh, well of course ... well now Mary will have a wonderful career and ... and what will Bet do?' I was usually called Bet as a little girl. And mother would say, "Oh, Bet'll be at home with mother', and I remember thinking: no, I'm not going to do that. I love you, mother, but I'm not ... if Mary's having a career, I'd like to be out there too, having that. [Laughs] But the older sister was always there, in a very benign way, too. I mean, Mary was always very helpful and supportive of me but there was the older sister-younger sister relationship. What's more, I probably imposed on Mary a lot, you know. If we'd go to a little party together, it'd be Mary that'd write the thank-you note, it'd be ... you know, Mary usually did it all. But I know, I was drawing a lot and I remember ... I do remember thinking when Mary's little book, Poems of Sunshine came out, I wish someone would put a little book of ... of drawings for me, but the drawing wasn't thought of as much as the writing, I don't think. Although I think the work ... my work, probably showed quite a lot of originality very young.
They used to sort of half ... they ... I also had an irreverent streak in me. I had a terrific gift for caricaturing, and I could see someone's face, and then go into a corner and draw it perfectly. You know, exaggeratedly. I had ... had that gift. And I'd show them to mother and she'd laugh, and she'd say, 'Oh, you naughty girl, you naughty girl'. You know, so that it would ... but that ... that was a innate gift that I had of being able to remember people's faces and reproduce them. I've done that all my life.
Well, of course, at school it was the conventional banana and orange on a plate in pastels and things like that. But at the same time there was always the home activity, which ... which revolved a great deal around ... around drawing. And also, while our dad was away, my sister, Mary, and I brought out our first little joint book, and we called it Kookaburra and Kangaroo. I was kookaburra. It was my first nom de plume. And within that, I had a lot of drawings and little sketches and essays and Mary also really started on the theme of the family story there. I think she called it Lost in the Australian Wilds or something. Or Finding the Australian Outback, or something like that, which ran on a serial through them.
Ah, quite young: eight, nine, ten. It went on for quite a while.
Oh, we weren't publishing. They were just put together on little bits of paper. I've still got two or three of them and then mother would just send them up on the boat to dad. And because we'd have the ... Mary was the editor. That's right, she was the editor, and she'd have editor's notes on all the family and the comings and goings. And we seemed to always be working on Kookaburra and Kangaroo after school, and ... It went on for quite a long time.
Not much, no, not much, but I could always pass, you know. That's just one subject I excelled in. If you want a rare deed [?], it'd always be for art.
Yes. There was, as a matter of fact. There was a wonderful old nun, quite elderly, who taught us Latin. And as usual, I wasn't listening quite so hard to the Latin, as drawing the children in the ... my fellow students around the room. I was drawing them all, and had them all lined up on a sheet of paper. And I can remember Mother Dominica saying, 'What are you doing there, Betty?' And I said, 'I'm just drawing'. She said, 'Show it to me. Show it to me', and I thought oh, isn't this terrible. Here am I going to get into a most dreadful row. And she looked at it and she smiled. She was a wonderful old nun. And she said, 'Would you let me keep this as a souvenir?' and I was thrilled. It was the first compliment I'd ever been paid so I've never forgotten it. That would be seventy-odd years ago.
Well, Mary had gone north just ahead of me, and of course, I was just dying to go north and when I went north, then I began to see even more clearly, and got on to the black and white drawings that I've ... that illustrated our first books together. That's going right back to the early thirties now.
No we went up and ... Dad had gone up a bit earlier. I remember the first time we went up with mother and backwards and forwards then and it's been backwards and forwards ever since. Except, as I say, those journeys were made by boat which was lovely. It was a beautiful boat trip. It took two weeks to get from Fremantle to Darwin, and turned around and back and so it was a month that you could spend on the boat, and that was the beginning of tourism for the north, because to get away from the cold, bleak Perth winter, people would go up on that boat. But now they don't do that, you know. The boat doesn't run taking passengers.
Well at first we weren't doing anything very much. You know, we were just looking around the stations and doing ... Mary was doing her writings and I was doing my drawings. It was later on that we sort of settled in more, and stayed through, because we used to come down for the ... for the summer, you see. We'd come down about ... again at the end of the cattle working year. We'd come down about October or November, and then the season opened again in May, and it was later that we stayed on through the wet. Not too many people stayed on through the wet and we just loved it. And of course that came on to the time when we were looking after Ivanhoe station.
Yes, well, I think it had a beginning in the fact one of the cooks died. And I think it was my idea to say that well perhaps we could do the cooking, Mary, and then we did, and we stayed on through the wet. And we were also saving some money too, because we had the idea of going to ... going away. Our father was never very keen on us being in the north, actually. The ambition of most of the men of dad's generation was to sell out and re ... reposition yourself in the city so the stations were always for sale, but it was not an easy saleable proposition: Connor Doherty & Durack. It was a very big block of land. There was a uniform brand right through and so it was ... but it was always loosely for sale. [Laughs]
Yes. Or safer, more secure properties further south. The north was in a very bad state of Depression, too, right through this time. If cattle had have been booming, perhaps we would never had gone north, you know. But the Depression was right over Australia in the late ... by the late twenties, early thirties and I think that worried dad. He thought we might get caught in not being able to be more mobile. So to a large extent, he liked the idea of our getting right away from the north.
Well, he was terribly responsive to the idea of doing the books and he was terribly thrilled when the first little publication came out in 1934, I think it was. And it was called All About and it was about the Argyle station. And he loved that, you know. He loved that and was always immensely encouraging, very much so.
We sent it first to Angus & Robertson and then Angus & Robertson knew somebody who was in charge of Endeavour Press at The Bulletin, and they thought it would be more suitable for that. And it went to Endeavour Press and they published it. They published All About and they published the second one, Chunuma, and the third one, I think, too, yes. So that ... that ... we had sort of set on that ... that path by that time.
Well, we had the store, the store keys, and we were in charge of the kitchen and there was quite a big group of Aboriginal people there, of course. During the wet they went on their walkabout but they never all went at the one time. There would be groups who'd go one ... for one fortnight and they'd interchange like that. But it was just a full routine of station life, really. Although, again, during the wet season, it was fairly quiet, and our brother, Reg, was managing Argyle, the adjoining station and he was sort of ... between us we were all working.
Not really, no. No.
Well, that was the time that we were able to get the firmest bridge into it, because we were literally, for months on our complete own: just two girls, with Aboriginals there. And then, in their ever accommodating way, it was they that drew us into their families, you see. So we became the sisters to the women, and their children were our children and there was very much of an interfamily relationship. And ... and this was when I did a great body of work too, which later was distilled down to the first children's book that Mary and I did, called The Way of the Whirlwind and it was during that time that we did get deeply into it, although probably not as deeply in as when I was up there as a more mature woman with my own studio. But that was in the middle 1940s, after the war.
Well, the running of the place was done between us, you see. There were always plenty of ... the days were ... it's hard to ... hard to recapitulate the quietness of the days really. Although it didn't seem quiet at ... at the time. But the day took on its pattern of the ... they'd come up and sweep the house right through and set the table, and do all the things that were quietly done on stations all over Australia. And then, if there was stock activity, there'd be a head stockman who we'd talk to and say what he was going to do for that day. And then during the wet there was always the problem of keeping the beef up, because it was often so wet, that you couldn't ... couldn't get ... go out to get a killer. And that's why we used to kill goats for meat. There was a large herd of goats at Ivanhoe. And all these activities, they were largely both domestic and ... and again, a sort of a interrelationship. It was the starting of long walks that I went for with it ... No cars of course. And the horses were always too precious to use.
Just because it was so lovely to go walking with them and to learn about the bush, and the way they'd tell you about the bush. And find all the ... classify the plants for you, and show you their different methods of the way they might have done it before the white man came because there'd always be casual food collected on the way. You know, we'd always kill a few lizards. And they'd have dogs and we'd probably hunt ... they'd hunt a kangaroo and that sort of thing. And then there were lovely walks from Ivanhoe to the ... to the Carr Boyd Ranges that were just near there, about eight or nine old miles away, which made a nice walk. And at the edge of the ranges, there were beautiful rock pools all along, so you could spend the morning getting to the rock pool and you could refresh yourself at the rock pool and boil the billy and all this sort of thing, and then quietly get back to the station by ... by dark, having absorbed unconsciously a good deal of knowledge in the meantime.
Yes, yes always drawing. Always drawing, yes.
They loved it. They loved me drawing them. For ... for a while I used to ... they used to come up and I'd sometimes do ... as I've still got quite a lot of them ... careful portraits. And they'd sit as still as possible. They wouldn't ... wouldn't blink an eye. They'd ... and then they'd look at it afterwards, and always be ... they were always thrilled about it.
They weren't doing very much art work at all. No, the Kimberley natives didn't do bark drawings. Kimberleys renowned for its great rock paintings and galleries. And of course, we went to those with dad. We went to those. He ... Dad was always interested in their old life and he ... some of the older blacks ... we did go riding then into some fantastic places. It was a really very strong emotional experience to come out of the bright glare into an overhanging rock and see it springing to life with ancient totemic creatures depicted there. The Lightning Brothers, or the Rainbow Serpent scrawled across a huge surface [had] immense effect upon ... upon a young person raised in a conventional convent education.
We were learning. We were learning all the time, yes. There was the knowledge of it there. We were sort of absorbing it. It was there, and you know ...
Yes, yes, I'd say definitely we were. Yes, particularly so.
Oh, the women would ask us quite often. They'd let us know that they ... one form of their art that was ... there'd be a time of the year that they'd be doing a special dance or something like, and they'd tell us all about that and so that we'd go down to their camp. And yes we were ... oh, and of course on the station it was just routine to go down to the corroborees when the camp came in. That was just routine. When the camp had been out mustering cattle for perhaps two or three months, they'd come in and a party atmosphere then existed within the ... within the Aboriginal camps. And they'd tell us quite excited that there was going to be real corroboree that night. We'd come down, you know ... 'Come down with it', and so we'd pad down to the river with one of the old girls carrying a hurricane lamp, and we'd ... and they'd have their corroboree and that was quite a routine, two or three times a year with the camp coming in. It was wonderful too. The real corroboree, the real corroboree.
I'm sure. But they wouldn't have said, 'Now, this is secret, you mustn't come'. They'd invite you to something that was open, you see. It wasn't anything ... in fact, probably by that time, the more complex ceremonies had already died out, you see. The more elaborate ones had died out with the breakdown of their old culture, you see. It was ... it was becoming fragmentary, but it was still there, and ... and sort of viable as supporting them.
Oh, very much so. Oh yes, you could tell. Yes, yes. They'd tell you ... they'd tell you themselves. They'd say, 'That's where we been having big camp there, and it all finished now. All finished now. We don't go'. And you see it was - it was the terrific logic of it. A big part of the Aboriginal life is to ... is to have their degrees of rites of increase. There are degrees of it, from small ones to big ceremonies. I never saw any big ceremonies, but sometimes you would be walking with them, and they'd do a small, almost casual ceremony for the increase of ... could be an insect, could be a sugar bee, you see. It could be something like that. They'd just tell you. But they were already getting casual, and the big ceremonies were long over, yes.
Well, I suppose they trusted us, and trusted the blacks and I don't think they worried. We wrote every month. [Laughs]
The whole thing was built on trust, yes.
Just because it set up a nice easy-going relationship, I think. Yes. And it's still there. I saw my classificatory son the other day. He's the ... he was the lead witness for the Mirriawong-Gajerrong land claim, that's over that direct area, proceeding right now in courts held under a coolabah tree. You might have read of it in your Sydney press, have you?
Because he was a little boy - the model of many of the early books. This is Jeffery Chunuma. And it was ... that was ... he always tells everyone that I grew him up, that I was his mum. And when we meet, as we did only the other day, he just puts his arms out and says, 'Mum', you know. So that was a rather thing that happened, oh, two or three years ago in Kununurra. Now, they have the big Warringarri Centre, you know, with a big staff, and oh, a very big Aboriginal Centre there in Kununurra. And I hadn't let anyone know I was going, and I went out and there was the ... it was staffed by ... in this case there were several white people there and I remember saying, 'Well, is Jeffery Chunuma in town, is he anywhere round?' and they sort of looked me up and down a bit and they thought, what's this old relic from ancient colonial days or something. And I said, 'Oh, I'd just like to see him', and they were a little bit guarded. And then ... I could tell they sort of wondered what was what, you see, and then ambling along across the flat comes Jeff Chunuma, you see, and I could tell these were very, very politically correct young men behind the counter of the Warringarri office, if you know what I mean. And then along comes Jeff. Because Jeff's the one, although he's not literate, he is signing the cheques at Warringarri. And he writes 'Jeff' ... takes a minute to write 'Jeff'. And of course, when he saw me, his face just lit up ... lit up, and we just embraced each other as we always did. 'Mummy! My mummy', this sort of ... and the young men behind the counter: 'Now we've seen everything. What's this?' ...[Laughs] It was not without its humour. So it was much the same the other day when I was there, you see, after all the rumpus and being so ...
Elizabeth, this time that you and Mary had together, as young girls, up on Ivanhoe station, and relating very closely to the black community around you, it was a time of great creativity for you, wasn't it, where you collaborated on books and you did paintings and so on? Can I ask you, at that time, what were you noticing, what were you seeing in the Aboriginal people and the life on that land there?
I suppose my reactions were mainly sharply visual. The work hadn't got into the ... into the more profound or mystical areas that were to take over, perhaps, in preceding [?] decades, Robin. But it's ... it's a little hard to answer that. What I was seeing, I suppose, is evidenced in what remains of pieces that I have from that period which after all, is sixty years ago. And I was seeing the Aboriginals as personalities in their own right, with their own foibles and as ... as people, really, particularly the women folk then. It was later that I was with the older men.
Yes, yes. I did actual portraits ... actual portraits of the women and some of the men, yes.
I didn't do many conventional landscape paintings. It was always the human form that was dominant in any of those older works of mine. You see the people more than the landscape with the tree and the hill in the back. I don't think ... they were always just backgrounds. If they came into the compositions, they were as backgrounds to people, yes.
Well, in a sense I've never left because although ... if you're referring now to the actual time when my sister and I took ... took off for England, which was great fun. We went over in a meat boat from Wyndham.
We were aiming towards the idea of the time we would be going away. Yes, it didn't come to a sharp end. We ... we planned that, on certain time, certain year, we'd go ... we'd be doing that, yes.
Well, we caught a meat boat from Wyndham, carrying chilled meat to ports of the ... it was the time of ... still the time of Empire Preference so any ports that we called at were British ports. We called at Colombo. And ... although the first port going over was, I think, Port Said? I think it was. No, there was another one, further down.
No, no. Anyway, I just can't recall the map at the moment. There were ... we went across ... we went through the Suez Canal. What's at the bottom of the Suez Canal?
That's it. That's it. Yes. Aden. That was perhaps the first port of call. And that was very exciting, too - in another world entirely. Did a lot of drawings at that time, too.
Well, we got a little flat in Chelsea, not far from the Chelsea Pensioners: Ormond ... Ormond Street, I think it was called. I'm sure it's still there. And I went to art school there but to get back to an earlier comment that you made about ... perhaps I wasn't in love with the art classes at the convent, I was even less in love with the art classes at the Chelsea Polytechnic. I didn't like it at all. But I'd ... I'd sort of thought it was a great thing: the idea of going to an art school. It seemed marvellous from Wyndham. I just ... I just didn't relate to it. It was too dull, too cold, too ... I wasn't in touch with anyone there at all. We'd sit around with little easels around a nude figure, drawing life positions. And I can remember I'd change my position about five times, and do the model from different positions and then I'd just walk out of the art class, and walk up and down the road until it was lunch time, when I'd get back to the flat. I didn't want Mary to know I wasn't going to the art school. I just didn't like it. It was so ... so fixed. And I've some of the drawings that I did from the life ... life class in Chelsea.
Except that I didn't like the ... didn't like it. It was too big a contrast to being out in the golden sunshine, walking along with people that I was relating ... related to, you know, and then to be in the bleakness of a formal, old, classical art school. Pity perhaps I didn't ... didn't go at the age of fifteen or ten. I might have fitted into it. But that ... that ... I didn't like the art school at all. But I stayed there quite a while. I stayed there.
Yes, yes. The other was all from just trial and error and practice and observation.
Not enormously. I think we worked in charcoal on ... on paper. I'm not decrying the fact that ... it's a very good idea for people to go to an art school, and there've been marvellous results from doing so but it just wasn't for me, that's all. No ... no, I didn't learn a lot.
Oh, we were away under two years, yes.
Well, that it had sort of run to its close and then we went travelling on the continent a good deal, and North Africa. We went to North Africa. And it was just the way we'd worked it out I think. And ... and also I think Mary was being pretty much pulled back to Australia, with her ... with her relationship with Horrie Miller. I think that was a pull for her to come back.
And so you came back with Mary. During this time that you were living with Mary up in the north, and then travelling with her overseas, she was obviously a very dominant figure in your life. How did you get on with her?
Very well. We were always very, very good companions, yes.
I suppose you do a little bit with sister, but nothing - no, we didn't fight at all. We seemed to get on very harmoniously. Mary often took the lead, you know, in things.
No, no. No, I didn't ... I didn't mind that.
In retrospect, looking back, do you think that it meant that perhaps her wishes and her career and her work dominated a little at a time when maybe you could have had a bit more encouragement from some limelight?
I don't think so. No, I don't think that came into it. In fact, Mary was very encouraging about me going to the art school, because for a start, she was playing more of a domestic role there. Although we went out a lot and stayed with everything ... stayed with people a lot and everything.
If it had a purpose ...
... apart from the wonders of sightseeing in a new world.
Mary got a job in Perth at the West Australian and I went north again. Yes.
Oh, I suppose I was at Ivanhoe. No, Argyle. You know, there was an option of places to stay.
I still was going on drawing. We did produce another book together. I think I was getting restless, though. You know: 'How can you keep them down on the farm, now that they've seen Paris?' I was restless. And then from ... from there, I remember, I was nursing for a while in Darwin. I remember getting in touch with Darwin, and I got a job in Darwin.
Yes. It was a pretty marvellous education in itself, the old Darwin Hospital at Myilly Point. You wouldn't know the ... you wouldn't ... it's only just a point there. I often go and picture it when I go up to Darwin. But ... but it was quite amazing experience, again, because in the small hospital, as it was there, I think within the first four or five weeks you saw everything from suicides and dreadful things, to childbirth, you know. So that it was a bit of a 'in at the deep end'. It wasn't any gradations of ... you were in the ward and you were in the whole hospital. It was pretty interesting. And there would be ... and the Aboriginal sections and everything there.
Yes, but I didn't go through with it. Then I got another job, a nice job, in Darwin, and that was in charge of the library there. This was during the time that Aubrey Abbott, Aubrey and Hilda Abbott, were the administrators. That's going back a long time. I've kept in touch with ... with their daughter, Marion, too, over the years.
Oh well, I was moving around and travelling around. It's a little hard to recap unless I really got down to the detail of it. It's such a long time ago. I was moving around Australia. I'd already ... I'd already met the man that I was going to marry and then I was back in the north. Pardon, what was your question?
I met him in a very complicated way. It's almost too complicated to go into, Robin, but he was a Sydney journalist, and we did meet first casually. And then he ... he followed it up when I was back in the north. Although we do come to a rather amusing point here. As ... as the sort of relationship at long distance began to develop, in those days on the stations, there were the pedal radios. It was the first ... They were the first communication, before which there was none. And they ... these impassioned wires were coming through from Sydney to Argyle. And of course, Frank had not the slightest idea that it was open to thousands of square kilometres of the entire listening population of the north. Years afterwards I heard ... I was talking to Canny Rose, who was on Mt. Anderson station and he said, 'My word, I heard those. I used to write them down every day', he said. 'They were just classics. They were too good to miss'. It was a terrible thing because I could answer Frank's wires discretely but he had no discretion whatsoever, you see. [Laughs]
Yes, that's right. It was a very public courtship. Still talked of. [Laughs]
Frank Clancy. They were a very old Australian family. Wonderful family. Came out not terribly early. Frank used to say that they came out in chains, because he was terribly anti-British. He would have been right at the top of the list for the republican world at the present time, except that he died many years ago. And ... they came out as a family about the 1860, as my daughter [found out] when she researched it. And then it was post the big gold rush in Victoria - but all that time across there. And there's still a big family of Clancys down there: Clancys and Kanes, yes. That I haven't kept in touch with, but I often think of them.
General journalism, and he also wrote a book, too, called They Built A Nation. It was a good book, too, published in the late thirties, I think.
His politics were radically anti-British. He'd never forgotten it, you know. And I think he had it from his mother. He used ... although he was ... he was a very sophisticated man. He was more cynical than ... you know, he was somewhat cynical over it all. But he used to say that his mother, also being so anti-British, during the Boer War, she'd get on a ... she had an old South African friend, or Boer friend, you see. She'd get on a tram somewhere, and be going, and she'd lean over and say - if something was going very bad for the British in the Boer War - 'We're winning'. [Laughs] Frank told that as a funny story about his mother. But ... but he'd inherited a lot of that, too. But it was a wonderful eye-opener to expand [the] contracted social knowledge that I had, being in that world. I also came to Sydney at a time ... it must have been the last of bohemian Sydney, you see. And he, Frank Clancy, was in the midst of it, you know ... midst of it. It was quite fascinating. And a lot of artist friends. He had a lot of artist friends; also one's linked somewhat with the print media like George Finey. Do you know him as a name? And the names don't come readily ...
Oh, very much so, very much so. Well, it was very refreshing to me for a while. Very refreshing, you know. Another point of view.
Yes, yeah, but very exciting, yes.
I don't know whether I embraced them. I sort of was wide-eyed. [Laughs]
I married in ... just before the war. Just a week or two before the war, 1939, yes.
No, he was ... as a journalist he was dragooned into the public relations work for the ... for the Allied Works Council, that were building all the big construction roads between Adelaide and Darwin and around Queensland and that. Yes.
A lot older than me, yes.
Yes, yes, that also was part of the attraction and another way of looking at things, so that it was a great experience. And he was a very, very important factor. For instance, he was one of those people who really had read everything. You know, he really had read everything. He was an intellectual which was pretty exciting, because the range of the intellectual world is not very high on the average station. In fact, the most interesting part is always the Aboriginal people. So ... so that all these influences were coming and impinging on me in different ways.
Well, they sort of went along with it. You know, they didn't try to stop us. And ... and Frank was ... I said, 'You better write to Mum and Dad about all this', and so he dutifully did and wrote two beautiful letters, one to mother and one to dad. I think I've got them somewhere. In which ... he then phoned me and said, 'Calling on the spirit of Jane Austen, I've just written to your parents', and I think mother and dad were quite charmed with these letters. And then it went ahead. I was staying at Admiralty House at that time, in Sydney.
Well not long, some time before, on a really pioneering undertaking, the Governor-General and Lady Gowrie, had decided to see the real Australia: the outback and on their itinerary was Argyle station and that was a tremendous undertaking. My brother Kim and I put that through. My brother Kim was with us by that time. And so we sort of had to work out the vice-regal visit to Argyle. I've never quite recovered from it. Although no one could have been more sweet and charming than Lady Gowrie was. And she said, 'Well, you must come down and stay with me in Sydney', and later it all ... sort of ... that's how that worked out.
Yes. Then we did. We did get married, yes, quite quickly. Yes.
After we married, we went to live at a beautiful little place up the coast a bit at Avalon, in a little house on the road. It's still standing - the little house, little rented house. And then, I don't know, I think we were north before ... no, Frank never went to Kimberley. We didn't get that far. We went up to Queensland or somewhere. And then Perpetua was born a year or two later, my first daughter. Then later on, two or three years later, my son was born.
In a way it was. But I think the ... oh, terribly hard question to answer that. I was happy, but I ... I just ... the pull of the west was enormously strong on me. And by this time I was extremely interested in the activities of my brother, Kim, who was really the pioneer of agricultural on the Ord, and he set up the first agricultural research station, in conjunction with government arrangements and everything, at Carlton Reach, which is right at the very place where the present town of Kununurra is. And I spent some time with him there, up ... that's when I went through going up to my brother, Reg, who was at Auvergne, and my brother Kim, who was on this research station, that was when ... early forties ... in the early forties and it was very hard getting through to further north at that time and we got ... Perpetua and I got stuck in Alice Springs. And it was then that I went from there out to Hermannsburg, who were taking sort of paying guests. It looked as though that before they'd passed us to go through to the north, it might be a few weeks and so we went out there, and that's when I first met Albert Namatjira, which was an unforgettable event too.
Because I was at Hermannsburg, and he was ... was working out from Hermannsburg. He was already very well known as an artist because Pastor Albrecht had been promoting his work, and encouraging him in every way. And he was a lovely gentle sort of Aboriginal. I'd love to have a picture of him holding my daughter, my little daughter. And we talked about painting.
I did a bit. I did a few bits. It's hard to work when you're travelling with an infant, but I have got a few pieces.
Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Because I did have some paints with me, in a ... in a little case or whatever it was. And I remember him saying that I had more paints than he had. And he did have a very small paint set up, but of course, he performed miracles with it, didn't he?
I don't think he saw them. I don't think he saw them, no. But he knew that I'd been painting. Oh, he might have. Now that I say that. They might have had the books out there. I can't quite remember that. Yes. Yes, we did talk as artist to artist. I can remember that, yes. And then he went off on a camel. I remember he might have been going with someone to Jay Creek or somewhere adjacent. And I did do quite a big painting of that later and I called it ... It was a rear view of Albert on a camel, and I called it Albert Namatjira rides out to ... to claim his own. I've still got a photo of that somewhere. I don't know where the original is.
Yes, very strong, very strong.
I don't think it helped it. I don't think it helped it. No, it was a short marriage, but a merry one.
About five years.
Then I came west, I came west. West and north. I was with my brothers quite a lot then. So when you say when did you leave, or when did you go, it's been a continual traffic between the ... the north and south.
It did seem a traumatic thing to do, but here again, my sister Mary plays a big part in it, because she had settled down not far from here, and had a stable home and a big family. And the children were very, very friendly and companionable and went to school together and it sort of was ... they lived between the two households, if you know what I mean. There were members of the family here ... a great deal. You know, it wasn't just a harsh cut off. And they kept in touch with their father, and they'd go over for Christmas holidays sometimes, yes.
No acrimony, but I never divorced.
Oh, I didn't want to. And perhaps I couldn't get one.
It's a little bit intimate to go into. We mightn't put all this on our reel, Robin. But he ... he ... this is not very fair to him but he was very, very ... he did drink a lot.
Yes, drink was a real problem. And he ... he became quite sick. But then again, in the old Irish way, there was the support from his family, and his sister, Pat, who he was very fond of. Auntie Pat and he made a household together then, you see and she more or less looked after him 'til he died, in 1965. Before that I tried two or three times to go abroad, but at that time you couldn't go abroad without your husband's consent. Did you know that?
Mm. I think ... I don't know whether that was the date, but I remember thinking oh, I'll go abroad. I had a chance of going abroad.
No, no, that was just accepted in those days.
Yes, I think so. I don't know. I don't know.
I did, but when it was ... that was it. I just settled down, and I've often thought it was the time. Perhaps the time too, when a lot of Australians were going to London - certainly a lot of Australian artists. And I've always thought that, well, blocked in the outward going area, I went in further and I don't suppose anyone's explored Western Australia quite as much as I have. Or holidays often with the children. We'd ... we'd just go to - not only to the north - we went into the eastern gold fields and further north, and to the remote mission stations, Warburton. I've been to Warburton many times, and all that area there, which is pretty fascinating.
Not so much. Not so much during the fifties, no, when the children were at school. But earlier I was. I was there in the ... from the mid-forties on. That's when I had my studio on the banks of the river. That's when I did big paintings, like the one behind me there. Very big paintings. They were all done about 1947. And that was the time when I came in to very close relationship with the older Aboriginal men, that had known me a decade earlier well, but hadn't been as close but they were then old men, old Jubul and old Roger. They were living in the bush camp, and I had my studio on the bank of the Ord and a lot of links went on there - very serious links.
Well, they did talk of their old life, and they did show me a lot of the old renewal practices and river magic, and all ... all sorts of areas that I just somehow was let into.
It was, it was. And people have said, 'Why did they speak to you as a woman?' and I don't know quite how to answer that but they knew that I felt very compassionate for them, because the old life was completely over, and they were at the end of their tether. And it was the time also, in the centre, when all the churingas were coming back to the Strehlow family, you see. You know, they were drawing the ... the line under their old life and coming in to a new one. It's all too complicated to put together in a few sentences, Robin, really. But that was a very, very important and crucial time for my relationship with the Aboriginals.
Well, it didn't ... didn't end like that. [CLAPS HER HANDS] You know, it trickled around a bit. But then ... we were living in Melbourne, and I was very restless though. I was very restless. I was living in Melbourne and there was ... I got ... Simultaneously our old English nurse left me a small legacy, and my brother-in-law, Horrie, got a house in Broome. Bought it for a song, just after the war, in war-wrecked Broome. He wrote to me and said ... he wrote to me and said, 'Come up, bring the children'. I think he really wanted someone looking after it, you know, because he was away, backwards and forwards, between Perth and Broome. And I said, 'Well, I'm going'. I just went with the two children up to Broome. Perpetua had her fifth birthday in Broome.
We got a house after the war, when there were absolutely no houses to get, in Melbourne, in Grey Street. And we were there for a while and then I was doing quite a lot of work with my sister, Mary, too. I did ... no, I did it in Brisbane, where Michael was born. And at the time ... that same time I was doing the illustrations for The Magic Trumpet and then I was doing a lot of work with Mary when I was in Melbourne, including the illustrations for what Kings in Grass Castles was first called, which was They Reached A Land. That was the original title of the book, and then she got the much more inspired title, Kings in Grass Castles. And I did a lot of illustrations for that then: very fine work, in pen and very fine nib. This is before any of the felt nibs came in. That was a wonderful breakthrough for quick sketching: using a mapping nib. And then I was getting the end of something. I also illustrated an unfinished book, which was called Star of Darkness. I might show you some of that tomorrow. I shouldn't say that, should I? Then two things occurred. I was getting very restless, and I was also ... the old English nurse that we were left with when mother went north, when we were in our town house in Perth, died and left me a small legacy. I didn't deserve it because I was pretty cruel to nurse. I used to do terrible caricatures of her. And this combination, with the fact that my brother-in-law, Horrie Miller, had just brought a house in post-war Broome for a song ... and he asked me to go up there because he wanted to go backwards and forwards, and at any rate, I went up to Broome, with the two children, in 1945. And that was a very big break from the illustrating work that I'd been doing. I started ... I got a big lot of material. I didn't bring much with me. I brought paints, Windsor & Newton oil paints, but I didn't have any canvases. And there were ... they were holding disposal sales all through the north at the time and I went to one of the big disposal sales, run by Gregson's, [a] very well known auctioneer in this city, and I bought, for a very small amount of money, a big pile of masonite, which had been the tops of RAF [sic] mess tables and I got that sawed up into relevant sizes. And that I used for a big outpouring of work in Broome during the 1940s ... 1945. We were there about a year, I suppose. And then I showed that work. That was my first exhibition, an exhibition called Time & Tide, the first exhibition of easel paintings, as it were. It was like a complete departure from illustration, you know. And then ... then from that, then I showed in different ... I showed in different places. Showed first in Perth. And then after that, I went back to Ivanhoe. That was when I had my studio on the banks of the Ord, and continued working very big paintings. One of them is the one that's behind me in the studio here, although I did a lot of them, and ... and I lost a lot of them because in 1950, Ivanhoe House burned down. I wasn't there at the time, and a lot of the paintings that were in my room there were burned. And so I lost a lot of work at that time, but also [I] still had a lot of work. That was 1947, '48, '49, and so on. And then in 1950, I was back in Western Australia. I'd been ... yes, I was back in Western Australia, living in this street.
Yes. And they'd got older, of course, in that decade. And some of the very ... the older men ... now, you must understand that on a lot of stations, certainly on our stations, there was the station blacks and there was the bush camp. The bush camp was the ... the natives that were less prepared to work, and a lot of them were old, very old people. They were sort of pensioned off. And they ... they lived in a camp, and the station killed for them once a week. They got their beef, you see. So it was my ... my bush studio, it was pretty rough. It was just a bower shed. It was ... I looked for it the other day and couldn't find anything of it left. That was adjacent to the bush camp, where some of the old men came. And we'd talk. And they were terribly interested in the paintings I did, you know. Watched them very carefully and would comment on them. And one, I remember, it's the one just that happens to be there: there was a dog that I had in it, and the painting went on for a good while, and then the dog died in the meantime. And when they saw the dog had died, they were so sorry about the death of the dog, they didn't like to see it in the painting so I painted it over. But then, there were old Jubul and old Roger and old Jerry - all those very old men that I was in touch with. And the amusing part was too, that the ... the women that I went for walks with from the station had also matured in the time I hadn't seen them, they were very worried about me talking to these old men, you see. They thought ... they didn't think that was good at all. They weren't joking. They were very serious. They said, 'You want to look out, missus. He going to sing you, that old man. You can't trust them. He going to sing you'. And I used to laugh about it. But that's what they said and lately I've wondered whether it mightn't have been true. [Laughs]
No, they thought I'd be at harm, talking to them.
They were frightened of the old men, you see.
They were doing it for my ... concern for me but only in an agreeable and loving way, you see. They'd say, 'You want to look out. You don't want to talk to those old men. They going to sing you bye and bye'. They'd come down of an afternoon, to swim in the rock hole, the water hole there, a beautiful water hole. Still water in it. Where I did the painting of Ord River Venus and quite a lot of big paintings.
Oh, well, as the season would advance, and the river was very dry, and the cattle were bogging in the river, there would ... there's a whole process of river magic, very ... all sorts of things went on. One of them was they'd make a sort of a model of something and throw it in to a diminishing pool and sing it. And there were all sorts of ways. I've done a lot of drawings of it in different places. And all sorts of things, hard to say what exactly, you know, recalling it. But it went in. And then they had their stones and their ... and the little magic bag around their neck, of which they'd ask for some of my hair. They often asked for my hair because they loved the yellow colour, you see. And then, of course, I used to encourage them to talk because I'd always have some tobacco, and they loved that. And so that was a very ... a very mystical time, really, with those old men. They knew that ... that ... that the old way of life was finished and they were sort of upset about it, you see.
Well, you get pulled. You can see their point of view. And you can see their worry. You felt ... and their feeling that the young ones weren't paying any attention to it. And well, those ... they'd probably been ... but the younger ones were coming more into the modern world, you know. If you were ... if you were riding with them sometimes, they'd say, you knew there was some paintings in an adjacent rock or crevice ... in some of the crevices there were bones placed and everything, and they'd say ... they'd know about that, and tell you about that but they'd refer to it as 'blackfella humbug'. It's only 'blackfella humbug' now, you see. They were leaving it behind way back then but that didn't mean that they ... That might have been sort of a bit of an act for oneself, or for the whites, you see, because they would never camp near any of the places that ... that were ... had sort of a spirit significance - certainly not near any of the places where ... where bones had been deposited in niches of the rock and that sort of thing.
No, of course ... of course it was totally destructive to their old way of life. Once you put in fences and start fencing off waters and putting down ... you know, the whole thing was antithetical to the ... to the old way of life, where the ... where the Narranganni [?] had to have access to the entire region. I did ... I missed the question.
Well, I was thinking really, what it was like for you, being as it were, privy to this Aboriginal experience, and at the same time bringing with you, what you were, which was a member of the Durack family, who had done the fencing ...
Yes, well of course, my brother's a bit interesting on that. And of course, we've often discussed it because he ... he follows all the political trends and everything. As for reconciliation he said, 'But they were reconciled', and then I... then we might argue, and I'll say, ' But was it reconciliation, or was it resignation, Reg?' He said they were reconciled to the whole thing when they came into the stations to work, you see. But it's a bit of an open question, and certainly a very vexed one at the present time.
That I'll never know. That I'll never know. I only know that I have been. I am privy to areas of the ... the old life and ways of the old people of Australia. And in that way, of course, I feel ... I feel both enormously privileged and in one side of the mind you can feel deeply distressed for them. And then ... then you've just got to feel the flow of history through ... through life, and through this continent.
During this time, you were saying that you'd shifted from working primarily as an illustrator, or in small sketches, and you'd moved your work into a completely different dimension, on big, big scale.
Oh, it was exciting. I was very thrilled about my work, really. Yes.
I don't know. But these ... these doors keep opening in one's career, you see. You think, oh, how marvellous. You enter into a new ... into a new area that keeps opening and you get very excited about each move. And each time you go, open another door, as it were, it seems like the last one, and then you go on a bit further and something else occurs. That's happened a lot, because of course, when ... by the time I got ... the fifties was mixed work, but mostly highly graphic, of Western Australia as a whole. During that time I did a big set of graphic drawings of the outback towns. And I called it Look At The State We're In. And the ... the library at present is bringing out a brochure, and we're wanting to negotiate on that. And it was just before the mineral boom, although ... and some of it the mineral [boom] had started in Australia, because Cockatoo Island was going, and I spent some time there, with BHP. And then Hamersley Iron, CRA was starting up in the Pilbara. So I was on the verge of all this. But before that, many of the outback towns of Western Australia, including Meekatharra, that I did a lot of work in, they were literally in a state of decay, you see. They were just hanging together. But now, Meekatharra's quite a little city, you see.
Well, everything was so depressed. The only commodity was wool, which at that time wasn't at a very high price. And they had come ... a lot of them had come into ... into being as mineral towns and then the minerals had dropped away. You know, whatever it is makes a town go up and down.
Literally what I saw. Literally what I saw. I'll show you some of that tomorrow, perhaps. Oh dear ...
I was, yes.
Yes, I think so. I was using pencil. I just can't remember what year the felt nib came in, but I can remember being terribly thrilled with a felt nib. It ... it's just rapid and permanent and a wonderful, wonderful instrument for quick drawing. Through this where things begin to meld one into another. I think I was on the verge of doing the Melted Image paintings. Again, in all these towns and everything, I did a big depiction of the Aboriginals who were living in, on the fringes of the town. Did a lot of work of that. Most of it's ... most of it's been spread, you know. Because I'd hold exhibitions. I've held many exhibitions. Sometimes I'd hold two or three a year, you see, showing the work, getting it on. Always to keep the wolf from the door, I might mention, too. Although the whole thing was wrapped up, you know.
Oh well, by 1950 ... by 1950, almost before ... a few weeks before he died, our father, to my and my brother's great upset, he'd sold the properties. The properties were sold in 1950 and dad died. So that ... so that altered. Then after dad died, mother lived in Perth. She had her own little home. And Mary was here and I was here. My brother, Reg, as part of the sale ... a section of the property was cut off for my brother, Reg and he developed Kildurk station, which was the first station in the north to go to the Aboriginals. It's now called Amanbidgi. And he ... he had a young wife, and they built that station up between them and raised a magnificent family at the same time. So that's what I mean, with my brother, Reg, he's ... he's had the longest unbroken contact with the Aboriginal people.
Again, I think it was that he had the role image of how people of that generation ... He lost faith in the north, too. He lost faith in the north a lot. It had never come into the flowering. It was a recessive part of Australia, you see. The whole thing is a bit of a phenomenon, that we were on the edge of something which had long gone out in other parts of New South Wales or Queensland. You know, they'd moved into further development. I'm not saying there were masses ... masses of stations there, but this was ... Queensland was more advanced in lots of ways. And it's interesting because, of course, the family brought over Queensland Aboriginals with them. Or some Aboriginals came over to the family from Queensland and the Queensland Aboriginals looked down on the Kimberley Aboriginals. They thought they were a lot of myalls. They themselves felt that they were more developed, more advanced and of course, primary among those men was Argyle Boxer, who was of course, very crucial to my life really.
He was a Queenslander, yes. He was a Kalkadoon, yes. He ... he was ... he came over to the Kimberley in about 1880. Oh no, well it might have been 1890. I don't know the exact dates. You'd have to think back. And then, Pumpkin, who was another man very attached to the ... to dad, from Queensland days ... this little party was coming over from Queensland to go to the gold fields, the last of the gold fields at Halls Creek, and Pumpkin saw this lively boy, and he bought him for a horse and a tin of jam and brought him to Argyle, and raised him, you see: Argyle Boxer.
Yeah, Pumpkin had a lot of authority. These Queensland Aboriginals were moving around the stations and helping, you see. Yes.
From his mother, yeah. She was travelling with ... with a party of two or three white men I think, you know. The exact circumstances I can't tell you but that's the story.
That's how Argyle Boxer came to be Argyle Boxer. And he dominated, he dominated from the ... from a position of tremendous power and strength and it was Boxer who ... who introduced all sorts of new songs there, and had control of big song cycles, including the great song cycle of Djanba. And some people think that Boxer was Djanba. But we get into too complicated a subject for a conversation, I think, Robin, there.
Well, of course he was ... he was ... by the time I knew him, he was retired. He was retired, but he had his own plant of horses. And he and dad were in a sort of a ... an ... an arrangement, a loose arrangement, where Boxer moved around the stations in his own time and in his own way, with his plant of horses and his rifle, keeping an eye on things. He kept an eye on things. To that extent, if there ... if cattle were being speared down some remote corner of the Behn River, Boxer would come back and report it, you see. And then, between that, he was also looking for gold. He was always looking for gold. And the first time that ... that I remember him vividly was that he came up to Argyle, up to the homestead, with a very ... in a very ... He always walked very assertively, boots and spurs. And he ... I was just there on the verandah, I can remember, and he said, 'Which way old man?' meaning dad, you see. Then I... that was really when I was just a young girl then, very young. And I remember looking at him very keenly, you know - almost as keenly as I looked at the frog. And I drew him quite a bit too. And so he was in a unique position, Argyle Boxer.
Yes, he did. He did, but ... but then I lost touch with him, and he died at some stage. Or he went back to Queensland. He moved around a lot. And then I think it was Jack Kilfoyle at Rosewood station heard he'd been buried in ... in Darwin. So he went to find Boxer's grave, because he was in close touch with all the station men. He was a very big power in the land, Boxer. And Jack Kilfoyle found a grave, but there was nothing in it. So the rumour spread that ... that Boxer had never died and that he comes up to life every now and again. So there's all sorts of mysteries that circulate ... rumours that circulate. So we don't quite know where Boxer is buried, if he's buried at all.
Oh yes, yes. Well you'll talk to some of the older people now and they'll say, they'll say, 'Oh, that old M.P. Durack and Boxer, they two for the brother now', you see. Yes, they were. Well there was that sort of relationship with some of those old men who had the full dignity of it. But they'd come completely over to the white man's way of life, you see. And they just held in contempt the bush ... the bush blacks. They just called them myalls, you see. 'Ignorant blackfellas', that's what they called them. But this ... this again, might be a front, you know, because you'd find that Boxer had a very liveable arrangement among the Aboriginals, although he was ... he used to bluff them. There's no doubt about that.
He'd have known, yes. Yes, he knew that, yes.
Yes, oh yes, he was ... he held many songs. He had control of many songs. That was strict among them ... was that ... as it were, the copyright to the songs. And they'd always say whose song it was. But you can go ... I can talk to some of the older ones, even today, and they'll say, 'That was so-and-so's song', and the song cycles followed. Well, not only song cycles, news went in ... in circles, too. All sorts of news travelled around the map.
They probably did. They certainly spread news of the coming of the ... coming of the gudea, in the early days, which is the name of one Eddie Burrup's paintings, The Coming of the Gudea.
Gudea is an Aboriginal English word for ... for 'white fella' and there's lots of songs and stories of that.
Well, they couldn't have been. I mean, take for instance the very big walk that I went, the longest walk, three weeks I was out with them. We walked ... didn't go out from any of the Connor Doherty & Durack places. I was staying at ... see I moved around a lot, too. I was staying Moolaboola at the time, when it was an Aboriginal station, and I knew that there was some ... there was a link going on between the station ... the old men at the station and they were going to meet up with some desert men. And they were going down the road towards Lake Mackay and I asked if I could go with them and they let me go with them. And we just walked off into the bush. That was the longest trip. I did other trips of two or three days. I didn't ... there was a woman there, too. A couple of women would be with us, you know. And in that case ... For instance, it wasn't a case of them saying, 'You're forbidden', or anything. Most of it was just walking and learning, and they'd describe the country, and the creation of the country. This is where I got my knowledge of the Narranganni, from walks like that, where you see their ... their ... they're written into the landscape. They're living ... these men were goanna men, and they saw themselves written into the landscape and the travels that they'd done when they were forming the land, you see. They're literally the land incarnate. And by keeping the whole cycle going, they were able to perpetuate that. But of course, it ... it was fragile too. But this was a remnant of something. I always felt very lucky if I got in on anything like that. No, there wasn't any much. I ... now, for instance, there was one afternoon where obviously they were going to do some special chanting, or exposing special boards. Well, old Jenny I think it was - nice old girl - she said, 'Come on, missus, me and you - two fella - we go look our pretty flower now'. And what they mean - well look, that's the men are having a singsong there, we'll go off and ... It wasn't to say, 'You're not to watch this', or anything. It was all done very, very gracefully and you'd just comply with whatever. If she said that, I wouldn't for a thousand pounds have said, 'No, I want to listen to them'. Not for a minute, you know. I knew that there was etiquette in the bush. It was etiquette all the time. You've got to be on your guard. And I think you only pick that up instinctively, you know. Not instinctively - with experience. You don't ... it wouldn't be instinctive. But with experience you can know where you might be trespassing, or making a mistake. And also they make a lot of allowance for the fact you were a stranger, you know. So there was another world out there that I got a little look on to. And probably there wouldn't be too many in Australia that ever have been able to. No, there wouldn't.
You had to be able to walk. A big advantage to be able to walk and the days start very early. They move very early after a very scratchy breakfast. Little bit of ... another thing, they treated me always as a guest. So I'd have the special end of cold ... cold goanna for breakfast ... for breakfast. You had to get it down somehow. And then ... then you'd pad along, and then the party would break up. Say the ... I was with the couple of women, and a couple of the older men but the younger ones, you know, this age, [RAISES HAND] would have been able to ... they'd go off and they'd catch a kangaroo or something. We wouldn't see them 'til the evening. But we'd be going from a point ... a special point for that day and then, of course, in the middle of the day, they wouldn't walk in the heat. They'd never walk in the very intense heat.
Not much, no. No, nothing. Just water in the middle of the day. Yes, you had water if you were near a waterhole. And then the main meal was at night.
Yes, yes, always kangaroo. Yeah, I had brought a little bit of beef with me, but ... we brought a little bit of beef, salt beef, but it soon ran out.
Nothing, nothing at all. That's right, I know you can starve in the bush. You get very thin. You know, you get very thin. Very thin and very constipated, I can tell you. The ... the ... This idea of people saying that you ... that Burke and Wills should have just been perhaps more friendly or more going with the blacks, because they were living well, the whole of our system has been adjusted to a different diet. You know, you could ... you can starve on bush tucker, I can tell you.
Oh yes, oh yes. Yes, you don't ... well, we had some flour. We did have flour, yes. Make little johnny cakes in the ashes. But that's not very palatable. But it's ... you keep going. You know, I didn't think about it much. You know, you just fit into it. And I was drawing all the time, you know. But the time went quickly and of course it's lovely. It's a lot of fun too, you see. It's wonderful. You go into beautiful places. And all sorts ... and I remember the one big excitement because the ... we ran into a big mob of wild camels. There are wild camels out there, a lot of them. And then they were stopping the dogs from chasing the camels, because the camels can charge you, apparently, if they're really wild. So you know, all sorts of little incidents would occur like that. Never a dull moment. I mean you miss all that if you go through in a four-wheel drive, you know, you don't see anything. And then, incidentally, there were areas where there were little special parts, you know, and everything, yes.
On the ground. On the ground. I had a light swag, yes. It ... it wasn't ... luckily, the thing to dread in the bush is the cold. The heat's not so bad at all because you can rest in the heat of the day. And at night, of course, it's beautiful, balmy. The mosquitoes weren't bad at all. And I didn't have a tent or anything like that. Just ... just rolled out a swag.
It didn't. It wouldn't rain. It didn't rain. It wasn't ... the rain was over. It was just after the wet, this was, yes.
Yes, there were still a few old men that they were exchanging songs with or ... or boards or something. Or it might have been the remnant of an old trade route, or something like that, you see. It was a remnant of something. But ... but it wasn't anything that was more than ... they half were not going to do it at Moolaboola. They thought it was ... they wouldn't go. Perhaps they won't ... perhaps the old men won't meet them at whatever point it was. But they did, and they picked it up pretty quickly as we went along. There were signs of the smoke and once they saw the smoke, they knew that the men were waiting for them. And that is the occasion ... that particular occasion is when I saw the nearest thing to - and this was 1948 - to what would be traditionally living Aboriginals. They were very thin too. They were a remnant of ... of something there.
Oh yes, oh yes. Absolutely. Yes. There wouldn't be many corners like that that. None. These had come up from the Pitjandara [also spelt Pitjantjatjara] I think, somewhere like that.
Oh, extraordinary, I think. Quite extraordinary effect, I suppose. You ... you normalise things, but it's ... it had a latent effect upon me, too, particularly under the pressures that we live in today, when you hear it more or less said ... I'm always amazed when they sort of more or less say that there are Aboriginals living in this country in a pristine state. Because it's ... I can never follow what the thought is behind it but there's something driving that thought. Because they're not, you see, they're not. It's a different way of life. I mean the way ... their culture, which was so delicate and so fragile, it ... it virtually collapsed when the first bag of flour came off the ... off Governor Phillip's ship, you know. Keeping their world alive, which they did ... and this is an aspect that interests me, because the garden culture was just, you could almost say, a stone's throw away, in the islands between the tip of Cape York and the islands that lie between there and the south of Papua New Guinea, and they had experience from all the ... the Macassans coming down, who cultivated the land, and did little gardens when they were there, for a long time. But they never ... they ... they rejected the garden culture, I think, because their own world the power of the Narranganni was so strong and made so much sense to them that they couldn't accept anything else. This is only ... I'm only talking theoretically. I haven't discussed this with ... with any anthropologists but it is a mystery why any garden culture didn't come into Australia. You see, it's quite extraordinary. It can't be really explained because you can be sure that the ... the Indonesians would have left spades with them and said, 'Keep those gardens going while we're away', but they didn't do that. Those spades were turned into the dreaded shovel nosed spears that ... that were used with the incoming of ... say, of the cattle, certainly in the north there.
Oh yes, yes it was. It was a very ... well, this is it, it was pretty much a full time job, keeping the whole ... the whole of creation going. You know, it must have been. And then I suppose in parts where the ... where the pressure wasn't so great on them - the big coastal areas and along the rivers, where sustenance was more or less assured, there would have been quite a lot of spare time.
Well, they kept that going, yes, yes. And the more ... the more that's found the more there is to find of that and the more mysteries there are. You might have followed the Bradshaw story, the Bradshaw paintings: all the ... all these questions that have been raised with that.
With the paintings, as you became more aware of Aboriginal painting, and you'd seen the rock paintings in your own country, you'd seen the paintings of Aborigines on bark and what was happening in other areas, did that affect your own work?
Yes, to a certain extent and I used it fairly freely with the illustrations that I did during the fifties for the Langloh Parker. They did a new edition of Cate Langloh Parker's Australian Legendary Tales and there I adapted Aboriginal art for those illustrations and wrote a foreword saying how I had done it and why, and my link with old ... some of the old people, you see. And that was done in the early fifties. So there is nothing new about adapting. All through the fifties, I was doing big paintings. The big set of paintings that is ... that was acquired by the University of Western Australia, called The Cord to Altcheringa [?] was a stylised form of ... using Aboriginal ... well, clearly influenced by Aboriginal art, openly influenced by Aboriginal art. And of course, one of the ... one of the amusing parts was that it hung in Winthrop Hall for about forty years, and then the local gallery here, the Art Gallery of Western Australia, wanted to use it in an exhibition, a semi-retrospect, in 1995. By that time there'd been this reversal, and they had this ... this authority on Aboriginal art, and they said that I couldn't use ... couldn't hang them. I said, 'But this is ridiculous', you know. But they were being vetoed from going into the exhibition. And the curator of the exhibition, Janda Gooding, who was curating it, she came down. She said, 'A very serious thing's happened. Our ... our guardian of Aboriginality here at the gallery says we can't hang your paintings'. I said, 'I don't believe it, Janda. They've been hanging in a public place for forty-five years'. And ... and I said, 'We'll just ignore it'. She said, 'We can't, Elizabeth, we can't. They could ... they could boycott the art gallery. It's very serious'. And so the ... for a quite a long time, whether the exhibition went on or not, hung in ... in doubt, you know. And I was in total disbelief over all this. But then, our current ... our then director, Paula Latos-Valier, a lovely young woman from ... from America ... She came into Australia and then she was here for some years and she managed to effect a breakthrough. I don't know, she said, 'Now look, we'll get through this somehow if everyone keeps very calm and if no one talks excitedly, and no one, for goodness sake, goes to the press', and this sort of thing. And then it was agreed. All this is new to me. This is sort of new. This is such a new world. She said, 'It's been agreed that if any of your associates in the Kimberley say that those paintings can be displayed at our exhibition, they've agreed that they can go up', so of course, the first thing I thought was well, I'll just get in touch with my classificatory son and I thought it was serious enough to fly up to Kununurra. But as it turned out, he was here in Fremantle Hospital, with some problem ... health problem. And ... and with the help ... I had a lot of help from my cousin by marriage, Tom Stephens, who's a member of the Legislative Council here ... very active in the whole world. He went first to the north as a Aboriginal adviser or somebody, and ... and he said, 'I'll go down with you to see Jeff', and we went down together, and we spoke to Jeff, and he explained it all. And I told Jeff ... brought down photos of the pictures and everything and so we had ... Jeff then said, 'All them picture that my old mum she been make, him all free for man or woman to see', and he signed it. And with that, and their Aboriginal help down at the hospital, and down the ... the exhibition went on. It was a very traumatic time, you know, and all ... as I say, all new to me. This sudden burst of ... of I don't know what, I don't know what. That was in '95 ... '95, not so long ago.
It's funny, isn't it? I don't know. It's just a ... I remember talking to Henrietta Drake-Brockman, a good friend of mine and Mary's, a writer. And she said, 'You seem to be obsessed with it, Elizabeth'. I said, 'I'm not, but it's all very interesting'. So I really can't say. But it's ... I suppose there've been some wonderful work done by other artists, but nothing to such ... anything like the extent that I've done over the years.
Do you think it had anything to do with the fact that at such a young age, and then it was followed up right through your life, you were privileged to be steeped in a lot of what they lived and experienced, and you shared some of that?
I think so. I think so. And the early ... the early contacts with Argyle Boxer staying with us at ... at Claremont and that sort of thing had an influence. Because with my ... with the nursemaid and me, we'd go down to the little white beach here, and find little creatures: crabs and things like that.
I was learning. It was learning, you see. This is back in the forties and it's been coming. You can only learn slowly. It comes to you slowly. The ... the ... the ... I'd seen it visually, the incarnateness of the ... when I was doing literal paintings. I remember saying once that I don't use any other colour to ... to paint the skins of the Aboriginal than what's on my brush from painting the landscape and it was always that drawing them into ... that was sort of a visual thing. And then it became more understanding the theory behind it, you see. The continuum of the Narranganni, which ... it's a hard concept to get because as you might be walking along, the head, the old goanna man would say, 'And then he go down there, you see that. He go down there and he coming out again. You see head there? He coming out again'. And then he said, 'And then I go down and I'm going to have a big sleep now'. And what ... he was interchangeable with the creature that had shaped the land because he ... he too ... he was a living goanna man, you see, part of that landscape. And he still incarnate[s] you see. And that ... it's so ancient that it must have been so fragile that it ... it was too easily destroyed, you see. But of course, it's terribly understandable how ... when the ... when settlement ... European settlement came to Australia, they tried terribly hard to see how you could come to terms with the land, but they couldn't understand that. I mean land was ... you owned land by the ... by tilling it for a start. You know, it was tilled land, or land conquered or occupied. But these ... they were still drifting and moving, you see. They couldn't find ... there were no things like ... there was no chief, there was no king, there was no ... it was ... There was a hierarchy, but it was ... it was a geriatric type of hierarchy, a hierarchy that was achieved through wisdom and knowledge, you see, and all these ... all these subtleties that would have been totally incomprehensible to ... well nobody understands it now, let alone a hundred ... a couple of hundred years ago. So this is what leads on to a much bigger topic. Perhaps we'll take that at another time.29
... did you find this way of looking at the world and this way of understanding the relationship with the place that you lived, very appealing, more appealing perhaps than the ideas that you'd been brought up with as a European Australian?
Yes, you did ... did in a way. Yes, a sort of fascination to it. And also, it would lure you in further and further. You'd get like little glimpses of knowledge, and then ... then you'd get a bit of a new opening, you see. It's ... A full understanding of it has only come to me gradually. You know, you don't suddenly understand what ... what was the essential depth of the relationship of the Aboriginals to their environment. It only comes gradually. And the power of it, you see.
No, I don't think so. I don't think so. I don't think it was a case of envy. It was a case of appreciation, a case of even admiration of the ... because it had survived so long, you see. It had survived through from ... I think then of course, you get into other areas of ... of study that bring you back to the whole sequence of ... of the history of man ... mankind on this earth.
After you had been working on the banks of the Ord River, and you had been doing bigger paintings that you might call heightened realism, you began to move, didn't you, into something a little more abstract in the work you were doing for yourself. What did you start doing and why did you start doing it?
I think, Robin, it might have come a little bit later than perhaps the late 1940s, if we're moving chronologically.
... because by the early fifties, I was moving into another sphere of development, which was the adaptation of ... of Aboriginal - not motifs so much - as semi-styles, and using an Aboriginal palette of terracotta, white, black and grey sometimes. So I think that might have preceded the ... the later developments of moving into ... although I've never worked as an abstract artist, but more into abstractions. These ... these ... unlike the graphic paintings that you describe as heightened realism - these ... these were very sharply patterned works, based on Aboriginal, in this case, legend, the big set of murals that I did for the Charles Gairdner Hospital. That was based on the legend of the black swan in ... in Perth, taken from the ... from the manuscript of Catherine Langloh Parker, whose ... whose re-edited illustration ... I'd illustrated her book that was reprinted by Angus and Robertson from her first edition in the 1890s. She was one of the first collectors of Aboriginal legends.
Well, as I mentioned in the ... in the prologue to the Australian Legendary Tales, I there gave full acknowledgement to the ideas that I acknowledged that I had of Aboriginal bark painting, because one of the old men that ... with whom I was friendly on the banks of the Ord, was a Northern Territory person who was adept at ... at bark painting. Although he didn't do a lot, and this is long before they became such a collector's item, and he ... he explained the ... the methods of bark painting to me, well known now. At the time ... how there's never a right way up or a wrong way up, because they're done flat on the ground and they can be looked at ... and all these idea I was able to absorb from him.
They were rather separate I think. They were fairly separate. And one of the interesting factors about this work, which was adaptations of either legends or some ritual, that was exhibited here in Perth, at Newspaper House, together with some of my lyrical paintings of Aboriginals walking through the bush, they created quite a lot of interest because two or three Aboriginals from the ... from the Leonora area - that's in the eastern gold fields - they came down to Perth. They didn't know about this, but it's ... and it's unusual for Aboriginals to go to an exhibition, but they must have heard of it somehow. And they came down and were delighted with these paintings and these were true old Aboriginal people. And the ... the gallery was so intrigued that they got a photographer to take one of the old men - he was called Mr. Green ... had an English name ... and talking and telling a group of girls from St. Hilda's school, explaining how the paintings [were] indicating what this old ritual was, with the greatest approbation and enjoyment. So that was, of course ... that was about 1953 - sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety - forty-five years before there was objection to my doing this, you see. It was ... the whole thing's been a very extraordinary story.
Oh, they ... they were already saying, 'That's what we used to do'. It was laid in the far past, but they knew that I picked it up, you see. These ... these were ... these were ... that was the first display of the set that I did call The Cord to Altcheringa, Altcheringa being another word for the Narranganni or Dreaming, and ... of the dozens of words that exist in Aboriginal languages, some of them completely now forgotten. But those two words are very strong. The ... they were ... they just sort of saw it as something interesting that ... that was on display.
Yes. And I've got photos of that. Yes.
In a way, although as I say, I think they saw it as their past. 'That's what we used to do, we used to make a bit pattern on the ground, and then we'd ... we'd sit', and this sort of thing, you see, because the ground patterns were a feature of ritual.
Working all through the 1950s, I think several streams working at the same time: graphic work, and more imaginative work, and it was by the ... and there are overtones of what might come later in some of the paintings, if one goes into the detail of it. Because by the 1960s, I was moving into what I describe as the 'Melted Image' paintings, where ... I ... I suppose you could say that the concept of it occurred in the 1940s, particularly with the painting that's quite well known now. It was called Ord River Venus, and has been rather widely displayed, and there I had a picture of an Aboriginal woman standing against the basalt rocks, at the rock pool where we used to go swimming together and the ... the colour of the flesh and the rocks are identical. And it was then that I saw this unity of earth and flesh, you see. And ... and I've written about that too, around that time. And then ... then as the Melted Image series evolved, the recurring theme ... and I used to run out of titles: Figures Into Landscape, Landscape Into Figures, Figures into Landscape, and the two were intermingling as one. That was a fairly long theme, again, by the early sixties. Contemporary to that, I was doing the ... the graphic work of the towns of Western Australia.
Yes, that's a good question, because I used quite an innovative form. I'd dilute enamels, and float them on to a hard surface, using - I think I used masonite mainly. Work very flat and on ... on a wet surface, wet of enamel. But draw into the ... draw the image in over it, and then slightly move it this way or that. If it went too far it got out of hand, or sometimes the paint would slide off the board altogether. But ... but I used thin dammar varnishes on a hard surface and working flat, to get the effects that I did. I showed some of those in Melbourne, about ... about 19- ... oh, in Canberra too, in about the early sixties - '63, '64.
Yes, it was ... it was quite interesting, because it was a time when ... [INTERRUPTION THEN END OF TAPE]
In the early sixties, there was a very famous exhibition that occurred at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, that put Australian artists, at the time, on the map, and some of our biggest names were exhibited there. Could you tell me about that exhibition and how you came to be included in it?
Well, it was curated by Brian Robertson, who was the curator, or the director of the Whitechapel Gallery, and he came out to Australia to ... to collect paintings for it. And ... and in those days the passage between England and Australia was made by boat. It was before the planes took over. And I think our director of the gallery here, Laurie Thomas, must have mentioned a few studios to visit and ... and certainly I was included in that. And I recall his visit to me with ... with great pleasure, because he was very responsive to the work and in fact, he said, 'This is what I've come to see in Australia', and he was looking at some of the social realism paintings that I'd done in the eastern gold fields. And also it must have been the beginning of the Melted Image paintings. And yes, there were ... and he chose several for the exhibition. But by the time he got to the eastern states and saw that the big weight of artists was in ... in that part of Australia, he wrote back and said, 'I'm very sorry, but I couldn't include more than two of yours, because there's so many coming forward', but ... but we continued to correspond for quite a long time. Or if I was in London, I'd always ring him up. And yes, it was really quite a watershed exhibition. But I wasn't able to go over to London. I was living in Perth at the time, working out from Perth, around, and the children were at the height of their educational demands, and so, although a great many of the artists went over for the exhibition and set up other exhibitions at that time, and ongoing, I didn't.
Well, that was always perhaps the first priority. Through all this we have emphasised the art, but through it there is the ... a woman's first priority, which is the children.
I think Nolan was already known. Drysdale and Blackman. I remember Blackman went over with his wife. And I have the catalogue, but I can't recall them all.
Yes, Albert Tucker was in it.
You say that at the time you were very busy with your private life. Was ... how were you managing as a single mother by this stage? How were you managing financially? Had you inherited enough money to be able to live on?
No, I hadn't inherited any money. The ... the ... our father died very soon after the disposal of the properties, and the ... the ... it was a time of very heavy tax, and the whatever it was ... the sale was heavily taxed, both in Western Australia and in the Northern Territory. And ... and our dad's entire will, in his wisdom, went to mother, so there wasn't any inheritance there. So it was always a matter of healthy hard work and planning exhibitions, and ... and moving from one activity to another. I suppose it ... it was the stimulus in a way, the very fact that I had to work, and had to sell.
Off my paintings, yes I did. I worked intensively. And sometimes I'd have perhaps two or three exhibitions. And the little side studio that I think I showed you, that ... that was more or less open. People would ring a lot and come down and ... and buy from the studio. Then I'd have an exhibition a year at one of ... somewhere. There weren't many galleries in Perth at the time at all. Very different today - there are dozens of galleries. But at the time I think the only private gallery was Newspaper House, where I showed the Cord To Altcheringa, that I referred to a minute ago. And that was when I had this huge mass of paintings. There were a hundred paintings or so that I'd done in Broome, in the late forties, and there wasn't any gallery in Perth to show at. And at the time old Mr. Battye, I was talking to him, or Mary talked to him, because Mary always had fair influence in Perth, and they cleared out the bottom section of the Art Gallery of Western Australia, which had a big range of classical or plaster of Paris images from Greece in it. And they moved those out, and in came the hideous Elizabeth Durack paintings. And that's where it was held for a month or so.
Well, it was very easy to see what was popular, yes. An interesting feature of that was that at that time, also moved by the fact that certain works were very popular, I devised a method of ... of making an artist's type of reproduction. I don't think any other artist has used it. It was an idea I got from my architect brother. There is an architect way of getting a plan. They don't use it nowadays. It was called dyeline. And it gave a faint line of a drawing that literally did dye. Well, I used to get these done of some of the popular ones, particularly drawings of ... of Aboriginal children and so forth, which people very ... loved. They loved the Aboriginal people. The work was popular at that level. And then sketchy ... sketchy ones of Aboriginals and children. And I'd get this ... each one was done separately, and I'd get it, and then I'd outline the line in ... in a stronger ... in a lasting medium, like pencil, over the line, and then I'd paint them. So there are several of that ... they're facsimiles, but never is one exactly the same. And these mainly are the ones that are coming back into the sale rooms of the ... of the auctioneers. Of course, at the time I was selling them for two or three guineas each and they have ... they have greatly increased in value.
I was doing it because two guineas meant a lot to me. Yes. And if a thing was very popular, I would say, 'Perhaps I can get you one like it'. Another interesting feature of the time: I would then sometimes write on it 'reproduced', 'reproduction', or I'd even sometimes call them a print, because the second the word 'print' was used, the people had more confidence in them. It's a complete reversal now. If ... people ... people perhaps had never seen any paintings other than in prints ... good paintings other than in prints. That's ... that's not quite accurate, because there was the Perth Society of Artists doing lovely water colours and having their regular exhibitions. I'm simplifying it a bit. But there weren't ... if anything was in reproduction people had total trust in it. They would buy a print more readily than they'd buy an original. I could hang ... my ... my most popular drawing, which is The Kid, hung in three exhibitions unsold. I then did it in this dyeline, and it sold immediately. I remember I gave the original ... The original of that painting is at Mandeville Hall. I gave it to the nuns there because they were looking after Perpetua while I was working in the north.
In a limited way they were because I dared to put a little higher price on them, too, you see. Works that were selling under ten guineas ... there are whole exhibitions of mine there in my catalogues where there's nothing over twenty ... twenty guineas. And I think the terrible ...
Was there a difference between the two?
Yes, perhaps the ... the active area of one's total creative urge was somewhat separate, yes, yes. If I had have been independent I probably would never have produced dyelines or reproductions that I knew were popular. And again, it was always a black mark against an artist to be popular, or is, for some vague reason.
No, not always. Not always. There's quite a lot of work I've never exhibited.
Oh, just sort of private work, you know, or ideas working themselves out, or not enough developed to have taken off and things like that. Yes.
Well, by that time the children were on ... more or less they'd finished their education. They both went through university here. My son was starting to branch out, getting ... getting jobs. My daughter went to Africa on a special arrangement for ... for the old Rhodesia collecting teachers from here, so she was teaching in Africa by 1965. And I'd ... I'd ... Frank Clancy died, and I was socially free, perhaps for a very long time, and ... and I was able to get away then, yes. [INTERRUPTION - PLANE]
Well, by the mid-sixties, the children were through their main education. They both went through the university here. Michael got a degree in engineering, and my daughter in education and arts and she went to ... went to Rhodesia - what was then Rhodesia, present day Zimbabwe - to the university there. They sent over one of their professors, trying to collect teachers, because actually it was at the time when the English teachers, seeing the writing on the wall, were leaving Rhodesia in droves and they were getting short of teachers. So it was a pretty big experience for my daughter to go over there. And I then started having more social freedom than ... than I'd had previously. I was a widow by that time. And the first leg of that journey was to see my daughter in Africa, and that was ... no, not my first ... that wasn't my first visit to Africa, because it's such a huge place. My ... my sister and I had been in North Africa, in Algeria, in the 1930s, briefly. So it was my second visit to Africa, and then I went through there up to Cairo and ... and that was the beginning of a big period of travel.
I did, yes.
My Seeing Through books?
Yes. The first of those was one that occurred through a link with the Australian Government, Mr Barnes. Mr Seth Barnes was Minister for Territories at the time and we met in some way through ... in Canberra and I said, 'I'd love to go to Papua New Guinea'. And then it was worked out through his department that they didn't think that the women ... though the men were coming forward towards the oncoming independence, the women ... women were not getting the same amount of attention. He said, 'Do something on the women of Papua New Guinea', and so that's how that ... that came about. I went up to Papua New Guinea, and moved right through, drawing the women and that took the shape of a book called The Women of Papua New Guinea, I think. Face Value. Face Value. It's a word I often use because I've got a huge assemblage of drawings of Aboriginals that I call Face Value, that itself would make a book. And then on to that I wrote the experiences of travelling through this country which was a marvellous adventure. And that ... that came out in a book called Seeing Through Papua New Guinea, published by Hawthorn Press in Melbourne. So that was the beginning of that. Then ... then the second one was Seeing Through the Philippines, that I went to, yes. There was a lead up to that. The lead up to that was that my friend - I might have mentioned her before, Henrietta Drake-Brockman, the writer - she ... we met in London. Yes, we met in London, in the same year that I'd been to Africa. And she said, 'There's a big PEN conference on in New York. Could you come over?' And I thought, no I couldn't either ... I couldn't dare go to New York and I couldn't afford to go to New York. And she said, 'But a special fee ... a special passage across the Atlantic', and ... and all the rest of it. And she persuaded me to go with her and of course, when I ... so I went to the PEN conference in New York, which was an absolutely mind blowing experience, meeting all the great authors. And ... and it ... and living in the ... it was summertime ... living in the residential areas of universities ... of the University of New York, I think we lived. And then I thought I'd like to stay longer than the conference. And then somebody said, 'Well, put in for a fellowship'. We were meeting people. Like all these conferences, we were ... it was a lovely party. You know, we had special receptions at ... at the Museum of Modern Art and went out to Long Island to some of the wonderful luxurious homes there, and all sorts of wonderful adventures. Then I thought, oh, that's hopeless, because I've put in for things in Australia and they never ... come come off. But somehow the Ford Foundation, who'd partly sponsored the PEN event in New York, they ... they ... I found myself at any rate filling in forms, and to my amazement, they ... then they said ... the person that was in charge of the Ford Foundation said, 'Well what area are you interested in?' And I said, 'Oh, ethnology, anthropology, indigenous people'. 'Oh righto, well put down Red Indians'. So before I knew where I was, I'd got this fellowship from the Ford Foundation, and I was being bounced from bosom to bosom through a wonderful range of states in the United States, from the heads of departments of the ... of the ... it was called the Indian Affairs. It was Indian Affairs, right through. And of course, it was summary, and of course it was ... but it gave me a marvellous insight into it, right from the Algonquins to the Pueblo Indians. And they had it arranged in the typical way of the largesse of the United States, that when you were part of this organisation, you'd be met, and looked after when you got to the place, you see. And you were a guest often of ... in someone's house and so that was just wonderful. I would have liked to have extended it, naturally. It was wonderful. I got as far as ... as ... but then I ... I got as far as Honolulu, which was also wonderful, from all the areas that I was interested in. And I thought I'd like to ... like to stay longer. But I couldn't. And they were seeing that the visa was that long, you see. You couldn't do anything. At any rate, before I knew where I was, all too soon, I was back in Australia. And then I remember coming back here, and the house was ... I was all on my own. And I remember thinking, what on earth am I doing here, in this dead end of the world, having literally, sort of seen all these marvellous sites and scenes and ... and being totally infatuated with the culture of the United States. I couldn't help but be. I'd seen the absolute lovely golden edge of it, and participated in it in a small way. And another thing that struck me, for somehow, after all the negation of Australia and all the effort of Australia, you ... I seem to be more accepted on an even keel with men or women to whom I spoke. Although I do remember the women, we went to some big lunch party and there were women there and they were nodding their heads, very ... you know, women that had gone - as far as I could see - already through the glass ceiling. And they would say, 'It's a man's world'. And I thought oh my goodness, if you only knew what a man's world is. You don't know anything my dear girls. But all those sort of influences were around, and I thought well, what's the nearest thing that I could ever get to that's the United States? And I thought the Philippines because they've had ... they've been there for all that time. And so ... but how can I get there? And as it turned out, I had some original drawings of Dobell's and I sold those through Rose Skinner, who had a gallery here. And she sold them for me. And I got enough money together to go to the Philippines, which again was a wonderful eye-opening experience. Travelled widely through there, with some very valuable links with Helena Benitez, who was one of the main ... if not she owned ... probably owned the ... the university of ... the women's university in central Manila, where I stayed as a resident, and saw through the islands, and went travelling with her, too. That was all wonderful, but of course, for ... for all that the Philippines is not the United States. You're starting to get into the bog of Asia. In ... But it ... it was wonderful and stimulating. And then following on that, I wrote the book, Seeing Through the Philippines, and that too was published by Hawthorn Press. Then the third one ... what did I do for the third one? Seeing Through Indonesia. Don't know how I got there. Don't know how I funded myself there but I did somehow. And then I went on travelling. But through this somewhere, there's been my time that I did the work for ... for CRA.
It's a very crowded time, those sixties, because I'd had an exhibition in Melbourne, and ... at the old Athenaeum in Collins Street and Sir Morris Mawby came to the exhibition and he bought a painting and was nicely interested in the work. And then I followed it up in some way: called at his office, and we started talking. And to make a long story short, he said, 'Would you consider going to Bougainville Island and doing some drawings for us?' And I said, 'Just give me half a chance'. And the next thing I knew, I was relegated into the travel department of the great company of ... of CRA and they had all my tickets drafted and everything, and off I went to ... to Bougainville Island and did a very big body of work, which has now all been carefully documented and put together by ... by Marlene Stafford, who has ... She's the curator of the collection - the Hamersley Iron-CRA collection.
Drawing everything I saw. Drawing the excitement of the country, the scenery, the greatest contrast Australia you could never find. From flat and dry, here was mountains and vegetation that you could see growing in front of your eyes. On the ... high on the mountain, where the mine was at Panguna, the sun only shone for a few hours of the day, and rain came down every afternoon. And between about nine o'clock and eleven o'clock, you could watch a plant putting up a leaf. You could literally watch it grow, before ... before the rain came down. And so the growth was immense. And there were trees that were like a vast garden in themselves, with different ferns, and orchids dangling and ... and vines hanging. You know, one big tree would be the parent for an enormous amount of auxiliary growth. It was terribly thrilling, the ... the ... the jungle, the jungle of Bougainville Island.
Yes, yes, they were being worried about it. Because the island ... the mine was on top of the island and on this ridge some rivers flowed down to the east, and some flowed to the west. And there was one river, or big stream, into which they were pouring the tailings from the mine. And that was ... it was not really adequate to accept it. And so the tailings were going down at the mouth of the stream, they were accumulating and setting up a big mud bath. And into this ... the ... they were already worried about it. The mining people were worried about it, and they were calling in engineering advice. And this was where my brother, David, who is an engineer, he put in an idea for how you could widen the stream or direct it in some way. And we were talking about it. We happened to be ... we didn't actually meet on the island, but we'd been there at recent times. And he said 'Oh, Elizabeth, if anything was an argument for the environmentalists, it's ... it's Bougainville Island. You've no idea, to go over the mouth of the river' - I can't remember its name - 'and see in the mud the crocodiles floating with their bellies exposed, dead'. Great creatures that had probably lived for centuries, could have lived for two or three hundred years in the area. The ... the desecration was incredible. I think, whether or not they did get in an alternative method of dealing with the tailings, I don't know, because there've been all the enormous ructions there ever since. Or lately, over the last decade or so. But then, although it ... from my point of view, too, it was terribly exciting, seeing a mine developing, and seeing people coming and going, and seeing all the indigenous people and the women coming in with their vegetables to the mine itself, and selling. And so all that came through in the drawings, you see. But then when I did some of the ... without my using the words 'ecological destruction' it came through in some big panels that I did where I did paintings on paper of the streaming jungles. Then I got big ... big boards of masonite, six by three - it's a favourite size - six by three, and I painted copper on top of the board and then I tore up the jungle painting, and ... and loosely patterned it on top with the copper showing through. It was ... I hadn't thought it through, but then these works were shown in the ... actually to the board room of CRA in Melbourne. And they acquired quite a lot of them. But where ... where my jungle ones, whether they were too contentious or not, the jungle panels have disappeared off the face of the earth, which is a bit sad, because I'd love to see them again. You know, I went mad about doing the jungle panels, you know. But ... So ... that ... that was what happened over the Bougainville Island work.
Ah yes. Well, I suppose in fairness to the mining company, the usual justification of the wealth that it was going to bring towards an emerging nation, was a ... was a fair justification. You see, it is the richest mine in the whole area. They wanted to be fair to the natives. They went to endless trouble to make arrangements with them. So it is an ongoing world argument: development or the ... God's garden. And we haven't solved it. In fact, you know, we're losing out, aren't we, with the destruction of the huge forest areas.
Yes, I could I think, because I think all this marvellous exposure to the outside world, after the confinement of ... of this state, we'll say, although I did move over the state, travelled around. But it's enormously confined, and suddenly the world was open to me. I think it ... it had ... had a sort of a ... I was feeling ... in fact it's a curious thing. It was that politician in England that used the 'winds of change'. But I was calling paintings The Winds of Change before he used it. Which one referred to the winds of change sweeping Africa?
Mm, I think, one of those. And I could feel change coming and I could feel the fragility of the environment that I'd been dealing with and somewhere through this, I was back, as ever, at Warburton Range I think I was. Often been to Warburton Range from the time it was a mission to when ... it's now an Aboriginal community. And I was ... I sort of got ... I think I travelled by plane at that time. I wasn't motoring. And I think as the plane took off, I was looking at an old Aboriginal woman bending one of the little desert trees over, which is what they often do and then they throw a bit ... a bit of canvas or something against that, you know. It's a sort of ancient way of making an Aboriginal house. And as she was doing it, a whirlwind came and blew it away and it was then that I thought of that line. I don't know whether it's a quote or not, but the line came into my head, 'the rim ... the rim of our brittle and disintegrating world.' Everything started levitating and that came into the paintings. And another big set of paintings that were certainly crucial at this time to that 'disintegrating' work was the political crisis that we had here, with the ... with Gough Whitlam, in November 1970. And I think again, Australia ... all Australians sort of felt that, either negatively or affirmatively, there was a big national reaction to it.
Yes, 1975. You'd remember that, would you? And I did ... I was sort of somewhat ambivalent but I ... I ... I did think his stand was too, too - I don't know what. I didn't see a future for it. I didn't know what had happened. No one did. And I did, quite quickly, a big set of paintings called Flightless Birds Achieve Lift-Off. I could show it to you. And then that went into this ... this world. And it's sort of like emus and thinking they're taking off. But it's all disintegration again, and that went through to all the work of the later seventies and into the eighties, when it went even further. Because I then got into further pushing that concept of disintegration into another big continuum of paintings, called The Rim and Beyond. The Rim and Beyond. And it was getting further and further into ... Parallel with this I was keeping the wolf from the door by doing quite simple graphic landscapes. In some ways they were a relief from the sort of rather passionate images that were flowing through my mind. And I recalled them, and used the title for another big set of paintings called Bett-Bett's Wonderful Lonely Palace and that derives from a line going right back to the first, one of the very first that were ever read to me, which was Aeneas Gunn's The Little Black Princess. And Aeneas Gunn ends somewhere that she'd been looking after the little girl that is the feature of the book and then she said, 'And I watched Bet-Bet walk off into her wonderful lonely palace'. She was going ... leaving the place where she'd been with the white woman. And somehow, as a little girl, I was only five at the time ... it must have been an early edition and one of the nuns read that to us little children. And somehow I identified as Bet-Bet and so I called this big serious ... series of paintings ... they were not paintings, they were pastels, Bet-Bet's Wonderful Lonely Palace. And it would be a drift of ... of figures against a Kimberley landscape. Very serene paintings, very gentle paintings and very popular paintings. So while all these crazy ideas were going on in my head, I was perhaps even stabilising myself with the more gentle landscapes because I liked doing them, and they were a relief somehow, you know. I'm not mad, but you could go mad in this world, you know what I mean? What with all the pressures that we're under, and all the ... all the contrasts.
Again, it had to do with the ... with this sort of yearning to get back to New York that I had. And then, it was also linked with the fact I'd had an exhibition at the Broome Festival. They have a festival once a year called the Matsuri Festival. I was the guest artist, and they asked me for some work. And I ... [They] took me up and we'd showed it. I think it was an auction of some ... I think it went by auction, that exhibition. And it went very well. I can remember that they were terribly efficient, too. And they paid very quickly, which is always a ... it's always a long drawn out business after an exhibition. It takes a long time before you actually get all the ends tidied up. They paid very efficiently, and I thought, now this ... this is it. And I got a ticket to New York, as a result of that exhibition. Then I think I ... I was only examining the scene for ... for an exhibition there. I think I went back the second time, once I'd established the fact that it fitted in with the 150th year for Perth. I think that's what it was. And although, I didn't have any ... any funds from the government, I had moral support from the then Premier, Sir Charles Court, who's always been a very good friend of mine. And he ... he joined it in. And I was ... The exhibition I was going to have in New York linked in with the [WA] sesquicentenary. And for it ... Now that I look back on them, I can see that there are paintings that were a radical change. They were paintings that I call my flung paintings. But I think what I was doing - it's like ... like a plant almost sending out threads looking for a piece of nourishment in which to settle, or something. The thread ... They're strange paintings. Although I did a big volume of them, very big volume. Oh, a couple of hundred paintings. And I chose the best of them, and I called it Explorers & Discover ... Discoverers & Explorers and linked them with names of Australian exploration. And [I] took that exhibition to New York. Quite an undertaking, because there was no funding, you know, it was done all ... I did it myself. I remember rolling them, and getting them off to Qantas, and our representative there - it was Cotton. I think he was a knight. Yes. And his wife, Eve Cotton. You might know them? Sir Robert Cotton, I think it was. And they ... they accepted them. You see, all these logistics are enormously difficult to work out. I must have had to contact Canberra to say would they ... could the parcel go to the ... go to this address in Fifth Avenue and they did say it could. And then from there I had to get them framed. But it was all like an adventure. Finding a framer in Manhattan, and meeting the framer and doing all that, and getting it transported to the venue, which was the World Trade Centre - the two big buildings that you see. And ... and then getting the screens to set it up. All this was done by myself. But each bit of it was ... it was entering more into New York society. And then eventually the paintings were framed and ready to go up. I think the canvases were just stretched, not framed. And I ... I didn't know how to hang them. You know, I couldn't hang them. And this is one lovely experience that I had there. I think it was the young man that delivered the paintings to the site on the ground floor of ... of the World Trade Centre. And he was what they call now an African-American. Very dark African-American. Tall young man, loose limbs and very ... very efficient. And I'd also bought all the nails or hangers or whatever it was, and I said, 'Could you help me with it?' I just asked him out of the blue and it was fairly late in the evening. It must have been four or five o'clock. And he just set in, and quite efficiently hung the whole exhibition for me. I thought, well I'm just desperate. There was no one to help me. And he did it. And then of course, I said well, 'And now what do I owe you?' He said, 'Ma'am, you don't owe me a thing'. You know, I almost burst into tears. I could when I think of it, almost burst into tears. He would not take any payment for working for an hour for me. And he went off and waved, you know. It was ... it was a terribly moving experience. But somehow, everything that I did in New York was like that. Everything. And of course that exhibition was not for sale. That was one of the provisions of it. It was not to be for sale but it was on exhibit and it got some good notice, although it never ... never crossed the Pacific. The event never crossed the Pacific into our papers, which I would have loved but never mind, it was another wonderful adventure. And then, what happened? Then of course, the big thing was ... oh yes, I could have sold separate pieces but I wanted to keep them as a set. I could have sold one or two separate pieces to one or two of the universities who were interested in them. And I thought, no I'll keep them as a set. Then what to do with them then? You see, because they were now stretched. How do you get fifteen stretched ... big stretched canvases back to Australia? Then I met a friend who we've had a lot of contact with, and he's been active in business circles in Australia, Allan Gerdau. And particularly in Broome. And he ... he ... we met up: a very nice man, a mature man, and he was very kind to me. I remember going up to some wonderful restaurant for lunch, you know, and all this sort of thing and then as he was dropping me off at the ... what's it called? It's not High Commissioner for ... for Australia, is it?
The embassy, is it? Yes. As he was dropping, he said, 'Now, if there's anything else I can do for you, ma'am ...', although we were calling each other our Christian names. And I said, 'There is, Allan. There is. What ... Could you ...?' And he had big buildings ... he had big buildings there, called the Gerdau Building or something. He said, 'We've got all the space in the world down in our cellars'. And I said, 'If you'd put those paintings there for a while 'til I work it out, I'd be very grateful'. So that's where the paintings went. Then years later - I hadn't ... I didn't follow that up very much - years later, Allan Gerdau, God bless him, went to his reward, and his daughter wrote to me, in charge of his estate, and she said, 'We have these paintings. What are we to do with them?' and I said, 'Well, I'd like them back, please'. I'd almost forgotten about them by this time. And so they ... they came back. Oh yes, she said, 'We have a good way of sending them back, because one of our boats touches at Darwin', and I said, 'Well, that'd be great', you know. 'Wouldn't ... Doesn't cost us anything', she said, 'Wouldn't cost you anything. We can land them at Darwin. Can you get them from there?' And I said, 'Yes, oh yes, that'd be wonderful'. So then ... you know, the months and months went past and I then heard that the paintings were in Darwin. And somehow, again to make a long story short, those paintings have been acquired by the museum and art galleries of Darwin and that's where they are. But when they were unpacked, one was missing. Torres was missing. I called them after the discoverers, and one was called Torres. Torres was missing, so the set was incomplete. So I said, 'That's all right, I can complete the set. I'll redo Torres', because I had reproductions of it. And I couldn't redo it exactly, but I redid it fairly exactly. So Torres and ... and Vlamingh and all the rest of them - fifteen of them - are in the collection of the Northern Territory. So that's ... that's just the New York story.
Oh, I definitely did. There was another attitude towards me. And I can remember, like all the things you do in every day ... as I say, it's an adventure. You get up and you go out and it's just like a great musical comedy from nine o'clock in the morning 'til dark. And I was looking at galleries, and saying, 'Would you think of being an agent for me?' and I can remember one of them in Soho or something, and I can remember this ... this man looking at me. And of course, I'm pretty mature then. And he said, 'My dear young lady ...' - that's not a good accent, but he was saying, 'My dear young lady, no agent's going to take you on all that way down under. You got to come and live with us'. It was sort of sweet but they weren't going to be an agent for someone living in Perth, of all remote places in the world. But again, it was that, that sort of insight into the warmth and ... and I found them warm and gentle people. And ...
Well, it'd been a big battle. Still is.
Yes, definitely. I think taking it perhaps even unconsciously for ... It is ... art has always been a man's world but definitely very much a man's world in Australia I think. Although I haven't got a hang-up about it, Robin. You know, it hasn't embittered me or anything. But it ... it's there, I'm sure because one of the worst experiences was when I showed the big Broome collection at then David Jones Gallery in Sydney. It was a lovely gallery, and it was run by Will Lawson, of the Lawson family. Lovely artist and a lovely man in himself. And when ... when I approached him and said, 'Would you show these paintings?' he was very responsive and he said, 'This is just what David Lloyd Jones hoped we'd be showing', and, of course, I was thrilled with that. He was one of those - again, mature men with lovely sense of ... I don't know - [a] gentlemanly person. And so that exhibition went up there. But it was exactly across the time when there was a critic called Paul Haefliger. He'd be well known still in art circles and he was ... he was the critic for the Sydney Morning Herald and ... and he was a big influence in Sydney at that time. And, of course, the exhibition before that was one of the Nolans, and I ... I remember Haefliger had written a tremendously eulogising review of it: 'To even see them was like coming into a cathedral', whatever these paintings were by ... by Nolan. I think they were some of his Australian landscapes. But then, somehow, because I was ... he hadn't got any social links with me, he didn't know where Western Australia was. I think he originated from Switzerland but he'd been living in Sydney a long time. He was married to Jean Bellette, a well known artist. She did copies of Greek figures and things like that. And, at any rate, he came to this exhibition. I would loved to have talked to him, but he didn't engage me. I saw him there, writing down a few notes and then he went out and the next day in the ... in the Sydney Morning Herald, there was a damning ... a damning review, in which he said, 'It's pretty clear that this artist is starting to walk before she can crawl and a lot of these pictures look like as though she's copied cheap reproductions of Matisse'. And, of course, I was new to all this and I ... I went in and saw Will Lawson. And I said, 'Oh, we'll take no notice of that. It's just nonsense. It's so ridiculous, you know, saying that I'm copying people or something', and he said, 'Oh no, Elizabeth, this is very serious. This man has very big influence in this city'. He was nearly in tears himself over it, dear old Will Lawson. I still didn't take it very seriously. But the fact of the matter was, the exhibition died on the walls. A few drawings sold but I hardly could pay my way back to Western Australia, you see. It was a damning criticism by a man artist. But it came as just sort of ... just woven now into the rich tapestry of my failed career. [Laughs]
Always very supportive. That's where it's always hard for me to ... perhaps, why I'm never sort of embittered against men. But men in the art world, I think, they were ... that isn't even so. It's difficult to answer that. Because certainly my dad was very thrilled that I was doing anything with my work. Although it did worry him that it wasn't a little bit better paying. And the ... my brother, Kim, was a tremendous support. My brothers have been. And of course, perhaps my husband, Frank, was the most supportive of all, because I don't know that I had, when I was married at twenty-three - I think, I must have been twenty-two, twenty-three - feeling that I was going to be an artist so much. I'd done a lot of work. You know, I'd done a lot of illustrating and everything but I was prepared to be more domestic. I can remember we had a small flat in St. Neot's Avenue, Kings Cross and I was just looking after it and dusting it and things, and preparing an evening meal. [INTERRUPTION]
It's hard to answer that, I think. Perhaps it did. Perhaps it did. They would have ... yes, I think that that came into it a little bit.
Yes, he did. Yes, he did appreciate the fact that ... that I was working, doing the work that he was very familiar with by this time, through the books and that sort of thing. So I can remember when we first got married we had a little flat in St. Neot's Avenue, Kings Cross and I was prepared to play a domestic role. You know, I wasn't feeling very ambitious about work at the time and I was preparing an evening meal and I remember making a pudding - a pudding with a beaten egg on top, meringue on top - and we had the evening meal. We had the steak or whatever it was and then Frank looked at the pudding, and he picked it up and he took it over to the sink, and he ran the tap on it and he said, 'Elizabeth, I didn't marry you to cook puddings for me', and it was just a sort of appreciation of the fact that I could turn my energies to something better. So that was his attitude towards it, and he did encourage me in every way.
Well, it must be. I mean, I think it's no comparison between battling around in the fifty years ago than today. There are more opportunities and more funding, you see. The whole ... people ... sometimes strikes me that no one puts brush to canvas now without having a grant. It's a complete reversal from what I did. You know, the ... always exhibiting to raise the wind and then seeking out sponsors and this sort of thing.
Yes, yes, I've always had a shot at some sponsors, and I did a big block of work for the Australian Agricultural Company, working at Rockhampton Downs, you know. I'd sort of think out some idea. And then some of the towns of Western Australia, the councils for the towns, supported me. When I did a big block of work on ... on the town of Geraldton, I negotiated with the town council and I went up and did the big block of work and then they bought it for a sum of money. It was always a very small sum compared to anything nowadays, but I must have done about forty or fifty, sixty paintings. Not big ones. Graphic work of Geraldton and the environs. And then for a long time, I didn't know what happened about that. Then not so long ago, only about ten or twelve years ago, they set up a very nice gallery, Queen's Gallery, in Geraldton, and at the same time, they discovered that ... that those works that I'd done for them, which had been lost, were found again. And the ... Geraldton was very thrilled about finding them again and so they set them up in this new gallery and ... and they ... they paid my fare up there and I opened that. And that's how the folio of the town of Geraldton is the one that's remained most intact. Because though I've done the other towns, the ... there ... there's only the ... a lot of the pages are gone out of them, you know, because I had to sell them. So there were all sorts of ways I thought of involving enough funds to keep ... keep abreast.
I think it would have probably. There was that drive into it too, apart from the urge to create. There was that ... that urge too, which keeps you on your feet.
I ... I doubt it. It doesn't ... it's hard to ... again a hard question to answer, to what effect a secure economic support would affect the creative impulse. It ... it ... security does tend to dim creativity sometimes, you know. There's nothing like the drive of having to find the next meal, more or less, to be exaggerated, yes. [Long smile]
In thinking about your artistic life, you were saying you had support from your family, you had support from those close to you. Have you felt supported by the broader artistic community in Australia?
Not at all, no, no. I've got trunks full of applications. [Laughs] I've got trunks full of rejected applications. I'm always thinking up good ideas. Of course, as soon as the Australia Council was set up, I mean I'm not ... I thought, well I'll work an idea in on that and I ... I could show you all sorts of applications, very good ones. But they've only got to see the name Durack, or to have it sponsored by ... have a referee in the form of Sir Charles Court, and it sort of goes into the discard bin. [Laughs] I'm sure that's what's happened time and time again.
Well, very small, very small. Just lived from exhibition to exhibition. Run up a few ... a few accounts in the city. And go and see dear old Mr. Ahearn, and say, 'I'll pay for the children's uniforms after the exhibition', still keeping my fingers crossed that anything would sell. You know, it was sort of a ... it was a struggle. It was a real struggle. But I wasn't oppressed with it. Just go on with it. It's hard to describe, you know. And you know, I'd get ... everything would get run down. All my under clothes would be in rags and then ... then I'd have a few ... and I'd buy a few new things at the end of the exhibition. Thinking back over it, that was literally the situation.
Oh, a few times, yes. Just thought of it. Just crossed my mind. And I'd rapidly go on another painting expedition.
Oh, I don't know. I don't know. Well, it had partly to do with ... partly, I suppose, to do with the fact that Frank did ... I did ask for a divorce once, and Frank said, 'I will never give you a divorce, Elizabeth'. So that was one of the inhibiting factors, I guess. And then, you know, I could live with that. I get knock backs and I quickly think of another track, you see. And I just went on working. But of course, after Frank died, I did get away because it wasn't easy to get away even before that.
No, no, no I didn't.
Oh, I think it must be when you see the wonderful teams of ... I can enumerate so many of them, wife and husband, working together. And my friend Leon Pericles, lovely West Australian artist, his wife just lives to support him and to help with all the detail of his work and the accounts and the PR work and everything. That's only one instance. There are dozens but it just happens that I was talking to Pericles not long ago and what a wonderful support Moira is. Yes, yes, and some of the successful artists, like Preston, Margaret Preston, well her husband was enormously supportive to her. And so was that woman that did the lovely portraits of oriental queens and ... See what's happening to the old memory: the names go. Her husband's been a big support to her.
How far was the need to raise your children, and support them financially, and at the same time try and express yourself as an artist ... how did that impact on your work, do you think? Do you think it made it different?
Yes, it probably did. I think it probably did.
You do wonder how ... how you manage it. One of the things, I've had immense energy, which I can see the contrast with it in this present age. I simply did not know what it was to be tired, you know, and I'd work half the night when the children were asleep, doing ... fulfilling orders for these ... for these reproductions that I told you about. The handmade reproductions. One of my best agents for that was Edith MacMillan in Melbourne. She had a little shop in Little Collins Street, called the Primrose Collins Street, where lots of work went from here to her and she handled ... handled it there. She was a remarkable little woman and there's been effort made to bring her forward more and have an exhibition concerning her at one of the universities in Melbourne and her niece contacted me the other day.
Just good luck, I suppose. Good luck and good health: a great ... great advantage. Yeah. Also, touching on another aspect of my life, which I won't go into deeply, I ... and it's almost a cliché, but I had a desperately unhappy love affair, early, in the north. And I think it sort of shattered me to a large extent, so that everything else was irrelevant to a large extent, you know.
Oh, well before. Long before, yes.
I don't suppose it would hurt to mention the name after all this time. He was a young man called Tom Naughton , Thomas Naughton, and the Naughtons had adjoining stations to ours. And he ... he was born and bred in Melbourne but he came north, and it was ... it was a sort of a non-stop love affair for quite a long time. But you know, that was what made me, perhaps, dislike London and being abroad so much. It was that I really didn't want to go away but I was committed to it by that time. I was committed to it. I can remember the boat pulling out from the Wyndham jetty, and looking ... and my tears dropping down into the muddy waters of the gulf. But I thought I'd come back. I thought I'd come back, and ... and that, you know, that everything would work out. But I never saw him again. He was killed.
It was a motor car accident. He was a wild boy, a very wild boy. And he was ... I must ... they must have an attraction for me - he was seriously alcoholic. Yes. But wonderful charm, and wonderful, wonderful young man really.
Ah no. I came back and I was in the north again, and that's when he died, yes. And that's what I felt, I couldn't stay on in the quiet of the station any longer and that's when I went to Darwin to nurse. He was in a very bad way then, and ... and I would have gone down but I didn't go down. I didn't know he was going to die, you know. And then ... then I actually ... he ... I heard of his death when I was nursing, which was in some ways a blessing, because it was very, very traumatic. And just to be working, I think, kept me sane. I remember saying to the matron, 'I just don't want to knock off work', you know. 'I just want to work on'. But that's getting a little bit into an area that doesn't belong to our talk, I don't think.
Oh yes, it definitely did. So in a way, you know, I wasn't ... it sort of ...
Perhaps the whole of my life is the answer to that. The whole of my life, since then, is the answer to that. Including marriage and lovers and friends.
I don't think I could ever mate with anyone, that was my trouble. Perhaps the failure of the marriage was my inability to mate, more than ... much more than ... than Frank's. Do you know what I mean? I could never give completely ever again, and never would. And never have.
Just an inability. Just something within me, I think, in just ... and perhaps all the energy went in other directions, you see. I'm only putting a superficial, psychological explanation to it but it's ... it's there, you know. It ... it was profound effect on my life, there's no doubt about that. But everything you put behind you.
Yes, yes. I see what you're getting at. Was I describing my own ... was it autobiographical, a lot of the work? In a sense it is. In a sense there is that feeling of loss, always loss, loss. And to that ... that was also something of the bonding with the Aboriginal people. Loss. A shared loss, you know. However you rationalise loss, loss is loss, you know.
I think so. I think I did, yes. I think I did. And I think I personalised things through the Aboriginal people to a large extent. For instance, the painting ... it's not a painting, it's a big drawing that's in the Art Gallery of Western Australia ... They acquired it only last year. After the war we had people coming here, didn't we, that we called displaced people, from Central Europe. But this is a big flow of Aboriginal figures and I thought, well if anyone was displaced people ... and I call it Displaced People, reverting back to the women and children moving across the landscape. So it's a mixed theme. I think we're getting into some rather sort of quicksandy areas here, Robin, that I don't know that I like.
In talking about your art, you've talked about these themes of disintegration and loss and also the organic connection that you've felt with the Aboriginal people and their way of looking at the world and this all expressed itself in various phases of your painting. What do you see as the culmination of that work? What were you moving towards, do you think?
I ... I wouldn't have known at the time what I was moving towards, Robin but it seems to be moving towards, and into the latest phase, which is the art of Eddie Burrup, which somehow, as you know, which is ... I've been subsumed by my subject matter to a large extent. If I could put it that way. Because I have been ... it didn't ... I didn't ... There was nothing deliberate about it. And I think I mentioned earlier that I was working on different ... different activities, from the simple and visual to graphic, to the more ... more complicated and almost metaphysical. And the work was getting even beyond The Rim And Beyond, into what I was calling the morphological phase, where ... where all ... all life and forms were becoming integrated. Both animal and vegetable and mineral were integrating in a loose, which again, was not abstract. I haven't worked abstract but they were sort of abstract. And I was doing this work at the same time as doing work that was going out to the public, or that was ... that I was aware of it was a development of The Rim and Beyond. But my morphological works were the ones that were ... I had no plans for them at all. And it was that point ... it was at that point, when my daughter was down from Broome, and I said, 'Well, I will just show you some of these morphological works' and I had a lot of them. They were down in the rear studio. And she sort of ... when she saw them, she sort of started to get cross with me. And she said, 'Well, what are you doing these mad works for? Why are you doing this mad work? You say you're not going to exhibit it, you can't exhibit it. No one will ever look at it. It's going to be ... it's just ... you're just wasting your time and your materials. Why can't you do some ... at least do some simple graphic work that could go through my little gallery', you see. And she got really sort of angry and I thought, that's funny. And then she looked ... looked at them again, and she said, 'But, they're sort of Aboriginal, mum. They're sort of Aboriginal', and then she sort of drifted on, looking at them as though she was seeing them. She's very sensitive to art ... very sensitive to art. [She's] got a good knowledge of it, although she doesn't practice it herself. And she said, 'Of course, if these were done by an Aboriginal, then they would get somewhere. But', she said, 'you'd never agree to doing that. You've always played things so dumb and so straight, you'd never sign things under another name'. I didn't even answer her. You know, I didn't even answer her. I've been working in the morphological way, of which I'd done descriptions - verbal descriptions - on my notes on the computer and everything over the last four years or more, four or five years. And then I can remember, we went for a walk. It was beautiful, early summer day, we went for a walk around the river here. And I was just ... an extraordinary thing. We stopped under a kurrajong tree, with some pink blossoms on it. And I was just looking at the flowers, the way you do look at flowers. And I heard myself saying, 'You know ... you know Perpetua, I'm not totally opposed to signing those morphological works under a nom de plume', and it was though from that moment, Eddie Burrup appeared. Eddie Burrup appeared, with his name, his ... the way he looked, the age and everything, and then that was ... that was the beginning of Eddie Burrup, which was now over four years ago. And I worked on ... and then you see, then Perpetua thought ... no, was I working ... did the ... did ... I can't quite ... I must track it back, whether the morphological work ... yes, some of the morphological works were Eddie Burrup's, which could be shown as Eddie Burrup's. But then Eddie Burrup took over more and it became the totemic tumult of Eddie Burrup's basic expression. The tumult that has occurred within the ... within the Narranganni, because of the neglect into which they've fallen, both with the present world of the Aboriginal people, and because they were so ignored in the ... in the decisions of Mabo. The fact that the land was shared with the totemic creatures was ... was neither known nor considered and so Eddie Burrup's work concerns the totemic world in tumult, and he talks through that world, and that's the essence of his world, and that's the way the paintings come out, you see.
Yes, before he had a name or a persona.
Oh, it was thrilling. It was thrilling. They began to take shape, and they emerged, and themes came, and all the past came back through me. Everything sort of came back to me not in big sequences, but in fragments, which occur as the names that he gives his pictures. For the Eddie Burrup's, the name is important to the picture, and they're fragments of the old life, a half remembered story that perhaps is ... you see, as you get older, you remember more. And I remember fragments of things that I would have only casually ... casually listened to when I was a girl on Ivanhoe. You know, about the ... about some totemic creature doing something. It just sort of went into my head, but now it comes back vividly to me as though in old age recall. I can recall more than I did twenty years ago. And that's moving through the Eddie Burrup's and so that there's a big element of mystery in it, although I don't want to sound, again, as though ... [INTERRUPTION]
I don't think it would have worked through Elizabeth Durack. I would have been lost. It would have just sit ... sat out in the rear studio. It was Eddie Burrup that somehow brought it to life. I can't ... I can't ... I can't answer it. I simply can't answer it. It'll have to evolve itself out. He might run out of ideas. I don't know. You see, but ... but it's certainly been an enormous output of work. I've done lots of work, and big work. I've got quite a volume of Eddie Burrup's work. When I see it through Eddie Burrup's eyes, or feel it through ... through ... through in that way, it emerges.
Not at all. No, not at all. What's more, a few of the Eddie Burrup's then ... then hung in ... Perpetua hung a few of them, just to get comment on them but they were always not for sale. They were always not for sale, you see. It wasn't ... we must have known, or I must have known, I must have said, 'Well, put them up if you want to, see what people say', and of course, people did say and they liked them. And it became harder and harder for someone running a small commercial gallery to keep on saying they were not for sale. But of course, perhaps it was the fact that it had an Aboriginal ... it isn't an Aboriginal name, it's an English name. He's called ... as he describes in his own words, in ... in ... in his taped biography, he was called Eddie Burrup when his mother, as the ... on Yandeyarra station, where he was born ... she brought him up as a little piccaninny, for the ... for the ... to be named by the owner of the station, old Mackenzie Grant at the time. That's historic, as the Aboriginal mothers did bring their babies up and ask them to give them a gudea name, a white fella name. 'You give him good white fella name'. They ... they were doing that all through the years, you know, right up to recent times. And then this ... this station owner, he said, 'Okay, we'll call him Eddie Burrup', because Eddie Burrup ... Henry Burrup was ... was a bank man that had ... had lived on Burrup Peninsula. Burrup Peninsula's named after him. He'd lived at Onslow I think, running the Commonwealth Bank, or whatever bank there was then. And it was a mysterious ... He'd been mysteriously murdered. And it was a big story through the north: the murder of Eddie Burrup. It was never quite solved. It wasn't ... he wasn't killed by an Aboriginal. Might have been killed by an oriental man. It was never quite solved. But everyone talked of Eddie Burrup at the time, the early ... yes, in the teens, I suppose. Forget what year he was murdered. The name was still around in 1915 and that's what the station called him, Eddie Burrup, you see. But it's an English name. His tomb's up there and the Burrup Peninsula's named after him. So it's actually an English name.
Just came to me when I was doing the biography, yes.
And Eddie, though, is much more than a nom de plume or nom de brush. You've created a whole character, you've - under that name - written his life story, but the thing that's most striking is that you talk about him in the third person.
Yes, I suppose so. Is it?
I can't. I can't explain it. It's quite worrying. But as I say, I'm not really losing it completely. But I am part ... I suppose one is ... everyone's part of certain mysterious forces, you know, that keep you ... keep you going. But what's been the strange thing is that when you most readily run of energy, there's always energy. I could paint every day if I had the time, or if the days weren't broken, as Eddie Burrup. Sort of something that's ongoing, that draws me out.
I just haven't done much. I don't say that I can't. You know, I suppose I could but it seems to lie in the past. Figures moving through a landscape, a literal landscape, or a gentle pastel, or a well drawn ... No, it belongs to my past. This ... this has opened another vista to me.
Well they weren't ... It wasn't very frustrating. I was receiving perhaps more attention than I'd had for a long time, from the - from certainly in nineties. LISWA, the Library and Information Service of Western Australia, mounted a wonderful exhibition for me - virtually a retrospect. They did that, and that was open for six weeks. There was a video made of that. The Art Gallery of Western Australia mounted an exhibition of work from the thirties to the fifties. Hamersley Iron had me touring the north with exhibitions of their work. I was ... I had massive exposure. I'd never had so much in ... in the nineties. And things were going ... things were going pretty well. This is isn't ... oh, I don't say that ... that your question, that there wasn't perhaps through somewhere ... you ... you ... I think you're trying to position it that his emergence was due to frustration?
Yes, yes, and it is to be explored. And it is. But under the immediate circumstances things were going well for me, you see. Certainly I hadn't got the ... I'd never crossed the Nullarbor, and I did say to my daughter, 'Before I die, I would like to cross the Nullarbor'. It was very hard to do that from Western Australia.
Ah, yes. I had exhibited, but not widely. You know, and again it's very expensive to move on your own steam and do any exhibitions. Melbourne has always been very supportive to me as a city.
Fresh stimulus, yes. But all those factors could come into it, but I mean perhaps it's too early to ... to come to any definite conclusion over it.
I really don't think so. I really don't think so. Because she was ... she can readily sell work of mine in reproduction, as Elizabeth Durack, you see. There's a demand for that. Still is. And ...
I suppose she herself has followed the career of quite a lot of Aboriginal artists, and has seen how rapidly they can be unknown yesterday and be the lead artist at the Biennale, the Venice Biennale, the next. You know, these thoughts must have passed through anyone's head, which is wonderful, that all the Aboriginal artists are acting as such wonderful cultural ambassadors for Australia. I mean you can how ... how the Japanese say, 'Well it is the only really Australian work', you know. And how they would prefer that to any Streeton or Hayden - whatever he's called.
So you were doing these paintings as Eddie, and then how did ... what was the next step after ... after you decided that you couldn't go on just saying they're not for sale. What ... what evolved out of that?
Well what happened was that Eddie did ... did do a Christmas card. And that, we ... Perpetua and I got that printed and she circulated it widely. It was one I'll show you: the first Christmas card of Eddie Burrup, which was a sign of ... which was a baby form, but with a reference to a wandjina head, lying in a strange perspective, a manger, with some ... with two adapted figures from the petroglyphs of the Pilbara, which is his birthplace. And ... and it had a Aboriginal ... Aborginal title to it: Two Fella Angel Singing Out 'la Lovely Baby, 'la Horse Trough, I think it was or some words to that effect. And it was from a set of paintings that Eddie does from time to time, which have reference to Sister Philomena's Bible stories because he was in the Broome convent for a while, and developed this great affection for this nun, who encouraged his work, you see. This is all in his biography. This all comes out in his biography. At any rate, that Christmas card reached the Tandanya Aboriginal world in Adelaide and the proprietor of that phone Perpetua and said, 'We just love the Eddie Burrup Christmas card. Would he consider entering for our exhibition that's coming up for the Adelaide Festival called Native Title Now'. And Perpetua just let me know this as a piece of ... a bit of news. She wasn't going to follow it, or I don't think she replied or wouldn't have replied, definitely. And then, when she told me, I said, 'Okay, tell her that Eddie Burrup would like to go into that exhibition', and that was the beginning of it. That I think answers that. And it went in to that exhibition and ... and was selected for ... for the touring exhibition, and received a lot of ... a lot of interest and appreciation. Perpetua was told that some people were in tears in front of the Eddie Burrup paintings of the shattered wandjina. Then of course, it was getting difficult. And it was getting difficult for Perpetua and difficult for me because I couldn't see where we were going to get out. And then I heard that Robert Smith was coming over to Perth, to give a set of lectures. And that was just about a year ago. It was last September. And I thought, well when Robert comes, having known him ... he was Assistant Director here at the art gallery. He's been away from the West for thirty years. And I thought I'll tell Robert all about it, and see what he suggests and then he suggested that I should admit to it in an article that he'd write for Arts Monthly. That's how it worked out. And he said, 'In this way, that by admitting that you've been working under a nom de plume' - don't think anything had sold but we'd certainly gone into the Tandanya exhibition - 'In that in that way you'll avoid any conflict', or something. I didn't see that there would be any conflict, actually. Didn't foresee any of that.
He said, 'It's a very sensitive area, anything to do with the Aboriginals. Surely you know that, Elizabeth? It's a very sensitive area'.
Not to that extent. Not to the extent of the reaction that happened when ... when the urban Aboriginals in Sydney were ... raised an objection to it. So there it is. So what's the fate of Eddie Burrup, I don't know. Or Elizabeth Durack. Remains to be seen.
I feel thoughts and words running through my mind, as I make the compositions. The titles come out of the compositions, yes. And the compositions come out of ... out of not looking at a scene or translating it, but a shadow world, a sort of shadow world, where things are one. You know, when you see things in shadow, if it's foliage or a flower or ... or an animal or ... or a human, when they're thrown into shadow, they're all one. They're sort of all one. And so that I can find Eddie Burrup's in ... in shadows. That's one essence of it. It's one origin of it. I don't know where they come from really.
Ah, no, I don't think so. I don't think so. No, it was a separate person. And another worrying aspect of it, you see. I'd done the biography with the foreword and the editor's introduction and explanations of the development of the Aboriginal English, which is quite good, studious comment. And then I thought, you know, we're getting sort of ... I was getting sort of, how do I get this out? What happens from here? So I took it to my brother, Reg, and he's my eldest brother. Not at all well. But he ... well, he's very alive, very bright mentally. And I said, 'Reg, read this for me and just give me a comment on it, will you?' you see. And he read it and then I went back to pick it up a few hour's later. It's only very short. And then his wife, my sister-in-law, came to the door, and she said, 'He's reading it all over again', and I said, 'Is he?' And then he ... he said, 'Yeah, that's pretty interesting, Bet. Yes, yes, I'd go along with that', and he'd made reference to the fact that even up to the time he and Enid were on Kildirk station, he said, 'Yes, the mothers would bring their babies up and ask them to be named, just the same even in the fifties', you see. And he made several comments. And I was sort of aghast. I didn't know quite what to say to Reg. And I didn't at the time. Because I thought he'd say, 'Look, Bet, you're not going to get away with this. What are you doing?', you see. And then I thought we could get on to a talk. Now what should I do? You see? But it was so completely accepted that ... so taken ... it was such a complete acceptance of a manuscript and a biography written in ... in Aboriginal English and all the rest of it. He read it carefully, found it most interesting and he said, 'I think, yeah ... I hope Perpetua does well with him', you know. 'Sounds an interesting old boy. I've never met him', he says, you know. And I didn't take it any further. And then it was only last year - yes, last ... last year - that my brother, William, my dear brother Bill, the architect from Toowoomba, he and his wife were going over to Broome, and we met there in Broome and I brought this manuscript with me. I thought, well Bill will be a help. Reg - I can't go on with that. He accepted it so completely I couldn't sort of say, 'Reg, can't you see that I've made that all up. That it's ... that it's a story and I want your comment and direction on it'. And I thought he'd criticise or something but he didn't. Right, I brought the manuscript over, because Noni's in the literary world. She writes under the name of Noni Durack, Noni Braham. And I thought, well she might have ... being in the literary world, she might have contacts. Well she read it and she said, 'Oh, it's lovely Elizabeth. You'll have no trouble getting a publisher for that. It's lovely'. And Bill did the same, you see. And then I thought, this is funny. This is ... this is funny. And we were so busy and doing so many things and having such a lot of fun in Broome, that it ... [I] didn't open it up with ... I didn't open it up with Bill. It's hard to know, but I didn't sort of know quite what to say to my most intimate family relatives. And then I thought, well I'll try another one. And my daughter's husband, who's a musician, Rex Hobcroft ... he was ... he's opened many of the conservatoriums in Australia, and was in charge of the Sydney one for many years. He's now retired here. I thought, well I'll see what Rex thinks, because he doesn't know ... Both Reg and Bill know a lot of ... have a lot of bush background, and they could have been the best critics you could find but here's someone with a completely urban background and a musical background. What's his reaction? Well, he read it too and he said, 'What a wonderful old man. He hasn't got a nasty word to say about anyone. What a wonderful old character he must be', and then he said, 'I didn't know Perpetua was trying to help him. I hope she does well with him'. And again, I couldn't say anything. Now, these are three parties of intimate people that I'm with, you see. And this ... this is before I'd spoken to Bob. And I thought well ... well what? I'll have to come right out and say to somebody - in this case the art world - and that's when I made the contact in ... in the September, with ... with ... with Robert Smith.
I don't know. Well, I didn't, you know. I didn't know. I know with Bill and Noni we were doing too many things, and I didn't want to get into it too deeply. But there were the pictures in the manuscript - reproduction ... photographic reproductions of the work, which they found interesting, too. Oh, there was a terribly funny bit about Noni and Bill. [Laughs] This is where it got ... got tricky, you see. Bill and Noni ... Perpetua was too ... had another appointment, and so on this morning, Bill and Noni, very thrilled, they were looking after Perpetua's desk, you see. And in ... in comes somebody and they said they must have this Eddie Burrup. I think they must have been going for sale at that time. And at any rate, they explained to the ... to the purchaser that he was an artist of great promise, who had just appeared. And they were building up Eddie Burrup, unbeknownst to this prospective buyer, who did buy it. And then to their delight, they told Perpetua that they had found a new career for themselves. They could sell paintings. That was not without its humour. At any rate, the ... the answer to all that was that the very few that were sold - there were a few sold - which of course is worrying - Perpetua contacted them all. But with ... with one exception, everyone said they loved their Eddie Burrups. At some future date they might like me to countersign it with Elizabeth Durack, but they were not going to part with them. And that was their reaction. A couple wrote two beautiful letters about it. So we ... oh, one ... one did say that they thought it was Aboriginal and they would prefer if it was not by a biological Aboriginal ... They weren't cross, but they just said, 'We would prefer not to have it'. So quick as ... quick as ... you know, we refunded the money and the painting came back.
Well, it was getting worrying, you see. But ... but still there wasn't anything that couldn't be said. I had no idea there'd be a reaction. What I ... what I'd ideally thought, that that article would appear, and that then perhaps at some future time, we could go on doing it. I don't know, it's a little bit vague. It is on tricky ground I must admit, but at some future time, someone might challenge him or ... or I might, myself, further expose it, or something. And then I would have said, 'But six months ago, that was in print in Art Monthly, where it told the origin of Eddie Burrup'. Or someone might have said, 'Well what is this all about? We'd better ring up Elizabeth Durack or see some of these Eddie Burrups'. You see, I thought there might have been that reaction, in which I would have been happy to ...
Well, just the reaction. How did I discover? I had the press of the world coming to my door.
The ... the ... what was the man's name? He runs a gallery. He's a part Aboriginal. Mundine, is it? Mundine? Well, he just said that the whole thing was sacrilege. It was robbery. It was theft. All the dreadful ... And then the ... for some reason or another, although I'd never understand why, it was picked up as a story. Went all around the world.
Mm, mm. They were down, with the hammer-headed sharks and everything. No, I wasn't going to talk. They said, 'Oh, you've got to talk. You've got to talk. You've got to give your side of the story'. I said, 'I don't know what my side of the story is. I'm just not going to talk'. And I didn't talk for four months, you see. Then I agreed to give the story to the Australian New Magazine. The magazine got ... to the print media. But all sorts of people were in touch. I've got a box of media there, a box of it. I can't remember it now, you know, because I waited for a while, and then ... then that was the first story. And then Channel 9, the ... the next story, and then our story.
Well, she was a wonderful mother for a start and she had a very warm personality, a lovely sense ... a sense of laughter. I can often recall mother's laughter and she was a ... a practical person but she loved ... loved fun. She wasn't an intellectual person but she ... she read novels but she didn't read deeply. And she ... she was, as I say, a loving mother to us all.
Yes, mother had a sister who was ... who was a nurse and she travelled. Mother was an Adelaide ... a South Australian girl, the daughter of a legal man. Lived at the semaphore. He was magistrate at the semaphore outside Adelaide. And one of her sisters ... They were a big family of girls. One of her sisters became a nurse and came to Western Australia and she was doing special nursing, private nursing, and it happened that one of her patients was J.W. Durack and she nursed Uncle Jack back to health and then went back to ... to Adelaide and there she was talking to the rest of the family about having met this ... members of the family, the Durack family, that had opened up the Kimberleys and ... and so on. And then when dad was down I think a few months later, he called on the Johnstone family and met mother and from that time the romance developed. And they were married on the 22 September 1909. How's that for memory? [Laughs]
There was. There was a considerable difference. Mother was in her early twenties and dad was forty-five, I think, when they married - a big difference but it was a long and successful marriage. One that you would think would have been under a lot of stress because by the time we had a townhouse, mother was more in Perth than in the north, which she had been with us in the early days, and so there were, oh, perhaps for more than half the year they were separated and yet the marriage survived any of that. There was never any thought for a moment of ... of their being too great a strain on mother. She ran a big household too, you see. Those were the days we had our English nurse. We'd have a ... we had a domestic. We had help coming in. You can imagine it was a fairly big household with six children - a regular gardener, a regular laundry ... the laundry seemed to be a big feature of life as it is, I suppose, anywhere. It was on the stations too. She'd come on Monday and then on Tuesday to do the ironing, so life went on like that, but mother had a busy social life too. And enjoyed the theatre a lot and was, of course, the centre of a big family group. All the ... Quite a lot of relatives - our Uncle Pat, our Uncle Jack - and they lived there and kept in very close contact.
Never for a minute. Oh no. No women were brought down. It was just the men.
Oh, I don't think ... well, it just wasn't thought of. No, no, we didn't think of ... No, Aboriginal women so far north wouldn't have adjusted to the cold of the winter for a start. No that wasn't on but some of dad's particular ... particular mates, you could say, if you like, did come down with him over the summer period, yes.
Dad? Well, he too was a very loving father, very proud of us. He was never at home for any ... any of the births and ... except for my brother William. And it was ... it is interesting that there was the very, a very special bond between my father and my brother, Bill. He was the fifth child and dad called him 'Quintus Superbus' and Quinty for short and they were very loving to each other - not that he showed favouritism or anything but Bill was his special ... special favourite in fact.
No, she was very even-handed. She was wonderfully even-handed particularly with ... with Mary and me, although, again, I can remember that Mary might have got more invitations than ... than me or something. And then I'd say, 'Can I go too, me too', you know, 'Me too' at six or seven years old, and our mother would say, 'You can't go everywhere with Mary', you know, just, 'You haven't been invited this time'. She'd be quite firm but all very reasonable.
Clouds? Failing music, failing mathematics, [laughs] sitting for it time and time again, the deepest clouds. I remember failing music exam. I'm not musical and that upset me. But I can't remember serious clouds, no. We were ... we had a united childhood. Again our ... our Uncle Jack, the one that Auntie Gert had nursed was literal ... you'd call him parent in ... in loco parentis because he was there once or twice a week at our place. He was in charge of the ... of the office in Howard Street, the Connor, Doherty & Durack office.
Your father had been intimately involved with the whole process with his father and so on of opening up the north and pioneering all that Kimberley region and setting up the Durack properties up there. What do you think that land and those properties meant to him?
I think he ... he was attached to the life I think and he appreciated it and he ... he took a lot of very good photographs of it but I don't think he ever lost sight of the fact that ... that the stations were for sale. You know, there was a better, richer life beyond the Kimberleys. He was not keen on us getting too deeply involved with the Kimberleys. And then there was the interesting situation with my brother, Kim, who was ... came north from ... getting high honours at an agricultural college and looking at the north for the first time with a very critical eye, a very critical eye. I can remember the first time I heard the word 'erosion' was used by Kim who would ... who noticed, I think, perhaps. among the first. that it wasn't the fact [that] they thought the seasons were getting lighter and the grass wasn't growing as well but it was due to the degradations that the cattle had made on the river banks for fifty years, you see. And it was Kim's horror at the sight of the big breakaways opening up and seeing the land breaking up, deteriorating and eroding that set him off on his idea of recouping the land and entering into experiments with agriculture and dad was quite intrigued about the idea and Kim brought the first plough up to Argyle, I can remember. And then ... then went further: he was growing different crops there and then he wanted to have a bigger place and so, quite formally, some land was excised on ... from Ivanhoe Station, Carlton Reach, a beautiful permanent water hole, and Kim set up, in conjunction with the West Australia Government and CSIRO in Canberra. Mr. Christianson seemed to be around in those days and set up the first research agricultural station in the Kimberley, and then he wanted to go further with it but ... but the government wanted to do more experimenting and then the bigger research station was set up at the present location: the Kimberley Research Station in Kununurra. A very big story on it's own Robin, but I'll just enter into it with regard to the ... what it impinges on dad, who was proud of what Kim was doing. He'd take people to see the magnificent crops - small crops - that he was raising and yet at the same time he was nervous about Kim. He was ... it was ... he said, 'Of course if this goes ahead, they'll reclaim all our river frontages with no compensation', and the ... this ... this started a sort of argument within the family, within the ... And then ... then Kim also was the first one, in conjunction with the chief engineer here - he was Mr. Dumas but he was knighted later - and he got him up and Kim walked the length and breadth of the Ord River and found the ideal spot to drop a block to dam the Ord, you see. So Kim was the one that conceived the idea of the Ord. Had that as a marvellous position ratified by the chief engineer, by Sir, perhaps, Donald Dumas - I've just forgotten his Christian name - Russel, Sir Russell Dumas, of course. And then the prospect of damming the Ord loomed but in the meantime, he was ... he was very interesting and [a] strange personality because, although he wanted to instigate the conservation of water in the ... in the region, by the time the ... the Ord was becoming more than just something to talk about, he was frightened of the idea of sinking huge capital money into a project before it had really been proved. And ... and he ... then he fell out with the West Australian Government, in a way, and he went ... went over to Canberra to try to set up a Rivers Authority. He wanted the rivers of the Kimberley to be properly assessed before they went [ahead] but by that time, Sir Russell Dumas and the Premier - this was fairly early in the reign of Charles Court - they saw that the Ord as the whole object. So you see, the whole story is very fascinating but ... but it's very sort of evoluent [sic] and then dad was then still ... he was getting more and more nervous about the prospect of the resumption of properties because within the lease, you know, it wasn't ownership, it was a lease. Within the lease any land could be resumed. This was the wonderful part about a pastoral lease. This is the danger of the present situation. If they are going to make pastoral leases freehold, it's another situation. They were not freehold, they were pastoral leases for the rights to the surface grazing of the land but if a better use was found for the land, they had to give way. And within the pastoral lease, land could be resumed at any time for another use, you see. It's a very complex and interesting thing, a pastoral lease. So at any rate, the beginning of the family argument over it was that Kim wanted to discreetly develop water conservation on ... on the Ord, smaller catchments, trying out different areas and integrated with the pastoral industry. And ... but that isn't what occurred. So in the meantime, dad had got more and more determined, under these ... under these what he felt as threats to the original holding of the land. He became more and more determined to sell ... to sell before it was too late and before he died because he was very old now, you see. And the end of the story is that against enormous persuasion on my part, I persuaded - but I had no power of course - against the sale particularly from Kim and me, the sale went through and that was the end of the Connor, Doherty & Durack leases in the Kimberley region. And so the feeling ... my feeling about the ... about the Ord is very mixed, you see. It's both the ... I still have Kim's arguments running through my head about the folly of starting off such a huge project before anything was proven and, of course, Kununurra and the agricultural work there is ... is itself now fifty years old. It's taken a long time, but they are getting on top of it and I think it's quite ... very successful now.
Yes it was the best pastoral property in the north, Argyle, because we were in first and had the pick of it.
I think that, yes, outback properties were regarded as commercial properties and there were times when there were a lot of family into certain properties and then they sold out in about 1915, or something, when it was a good price going. And dad used to say, 'We should have sold out then you know, when the prices were good', but yes, those properties were always up for sale, not only dad's but some of them. That was the attitude towards that ... those pastoral lands. It wasn't only dad.
Well, of course, the next generation got much more deeply into it and certainly my brother, Reg, and Kim and I were ... were terribly bound up with the north, which again worried dad a little bit although he ... he ... he went along with everything, He was a mild man and ... but overall this contention over the land and the prospect of leasehold becoming another form of tenure under an agricultural arrangement, that ... that ... that was the pressure that dad wanted to somehow ... was a pressure behind dad's increasing urge to sell the properties. Yes, to tidy everything up before he went but ... and of course, I can remember ... remember vividly and quite heart breakingly remember Kim and dad sort of having arguments - not bitter arguments but very wordy arguments - and dad said that he'd ... 'No, I'm going to sell, I'm going to sell, that's all [there is] about it. I'm going to sell'. There was a good prospect of a buyer at the time and Kim said, 'You can't sell, dad,' and dad said, 'Why can't I sell?' He was the biggest shareholder. He'd been gathering the shares. He was the total authority of the company. And Kim said, 'Because if you do dad' - and Kim had enormous blue eyes and he looked at dad - and he said, 'If you do dad, it will kill you'. And dad said, 'What nonsense! I'll be killed if I have to put up with all this worry and all this to-ing and fro-ing and all the buyers coming and then dropping away and all this. What nonsense!' And poor dad was dead three weeks after the sale and so it was sort of a very, very traumatic time and coinciding with this ... Kim was a sort of a seer in some ways. You know, sometimes he'd say things. He was like that from the time he was a little boy. He had a sort of a prophetic sense. And he was ... yes I'm thinking back now of his childhood so I won't digress into that.
Oh yes, and of course I was deeply bound up with my brother by this time. If we ... we were running as a complete team over the whole thing. This was contemporarily with ... with my time on the banks of the Ord, with my studio and everything, you see. And the ... I ... Kim and I had enormous plans drawn up for the new homestead at Argyle and what we'd do with the gradual introduction of ... of the now proven success with certain crops and things like that. And what had happened by this time was that I was bonding more with my brother than ... than with the ... with my married partner in far in the south in another area altogether. If I come ... come ... coming into it more fully ... I can remember, Frank saying rather bitterly once, 'I think it was Kim that broke our marriage', but whether it was I don't know. I don't know why I get into these personal tracks. You lead me somehow. You nodded me like that Robin.
When it was lost and you no longer had it, then subsequently the whole area was ... was drowned ... was drowned by the dam, I noticed from old footage that your mother and Mary were at that occasion and you were not there. Was it because you couldn't bear to go?
I think it might have been too. Yes, yes, mother went up for the formal opening of the dam. It was opened by the Prime Minister McMahon and yes, yes, it was very mixed feelings over that whole country. It's full of ... full of emotions pulling one way and another. Still is.
Now your father was attached to the land in one way, and the loss of it, in a sense, marked the end of his life. You were attached to it in another way, and then there was the great attachment of the Aboriginal people that you observed and painted. Do you feel that there were any parallels between the way you felt about the land and the way the Aboriginal people felt about it?
Oh, very closely, I think: feeling again a feeling of loss, a feeling of irreparable loss is a ... is a haunting ... haunting pull within the ... in the inner areas of my being I think. To that extent it, it draws us together I think. But ... but again there are fresh horizons both for them and for me.
Well he was the big boss. He was the big boss but he was a ... because the stations had managers but dad was the overall ... and they called him Yumagin, old Yumagin within whom they had deep respect. There's not the slightest doubt about that. That's what makes one of the upsetting things within the modern context of things: to hear accusations made against our father by one person writing a book. Perhaps I won't mention his name but it doesn't matter if I do. It's a young anthropologist, perhaps, called Pederson. He's written a story about one of the so-called resistance men of the Kimberley and he said that M.P. Durack was known to be an advocator of genocide. Well it's absolute libel because no ... nobody did more than our father to give the Aboriginals a footing and a new release of life within a new ... new context within the ... within the industry. And, you know, it was a very bad thing and I went to a lawyer about it but there's nothing you can do. You can't libel ... the dead are not capable of libel ... being libelled - whatever it was. But it deeply upset me and my brothers to have these things printed in paper ... in the paper.
Well, another thing too, just to get back ... Mother was there as a bride with the beginnings of the family. In the early teens ... now you have the feeling that it was a great mass of ram ... rampaging capturing of Aboriginals and turmoil. Mother and dad, mother and the children, lived at Ivanhoe when dad wasn't there and this would have been in the ... when they were very small. You know it was so peaceful. It was so quiescent over the much present day publicised pictures of the ... of the Aboriginal spearing cattle. Well it's a difficult and vexed thing to talk about just off the top of your head Robin, because it does send chills down your ... down the back of your spine when you hear it. But they were ... they were running an industry. Again the police were in control and if reports came in, that cattle were being slaughtered or speared and of course the spear wasn't a very effective killing agent for a beast, a big beast. You know, they never ... a spear was ... could be efficient, well directed towards a kangaroo but you try to kill a ... a cattle with a spear, all you'll do is wound it. So that they stirred the cattle up. The cattle ... they ... they'd turn away from the water. They'd disturb the whole industry. If the ... if the ... if they had have been allowed to go on spearing cattle, there wouldn't have been any cattle there probably. Oh no, that's ridiculous because there were more cattle than ... it was a lightly populated area of Australia as you know. But there ... there was control used over that. The distances were great. There were no vehicles and how do you ... how do you get ... how do you control it? I can't go into all the details that ... Aboriginals stealing cattle were brought in to Wyndham, but it was done with the police and you know that ...
Oh yes, that's right, you're right there. Yes.
Yes, well, what was always said is, 'If you will come in to the bush camp, we will kill for you', and that went on. That's ... the bush camp was on all the stations. They would kill for them. But whichever way you did it, it was destruction for an Aboriginal society. If they were to sit down and just be fed, that was the end of their old life. If, you know, they ... they ... if ... the pastoral industry destroyed Aboriginal culture and the old way of life. That's the fact of the matter, you see. But so did ... you know, so did the ... so Australia destroyed Aboriginal culture, full stop.
Yes, yes, yes. And they were responding. And of course, the ... the earliest ones taken were responding tremendously. Men like Argyle Boxer came over completely and they ... I don't think, I wouldn't say that Argyle Boxer actually killed anyone but by gosh he'd shoot over the top of the heads of any troublemakers, you know. And he'd just say that a lot of awful ... a lot of ignorant blackfellas up there, there's myalls .... they're spearing cattle, you want to get on to police old man. You know, Boxer was real, well ... what you'd call him. I don't know, but so many of those men had physically and mentally left their old life and they were ... With enormous clarity, they were seeing that there was no hope of the past. But that's all become confused within the present. But within the present situation, when you read with amazement that they seem to project via the television the idea that some of them are living in their pristine condition: walking in and catching fish and doing this sort of thing, whereas these ... these communities are ... are living on the same food as we're living on here.
I don't know. He was terribly interested in their old life and it was he and Boxer and Bulla and all those men that would ... we would go on riding expeditions to some wonderful cave sites, cave rock paintings and so forth but, well, you live within the conscience of your times, I suppose, you see. I can't more than answer that but with ... with this enormous sort of change of attitude and with the ... the recalcitrant and revengeful elements that are already within this society, you can see how the conflict sets in.
I can't answer it. Can't answer it. Perhaps it will be answered in the future. Perhaps it will work itself out as his work progresses. With his ... with his feeling of terrible distress and upset at the ... the loss of the old culture and the ... the ... the way ... they way the old relationships with the totemic world being overlooked by modern judgements concerning land issues in this country. It's a complex ... he's a complex character.
Yes, he is, because it's the last ... the very last of something and again, Eddie Burrup is a composite of different people. To whom can he hand on all his knowledge? I mean, the ... the young people are sadly not able to carry on but I can't put it all into words. It's too deep for me and too deep for Eddie Burrup. All he can do is to ... is to try to express it through his paintings.
Well, he's such a good natured, pleasant personality for a start. He certainly wouldn't have thought anything very much but with the ... with the way the Aboriginal world is linked up today, I think some people still, for goodness knows why, objecting to the emergence of Eddie Burrup, contacted the Warringarri community at Kununurra and they had a meeting about it. And the meeting said, I think, to sum up, that they'd leave it to Jeff because to tell his old mum to stop doing it. But he never did. He never rang me up. He never did anything and of course I saw him the other day and the meeting was perfectly amicable. I told him I thought he'd like the paintings that I'd done and, of course I talked about old Argyle Boxer and the way Boxer could come back without warning. He knew what I was talking about there and about Djanba. We had quite a long conversation. I can't recap it at this time because it was in ... in the Aboriginal English.
Something that has been very important to you and in the context of your ... of your Eddie Burrup persona has been two dance cycles, two important myths or traditions, that are in the Aboriginal culture that have been important to you as sort of principles. Could you talk about that and describe their place in your work and in Eddie Burrup's work?
I think you must be referring to Djanba and Mulaga, the two great cult heroes of which I've only got scattered knowledge myself but they ... they ... they do represent the complete polarisation of attitudes towards ... towards the gudea, towards the ... and Djanba is the definitely the spirit of ... of co-operation and of benign relationship and Mulaga is the opposite. He's revenge and retribution. And, of course, the way things are working out in Australia there's not the slightest doubt about it that the ceremonies of Mulaga, in whatever form they are taking, are ... appear to be transcendent over Djanba. But there's always hope that Djanba can ... can ... can eventually work out. Now Djanba was a bit interesting because, you see, it's a big song cycle and ... and that would circulate right through from, say, Halls Creek. The corroborees followed through in like ... like a moving theatre, you see, and that went up to Wyndham. Came through Argyle, out to Newry, down to Auvergne and looped around, not as far south as ... as Alice Springs but would have come in ... would have come in about the Tanami, and below Billiluna and the ... the ... any corroboree that had to do with Mulaga was forbidden by Argyle Boxer within that whole Djanba circle of songs. I ... I would have to think more deeply before this would make more sense Robin but that is it in brief ... in ...
Djanba was the only cycle of songs that ... that ... not the only cycle of songs but his ... his antagonist, Mulaga, was certainly forbidden within the big area of the ... including the, the Connor, Doherty and Durack properties, which took in Wyndham, nearly as far out as Katherine and nearly as far south as Billiluna, involving Halls Creek in the Tanami - that big loop. Djanba was in control and it ... it would be known if Mulaga was coming that it ... it was not going into that area. So where Mulaga ... it ... it's a strange manifestation of ... of resistance to ... to ... to invasion and retribution and revenge - all those things that were incorporated in ... in a strange performance, which I never saw but I know of. And I've heard the old people talk of it. But Djanba was many songs. So some of them were play-about songs and corroborees and, of course, the Djanba was the biggest song cycle and they ... Boxer, Argyle Boxer owned it but then he had brother relationships with ... with Bungledoon and Bulla and they too had property rights to the Djanba songs, some of which we saw personally on the stations.
Argyle Boxer. He wasn't having him on it any ... he wasn't going to have any of that around in any country that he had control of because he ... he ... he was entering the new life. He was entering a new way ahead and a lot of the old ones felt that. Of course the ... my grandfather's man, Pumpkin, Old Pumpkin was the same. He went over ... all his loyalty went to the ... to the new order. There was a new order coming and if you played it along and went with it, you ... you would become a part of it. Don't forget they were not doing this in an abject way. Aboriginals have never been abject. They've never created ... they've never been bowed to us as the Orientals do. I sometimes think that that on the Orient and those places, they almost created the colonial overlord. But the Aborigines never did. It was much more even ... even, although they more frequently call someone Mary and me misses. At the same time it was Mary and Betty you see. They ... it was a equality there and ... and the ... if Djanba had have really succeeded, there would have been full pride of ... pride of place and pride of race within a new situation. And that was ... that was Boxer's ideal ... Argyle Boxer's ideal and, and all ... all the men that he was following with. At the same time, I mean, he was ... he was a man of ... we've never found the right word for it. Sometimes the blacks call them 'magic's' and sometimes they call ... they don't use the word 'sorcerer' but they were ... They had enormous psychic powers and sometimes they're called 'witch doctors'. We've never found a satisfactory word. Wurrawin is a word used in New South Wales by Langloh Parker and the ... there's many words for the witch doctor and, of course, Argyle ... Argyle Boxer was a powerful Wurrawin or 'bush magic' as they call them. And so they ... he ... he would perform rituals of curing people. He could bring rain, of course. That was a very big aspect of Boxer's ... I can hear dad talking to Boxer now and saying, 'Come on Boxer, you get those stones out. We're getting very dry up that top end'. [Laughs] Dad sort of half joking but also telling Boxer to bring rain. 'Oh yes old man I'll get to work on that'. Yes. [Laughs]
Yes, yes he did, he did. And he ... he had such power that he could, he could bluff the ... bluff the Aborigines around him. They respected him too but he ... he ... but he was also one with them. They gave him a wife but he didn't like having a wife so he gave the wife back. And he always moved on his own, Argyle Boxer. He moved on his own. He felt that he didn't want family life but he liked to ... to join in the camp life and he'd be ... he had a very good voice too.
Oh, I'm sure. I'm sure. If you ask me that now, of course I could get rid ... Our audience might think I'm really over the top because I've sometimes thought that Argyle Boxer himself came into me because he had this reputation for appearing suddenly out of the nowhere. He just came up because there's the ... there's the legend that he ... he never died. No one's found Boxer's grave although Jack Kilfoyle went really looking for it. Then some .... sometimes the blacks say that he went back to Queensland, he went back to the ... to his original people, the Kalkadoon. And then others say that, no, he's there still and that he never died. So that's the ... that's the extraordinary part. If you want to get really fanciful there, it would be a lot of Argyle Boxer in Eddie Burrup. So between living in this world, between two worlds, is the world I inhabit to a large extent.
You were raised a Catholic, educated at the Loreto Convent here in Perth and yet you seem to relate terribly strongly to the spirituality of the Aboriginal people. Where do you sit now? Where ... where is your spiritual life? How far is it affected by your Catholic upbringing? What do you think about God?
'Ah, that old man up top there, you talking about now? He might be there missus. He must be there. You know, don't ... don't ... father been talking there love. He true fella. We got 'em too now. We got 'em that old man. He come ... he come on mass, me and you, too, fella'. They mix it in, Robin, between ... I mean, over ... over God, an over-ruling power. The Aborigines incorporated that, fairly early on. I think ... I think the early missionaries into New South Wales ... I don't think ... I can't talk with any authority what pre-contact Aborigines were but I don't think there was ever any over ... over power. But fairly quickly worked into the Aboriginal world was this figure, Beammi. And I think it's God that came with the missionaries. And to a certain extent that was ... that was paralleled in the north. Professor Elkin was among the first anthropologists that ever came to the Kimberley, shepherded around by dad, because he worked out from Argyle. But he moved further too and dad welcomed him very much. This was early ... early twenties and ... mid twenties. Then ... but he was talking to Aborigines, the Forrest River Mission Aborigines. Forest River was established quite early, before the turn of the century. And I can almost hear what Elkin would have said to them: 'Now, you've got all these spirit forms and do you have an over arching power that would be the big authority', or whatever he might have tried to communicate to people with very limited English. And the ... some ... the native to whom he was talking, this is partly my imagination, he said, to Elkin, 'That ungud ain't it?' And Elkin wrote all this down and 'ungud' appeared in Elkin's works and he refers to U-N-G-U-D but I think it was an Aboriginal mission man talking to Elkin and again wanting to appear to please the ... please the person to whom he was talking and knowing that a ... a learned man would believe in God. And I think he said, 'That ungud ain't it?' And 'ungud', every time I see it written in his book, I think it's partly Aboriginal English - ungud, U-N-G-U-D. So that, there's that quality within the Aboriginal is the wish to ... the wish to fit in with to whom they are speaking, particularly an important visitor or someone that was talking to them about ... There was another interesting feature, [which] parallels what I think that ... that old Aboriginal might have been saying to Professor Elkin. One of the projects set up in ... not so long ago, by the respected Dr. Coombs ... He set together a nice little expensive project with some very learned young women, as it turned out - doctors of this and that. They were to go out to the Kimberley and make communication with the Aborigines and really find out where the massacre sites were, you see, where to find out. So, a great project I think went on for two or three years, funded by the Australian Government you can be sure. Then I met them. They were very nice young women, not too young but young women, learned, degrees and true blue stockings, you see. So, you see, they'd conscientiously mapped out the area I think between Halls Creek and Wyndham where massacre sites were. At any rate they were on ... they were working in Kununurra and I was up there. This was a few years ago. It might be ten years ago. And they were talking to ... to some of our old blacks and I said to one of my bush sisters, Dot, my special bush sister ... She ... she died this year. I said, 'Dot, what are you dragging up all those old stories for when, you know, blacks shooting ... whites shooting blacks and blacks spearing white fellas. You never talked like that when we were together on Argyle', and I remember she couldn't answer me. She didn't answer me. And we didn't talk ... well we talked of something else: problems with her grandchildren as it happened. And the next day I was talking to her ... no, she came up to me. She came up to me. We ... we met. I was walking around and she came up to me and she said, 'Mrs. you been asking me about them fella', and she took my hand and she said, 't'em like 'm massacre'. It's an extraordinary story because they've been trying to accommodate the questions that they were being asked. 'Well ... well if they want to know, we ... we haven't thought of it for ... for a hundred years but we'll map them out', because, of course, they've got memory. My God, it's we who haven't got the memory. They've got memory so you can re ... regurgitate things. You can regurgitate but a lot of that would rightly be best left at the present time I should say. I mean, that that would be what ... what Djanba would say. The past is past.
From your point of view, now, at this stage of your life, when you think about things, what do you think, what do you imagine with this amalgamation? And I think your answer tells me that you've adopted to fit the ideas of the Aboriginal people about spiritual things and you've put that together with what you learned from the nuns, and so on, and made your own belief system. What do you think is going to happen when you die?
You mean the concept of heaven? Well, I ... I'm like anybody educated I suppose, you're sceptical but it's consolation and you find yourself ... and seeing that it's so draped in mystery, the whole of life and death and everything ... In a sense, I think it's ... it's as good a thing to believe some of the old teachings of the formal religion. If anything, it's an act of humility for how little we do know and how little our understanding of anything is. We can only grope. We can only grope.
I think it has. I think it has. I certainly felt I could speak more. That ... that what I wanted to say about my concern of the ... of the ... of the splitting of Australian society as ... as has happened since the ... since Mabo. It's been quite a disaster for Australia. I don't think we're big enough or ... or ... or secure enough a society to take the fact that, that, that the land which was a legal situation has now been turned into our ... the right of Crown Land and the right of Australia, the right behind Terra Nullius has been thrown into dispute. if not into the fact that we are living illicitly on this land. This is what it is leading to.
The basic idea, though, that there should be the capacity for both the pastoralists - the whites - and the Aborigines who are living on the land to jointly live there under these, sounds like a fairly close description of what you were used to as a ...
Yes, it does. And, that's ... if dad had been challenged ... All this is new. All this is new of course. If dad had been [asked]. 'What is your relationship with the Aboriginal people?' I'm sure he would have said, 'We are sharing this land'. You'd go riding with dad and there might be a mob of cattle coming ... a small mob going down to Wyndham that we weren't sure where it was. Dad would just go over and see the ... one of the black men and his term was 'Good day countryman, good day countryman'. He called them 'countrymen' you see, if he didn't know them by name if they came. So if he ... if he had ... if it had have been put to dad, he would say, 'We're sharing this country'. We're making better use of it than they did but the ... they have six ... nearly six months of the year to live their old life. you see, when they went walkabout, which they did at the end of the year. But the walkabouts got more and more contracted because they ... they just turned into sitting around on ... very close to the station depending more on beef you know. It was ... it got slacker and slacker, you know. Not to say that they wouldn't automatically kill a kangaroo if they saw it.
I suppose so, although on the stations and anything you know or hear of, it's still a fairly good relationship between the Aborigines and the station people I think, on the whole. Although, that ... that's altered because the whole of running a cattle station's altered with the ... with the ... they are no longer so necessary you see with the helicopter and the different methods coming in for collect ... for mustering cattle and so forth.
It's partly what I want to be remembered for, I suppose, is will be what I will be remembered for, is it? Or what I ... I'd like to be remembered for? I don't know. I really ... I do find that hard to answer Robin, what I'd like to be remembered for. I can ... I can tell ... I can think of a few things I wouldn't mind putting on my tombstone - that you live and learn that ... to a certain extent. You know, you go on trying to understand and to live and learn and to express what you believe. I ... I think, perhaps, I might like to be remembered for being genuine and sincere and that ... that gets back to ... to dad, who was a ... a very loving father, who didn't ever preach or anything to us. He ... I can't ever remember dad getting cross with me really, you know. You know, it was just a sort of harmonious relationship between my parents and our ... and ourselves except on the big arguments that I mentioned earlier. The ... he would say ... I can see him sitting at the head of the table, now, when we were little, and he'd ... he wouldn't drum it in as though it was something that you had to absorb but he would say, 'Well it would be a nice thing if this could occur, that you could be a credit to your family and an honour to your country'. It was an objective well worth aiming for ... for people ... for his family that was, if he ... He didn't drum anything into us but he did say that a few times as I recall now.
All your life you've been an artist, you've been a painter, you've worked terribly hard at it and you've wanted some recognition and that recognition hasn't always been forthcoming. Now at eighty-three, with the emergence of Eddie Burrup you are suddenly a cause celeb and suddenly there is a huge amount of attention being paid to you. How are you dealing with that? How do you feel about it?
I don't know, you'd have to tell me after we've finished this interview Robin. I'm dealing as best I can. At first, of course, my ... my impulse was to absolutely say nothing ever. That was a ... I couldn't really cope with it and then gradually I've ... I've relaxed that and I must say that it's been a ... a great privilege to speak to you for these interviews. It's given me a new appreciation of the medium in which you work and it's been lovely to meet your ... your fellow people that you've come to my place to see me for this occasion and I ... I thank you.
Morphological means a sort of an integration and blending of things at different levels, different characteristics. I was in search of ... of a word that I ... I remember one of the sketchbooks when ... when what I now see with the Eddie Burrup images just starting to emerge some years ago using reference to the zoological approach to work. And then I thought no, it isn't only zoological because I must consider plant forms and other forms. It's morphological, a melding of ideas and shapes and forms all into ... it was just the word that seemed to fit best to describe the block of work that was ... that I was doing and that did just precede the ... the Eddie Burrup, although it had been going on for quite a long time. But it was easy for the ... so when I looked back into some of the morphological works with Eddie's eyes, I saw they were an Eddie Burrup. Some were not. They were blurred too far but some of them were definitely within Eddie Burrup's and I was able to put them into my Eddie Burrup folios.
Not entirely. I don't think that would cover it completely. No, he's concerned the ... with the ... with the ... with the strange world of the mythological beings and their ... and their lost function within his world - that are non-functional now but they are in revolt at that. Because he knew that ... the relationship between men and other living creatures - all living creatures, all the physical world and human beings - was ... was a oneness. It ... Man the measure of all things is a very modern concept. Man the measure of all things. Adam is a ... is a modern concept. The Bible is recent. Narranganni and the Altcheringa is ancient and you can't apply a biblical situation to what's been ... what's been a much older ... older philosophy, an older way, an older ontology.
People have felt that because your knowledge of all of this has been passed to you culturally and that you don't actually have as it were, Aboriginal genes, that you have no right to be speaking about this or to be representing these works through Eddie. What's your answer to that?
Well, are you referring somewhat there to the idea of cultural appropriation? All I can say to that is that you can't appropriate something that was given freely to you as a gift, both with my inner perceptions and my direct contact with the original people of Australia. It's been ... it's been a gift that I ... that I hold, although I mightn't have a very black face, you see. So to a certain extent it gets into the argument of ... of what is Aboriginal? Because of course some of the people challenging what I've done, with respect, I say, they are very little Aboriginal and they have not had the privilege of the contacts that I've had with the ancient world.
Yes, to that degree, that was what liberated me as an artist. I feel liberated. That's the nice part about Eddie Burrup. I'm happy doing Eddie Burrup. I'm thrilled to be doing it. The images come out and I'm getting them out, I'm working in quite a big form and of course the big ... the big canvas is very demanding to, and the energy is coming from some source, I don't know. But I can't ... can't believe that anything that's given me such a ... a ... a wonderful resurgence of ah, energy and, and ah, enjoyment in the creation of images, can't be coming from any ... anything other than some benign source.
When we get into that you can easily track it down to there is deception there, but I didn't mean to. It was woollier than that. I didn't want to deceive. I didn't want to hurt sensitive Aboriginals for heaven's sake, you know. I didn't want to do any of those things. I didn't sit down and think out ... The word 'hoax' worries me terribly, really, because it wasn't a hoax it was a device, a device to get myself liberated. And it did liberate me and I would like people to have seen it that way and say, 'What fascinating work'. There must have come a time when I said, 'It's all my own work. Betty did that'. I might have got that but it was ... it wasn't well thought through perhaps or it was extraordinary that the ... that the reaction occurred. I thought nothing would occur. I thought there would be nothing, you see. There wasn't ... certainly not hostility. It still worries me, of course. I haven't come to terms with that. You asked me earlier.
Definitely, definitely, it was, definitely. Yes, I'm not ... I'm not kidding myself that, you know, that blacks love me or anything. It was just fondness and affection there and give and take and ... and ... and of course always very mutual respect. And always the sense that I was learning from them. That was the joy of being in ... out with them by myself in the bush - to be ... to be on the ... on the end of receiving and getting: getting knowledge because around the homestead you'd be the authority. I mean, if ... if ... if ... if a table's not set properly you'll tell them how to set it or that mightn't matter, you know. But when you were out in the bush, they were the authority and, of course, I was their guest so I behaved myself and as a good guest does.
Am I? [Laughs] Is that evident Robin?
Yes, yes, I think I am. I think I am. Yes, because of the suddenness of ... of ... of ... the unexpectedness of hostility and the suddenness of ... of it being of interest. I've said to others ... But it's a non-event. It's nothing. It's a non-event. I'm just using a nom de plume. Why are people so interested in the fact of what I've done? But ... but then I hear people say, 'But it is interesting', you know, and I get comment from the United States that they are still wondering about Eddie Burrup. [Laughs]
Again, it ... it could go on for a start, that I'd have the strength to develop the ... the ideas that are in my mind, and that the poor ol' boy might receive some recognition, yes, as an artist in his own right.
Well, I've got lovely freedom between the two names, haven't I? Perhaps I can write all sorts of pieces for the ... for the press or journals under the name of Eddie Burrup and they'll say. 'Of course, you know that's Elizabeth Durack', so perhaps ... perhaps I can use him as a cover.
That he needs a cover?
I think I did. I think I got very tired of being Elizabeth Durack that had been stereotyped - stereotyped as a relic of old colonialism, a relic of conservatism, a daughter of a murderer. You know, I'm very tired of that. I'm very tired of that. Yes. And that's ... that was there and no doubt that was one of the pressures, although you can't quite rationalise it but it ... it might have been why I liked the idea of working under a nom de plume.