Heroes in The Struggle for Justice

Important People in the Political Struggle for Aboriginal Rights

Lin Onus
1948 - 1996

Lin Onus
4 December 1948 - 23 October 1996

Into the dreamtime
Date: 13/11/1996

Last month saw the untimely death of Aboriginal artist Lin Onus. ADRIAN NEWSTEAD writes about a Yorta Yorta man who made a difference to many lives.

IT WAS crisp and clear as we stood gathered at twilight on the deck of the studio. Terry Ganadilla, son of the great Arnhem Land artist and elder Jack Wunuwun, who took Lin Burralung Onus into his family and gave him his skin, blew long haunting tones on the didgeridoo calling the spirit of the deceased back to the heart of his family, relatives and friends. As each wail plaintively lingered, he called out to the spirits of all the ancestors related through skin and clan to join us in beckoning Burralung to come forward and reveal himself. Finally, Lin's favourite dog ran out, alert in recognition. Ganadilla questioned the 20 people gathered. "You hear? You hear that? Twig break back there. He here now! He here with us now. He has returned to be with his family and his ancestors!"

In tears, the dead man's tribal brother, from the tiny Maningrida outstation of Garmedi, embraced wife, son and daughter, first wife and all the friends gathered, one by one, at the end of a day during which hundreds had gathered to pay their final respects to Lin Burralung McLintock Onus, who, in a short life of just 47 years, made the sort of contribution to Australian art and Aboriginal affairs that was so broad and touched so many people in so many different ways that it may never be fully recognised for its genius, vision and generosity of spirit.

The day had begun with a Guard of Honour at the Fire Brigade headquarters in the tiny hill township of Upwey on the outskirts of Melbourne. The Aboriginal flag at halfmast poignantly symbolised Lin's pride in his culture and the respect in which he was held. He had been a fireman for more than 25 years and had placed his life on the line many times. As the Aboriginal activist and long-time friend Gary Foley asked mourners later that morning: "What possible symbol could better express the real essence of reconciliation and how mean-spirited it shows those to be who seek to divide us through fear of race and ignorance."

Lin's father, Bill, made artefacts for a living. Bill became the founder of the Aboriginal Advancement League and the first Aboriginal JP, dying in 1968, the year after the triumphant passage of the Aborigines' referendum, for which he had campaigned for more than 20 years. Lin began his working life as a plumber and panel beater and took up painting and sculpture in 1974.

Lin went on to achieve great acclaim both as an artist and arts administrator. He became the chairman of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council and changed forever perceptions about the nature of Aboriginal art both in Australia and overseas.

During his chairmanship he initiated and promoted major touring exhibitions of Aboriginal art in Germany and the UK and made the first serious steps towards the promotion, protection and enforcement of Aboriginal copyright. He became a seminal and respected thinker and champion for the entire visual arts industry. He impressed hardened politicians so greatly that Ros Kelly was overheard to ask him after one such speech if he would consider becoming a writer on her staff. "I'm not a writer, I'm a painter," was his reply as he cheekily raised his thick eyebrows. "He always knew how to talk to a woman," one of Melbourne's most influential art dealers was overheard to say at the packed funeral.

In a video clip screened during the funeral, Lin said that most of all he would want to be remembered for his ability to master technology in the service of ideas. It was given to Michael Eather, his long-time friend and artistic collaborator, to put his artistic contribution to Australian art into perspective. "He used art as a tool, a weapon and a shelter," Eather said. Recognising early in his career that Aboriginal children had no hero stereotypes to look up to, Lin set out to create them. First there was Captain Koori, the caped superhero, and later he delved into the history of colonisation, elevating the little-known Aboriginal freedom fighter Mosquito into a hero in a series of paintings that have hung on the walls of the Advancement League for more than a decade for the exclusive benefit of Koori children.

Lin's paintings went on to depict the haunting melancholic landscapes of his father's country; the quirky humour of bat shit under the Hills Hoist; the biting and provocative political voice in works from the Maralinga series; the stolen children and the impact of colonisation. He spoke as much to his own people as to the wider Australian community by, for instance, depicting tranquil watery Kakadu swamplands with "green cans" floating in the foreground.

I remember artist friends in Germany dismissing his art as kitsch. There is no doubt that many of his works appeared that way. What these "sophisticated" artists failed to recognise was that much of the art that Aboriginal people of Lin's generation and background grew up with was kitsch and that Lin was actually coming towards the contemporary mainstream from a completely different direction to the Eurocentric historical perspective of their own origins. He began as a photo-realist landscape artist, later using political and social references to poke fun at or undermine a particular social paradigm. In his studio a portrait of Gary Foley with push-bike and hat in Koori colours stands resolutely looking through the viewer while in the corner Jeff Kennett sits like a chimpanzee in rags with an equally dispossessed John Laws picking nits from his hair. In another, fruit bats hang from a deliciously-painted weeping gum while a pair of eyes hidden in the swamp below waits for one to drop.

Lin actually liked nothing better than being in the collaborative middle ground and was always excited by the prospect of the cross-fertilisation of ideas. Yet, essentially, his paintings were for his own people. Whether creating heroes or affirming the real spiritual power of his Aboriginal culture and the land, Lin was speaking both to, and for, Aboriginal people.

A self-taught artist, Lin never tired of inventing new technologies to make his work faster and easier. It was almost as if he knew he was short of time. He would work on the most madcap ideas for technological time-saving devices, including mark and dotting machines, stamps and weird stencils made from car parts, off-cuts and recycled objects around the home and studio. He had no fear of technology and used anything he could to take indigenous art into the new century, including fibre glass, plastics, silicon, CD-ROM, film and animation. His paintings, despite all this, always appeared to have been painted with time-consuming precision and painstaking care. They were always a delight to the eye. As Eather so aptly put it: "Lin knew no distinction between the political and the beautiful."

He shared his spirit and energy freely, always a willing listener, a reliable sounding board. When beset by detractors, rejected by bureaucrats or under fire from urban political thought police, it was to Lin that I, and many others, would turn for advice and support. His voice was always one of reason and perspective. "Don't worry, mate," he'd say. "It's all part of the rich tapestry of life." Several years ago, at the end of one of those long boozy evenings that could lead one on a kaleidoscopic joy-ride through ideas, feelings, projects and, of course, to the occasional blind alley, Lin, his wife, Jo, and I sat bantering about the future. "I can't wait to go back to Garmedi," he said as Jo made certain he understood that he would not be returning to Arnhem Land until she had seen the home of her ancestors in Germany. "Germany," I repeated indignantly. "Germany is the last place on God's earth I would ever visit." Before long, however, he had convinced me that I should go to the scene of the genocide of my own people, if only for my spiritual wellbeing. Several months later I went, to my everlasting benefit.

It didn't matter what Lin thought of other people, he never criticised them in public and always supported their art, regardless of any personal ill-feelings. He had enemies but the closest he came to revenge was his installation in the exhibition Political Bedrooms at Fireworks Gallery in Brisbane a year or two ago. Lin's single bed featured a body face down with pink and blue knives deeply embedded in its back. Each knife bore the initials of those that had betrayed him over the years. While disloyalty ate at him, his loyalty to friends in distress was unwavering. The artist, dealer and entrepreneur Neil McLeod, who was vilified mercilessly by those who accused him of forging bark paintings, found in Lin a loyal and forthright ally through his darkest days. According to McLeod: "Lin put up his hand and declared where he stood. Right beside me. Regardless of any fear that some of the mud might stick to him." He proved to be right when McLeod was completely exonerated in court.

The day after the funeral, a hundred friends and family gathered on the hill dominating the cemetery in the tiny settlement of Cummeragunja on the NSW-Victorian boarder. It is a truly beautiful place with the grassy plains dotted with purple flowers. It felt as if we were standing in one of Lin's paintings, looking out on the Barmah Forest and the Murray as the Pachelbel Canon played. There were many testimonials before his wife Jo and son Tiriki spread his ashes across the hillside. Lin had won the National Heritage Art Award in 1994 for his painting of the Barmah Forest at Cummeragunja, which could be seen from where we stood. The highly-charged landscape painted with gums flooded by the overflow of the Murray has three jigsaw puzzle pieces laying in the forest ready to be placed in position. It is as if the artist had almost completed what he set out to achieve. Only the last few pieces needed to be set in place.

Although he died at 47 years of age, Lin Onus has left a legacy greater than most can ever hope to achieve. His capacity to understand so many complex things will live on across the generations, frozen for all to see through the enormous legacy of his art. It has been said that Lin Onus would have gone on to become one of the truly great Australian artists. If Lin were here, I, and so many of his friends and admirers, would say to him: "Don't worry, mate, you are."

"Bo Bo." *

* Bo Bo is the traditional way of saying farewell in central Arnhem Land and the way in which Lin always finished any conversation.


Margo Neale

"I kind of hope&that history may see me as some sort of bridge&between&cultures, between technology and ideas." Lin Onus, artist statement, 1990.

Lin Onus, who died prematurely in Melbourne on 24 October 1996 at the age of 47, is widely acknowledged as a pioneer of the Aboriginal art movement in urban Australia and in many ways was a man ahead of his time. As an artist and activist of extraordinary versatility and innovation, he addressed the political and social concerns of his people in a career that spanned the last three decades of the struggle for Indigenous rights. But this he did in a lighthearted dialogue with a brand of wit and panache that relied for its impact on inclusion rather than alienation.

Born the only child of Bill Onus, a Yorta Yorta man from the Aboriginal community of Cummeragunja in Victoria, near the town of Echuca, and a Scottish mother, Mary McLintock Kelly, whose people were from Glasgow, he was the product of an unusual match. Resistance to the marriage was strong, but Onus himself acknowledged and reconciled his mixed ancestry in his art years before reconciliation became government policy in 1991. He grew up in a fine house built by his maternal grandfather in the middle class Melbourne suburb of Deepdene and was surrounded by classical music and fine art. His grandfather, a keen Egyptologist and a 'man of Leisure and Learning', used to tell him stories of how he was in the first party to enter the Great Pyramid, and how Lin's great-great-grandfather built the coach used for Queen Elizabeth II's coronation.

His cultural education on the Aboriginal side was provided by visits to Cummeragunja with his father, and stories told by his uncle Aaron Briggs, known as 'the old man of the forest' who gave him his Koori name - Burrinja, meaning 'star'. They would sit on the banks of the Murray River within view of the Barmah Forest, Lin's spiritual home, the subject of many of his later paintings and his final resting place.

His political education was partly the consequence of living with parents who were politically active on a number of fronts, including a close association with the defamed Communist Party. They first met at a rally, and his mother was crowned Miss Communist Party 1947. "It was from them that Lin gained his strong social conscience and need to fight for the rights of the underdog and the oppressed which can be seen in many of his later works" . (1) But he also had to learn to fight with his fists, which he did at Sharman's boxing troupe, to counter the racism he experienced at the middle-class Balwyn High School where he was taunted as the sole 'abo' kid and from which he was eventually unjustly expelled, terminating his school career at the age of fourteen.

Ironically it was similar treatment that became the turning point in his life and led to his first painting. His youthful aspirations to be a fireman were dashed when the Country Fire Authority rejected his application after the Chairman, who was a luminary in the White Australia Party, discovered that Lin's father was that 'abo in the hills' - a well-known Koori activist. With time on his hands and the discovery of a set of student paints left at the workshop of his father's Aboriginal Enterprises in the Dandenong ranges on the outskirts of Melbourne, Lin did his first painting.

The sale of this painting for $22 at the Sherbrooke Art Society Fair was his encouragement to continue. The following year, 1975, he mounted his first exhibition at the Aborigines Advancement League. This organisation, initially established by his father, his uncle Eric Onus and others, was a symbolically significant site for the young Koori artist, foreshadowing the powerful link between his art and the political and cultural milieu which was to become a distinguishing characteristic of his career. He had another 17 solo exhibitions in Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney over the next 21 years, which together with group shows totalled some 80 exhibitions in Australian and international venues.

He was the recipient of many awards and appointments of note. These included the 'Introduced media section' in the Fifth National Aboriginal Art Award, Darwin, 1988, the Kate Challis RAKA (Ruth Adeney Koori Award), Melbourne, 1993, and he was made a member of the Order of Australia on the Queen's Birthday Honours List the same year. He was overall winner of the National Indigenous Heritage Art Award, Canberra, 1994 as well as the People's Choice Award, demonstrating his ability to traverse the space between fine art and popular art. Appointed a member of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council in 1986, he became chairman of the Board from 1989 to 1992, was co-founder of the Aboriginal Arts Management Association in 1990 and a founding member and Director of Viscopy in 1995.

Apart from achieving national prominence as a contemporary Australian artist - he is represented in over 50 major public, private and corporate collections - he established an international profile through seminal exhibitions such as Tagari Lia: My Family - Contemporary Aboriginal Art from Australia (Glasgow 1990), and the landmark exhibition Aratjara: Art of the First Australians which toured three continents from 1993. He has also been shown in Madrid, Montpellier, Kyoto, New York, Washington and Seoul.

Being self-taught afforded him what his primary agent Gabrielle Pizzi calls "a wonderful freedom" to develop into one of Australia's greatest and most individual landscape and photorealist artists. It also gave him the freedom to study a diversity of artists, from cultures, times and places best suited to his purpose. His models ranged from little-known community artists painting in the western landscape tradition, such as Nyoongah artist Revel Cooper from Carrolup WA; Koori artist Ronald Bull from Lake Tyers,Victoria with whom he had his second exhibition in 1976 and who trained informally with non-Indigenous landscapists, Ernest Buckmaster and Hans Heysen; Central Desert artist Albert Namatjira; illustrator of Aboriginal legends, Ainslie Roberts, and the surrealist elements in the early works of Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker. The landscape offered Aboriginal artists like Onus a site of cultural value, reclamation and identity, as noted by art historian Sylvia Kleinert. Nowhere is this multitude of influences more obvious than in Onus' epic 10-panelled narrative painted between 1978 and 1982 on the Aboriginal cultural hero Musqito, assigned to history as a criminal and retrieved by Onus as one of our earliest Aboriginal freedom fighters.

Another training ground of profound cultural significance was his father Bill Onus' Aboriginal Enterprises near Upwey in the Dandenongs - a pioneering venture by an ex-mission man established 15 years before Aboriginal people had the vote - which provided a lesson in self-determination well learnt by the young Onus. The production of Aboriginal-inspired tourist trade artefacts (and displays of boomerang throwing), a model for economic independence and cultural retrieval/maintenance, provided him with a grounding in many of the critical issues such as Indigenous copyright, appropriation and equality that would increasingly occupy his art and life until his death.

It was as the Victorian representative of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council in 1986 that Onus had the opportunity to visit Maningrida in Arnhem Land and meet traditional elders such as Jack Wunuwun, who became his adoptive father and mentor, and his extensive family. "They're part of me and I'm part of them now," he said.(2) It revolutionised his art and his thinking.

He was given stories and designs that expanded his visual repertoire and enabled him to develop a distinctive visual language from a combination of traditional and contemporary Aboriginal imagery and photorealist landscapes. At first the juxtapositions were explicit but later evolved into a more integrated system where Indigenous spirituality and narrative were infused into Western representational systems to often paradoxical effect. According to the Australian academic and curator Ted Gott, it was Onus' ability to subvert the established order of things and "to cut the legs off high art culture" that makes him such an extraordinary Australian artist of great stature. Gott sees Onus at his most 'wicked' in the pivotal work Fruit Bats, 1991, where 100 fibreglass Arnhem Land-inspired fruit bats, striped with rarrk (crosshatching), are suspended on a common backyard Aussie clothes line. Littered below are the bat droppings on small discs of flower design, referencing the flying fox dreaming to which Onus was permitted access. Over the next 16 years he made 14 'spiritual pilgrimages' as he called them, to Maningrida and Garmedi where he was further inducted into the laws, customs and language of his tribal affiliates.

Another quirky installation, which was to be his last work, is a wheelbarrow piled high with a entwined mass of marbled goannas, another Arnhem Land totem, which he describes as a "Rubik pyramid of goannas", revealing his practice of combining the mundane with the 'sacred' whilst making potent political comment with humour. In this case it refers to his frustrations with the then Aboriginal arts bureaucracy; he described his dealings with them as being like "pushing a barrow load of goannas uphill". "With their suave technique, oddball comedy and imaginative invention such images liken Onus to surrealists such as Magritte and Dali" (to whom he often referred) according to reviewer Sue Smith of the Courier Mail. (3)

From 1988 Onus discovered that sculpture was the medium through which he could best combine his wide range of manual skills from previous occupations as a panel beater, motor mechanic and carver, as well as provide the interaction with his viewers he desired "With sculpture, you can walk around it, look up its dress and do all sorts of things you can't with a painting". It also became his most effective tool for incisive political comment on contemporary critical issues such as Aboriginal deaths in custody, police oppression, the 1950s atomic tests and injustices perpetrated against the East Timorese by Indonesia.

Lin Onus writes his own history. In doing so he not only raises questions about the place Aboriginal art occupies in Australian art history and his location within each but its inextricable relationship to colonial history. He 'reads' the events and processes of history and inscribes them into the present with an eye to the future for the purposes of conciliation. In the dynamic cycles of definition and re-definition, possession and dispossession that have marked the history of Aboriginal affairs in this country, Onus has challenged western art definitions of history, landscape and portrait painting. He is a visual historian for his people and a contemporary Australian artist of increasing stature.

Onus was a cultural terrorist of gentle irreverence who not only straddled a cusp in cultural history between millennia but brought differences together not through fusion but through bridging the divides making him exemplary in the way he explores what it means to be Australian.

1 Jo and Tiriki Onus, see Chronology in forthcoming publication, Urban Dingo: The Art and Life of Lin Onus (Burrinja), Queensland Art Gallery and Fine Arts Press, Sydney, 2000.
2 Lin Onus, taken from a recorded interview with Koori artist, Donna Leslie, 30 January 1995.
3 Sue Smith, review of exhibition, 'Eternal', Fire-works Gallery, Courier Mail, Brisbane, August 16, 1999 p.16

Margo Neale
Curator of the retrospective: Urban Dingo: The Art of Lin Onus (Burrinja) 1948 - 1996, organised by the Queensland Art Gallery.
TOUR: Museum of Contemporary Art Sydney 11 August - 30 October 2000, Queensland Art Gallery 24 Nov - 4 Mar 2001, Museum of Victoria 6 April - 29 July 2001.