December 2013 - January 2014


Two painters in the Kimberley

By Quentin Sprague
Tony Oliver and Paddy Bedford, Kununurra, 2003. © Giancarlo Mazzella

Tony Oliver and Paddy Bedford, Kununurra, 2003. © Giancarlo Mazzella

The unlikely collaboration of Paddy Bedford and Tony Oliver

For Paddy Bedford, the day usually began soon after dawn. Tony Oliver, a former Melbourne gallerist who had worked alongside Bedford for close to a decade since arriving in the East Kimberley in 1998, would wake shortly afterwards. It was at this hour, as day and night pulled against each other, that Oliver would see the old Gija man’s paintings all around him. They were there in the blush of pink over the horizon and the dark silhouettes of landforms that hung like cut-out shapes against the sky. Bedford had always risen with the sun. He was born on Bedford Downs Station and had worked a full life as a stockman before becoming a painter. Dawn had always presented an opportunity for him to sit quietly and take in the formal nuances of his country; if you knew how to look, everything could be seen with striking clarity.

Directly across from the nondescript house that served as their studio was a reserve covered by head-high spear grass and spotted with large boab trees. Rising above, the rock outcrop known as Kelly’s Knob would catch the morning light as Kununurra, the region’s largest town, stirred around them. Land Cruisers rumbled past while worn-out town drinkers began to emerge from a night of excess in the reserve. Bedford would quietly smoke, watching as Oliver set things up for the morning’s painting session.

Taking a large brush, Bedford would begin by slowly and methodically mapping the painting’s compositional bones: stark black lines that rendered the landscape with the restraint and economy for which his work had long been celebrated. Once seated, he rarely moved more than absolutely necessary. His arm did all the work, tracing predetermined arcs across the expanse in front of him. Now aged somewhere in his early 80s, Bedford would rely on Oliver to rotate the canvas on the upturned milk crate in front of him, pass him brushes and generally keep things flowing in a rhythm each knew by heart.

Over time, the centres of large paintings had retreated further from Bedford’s reach. Many late compositions clung to the canvas’s edges as much for convenience’s sake as anything else. When a particular painting required a more central motif, he would seek Oliver’s assistance to outline the ellipse of a waterhole or to complete a strong dividing line that cut across the picture. Having been present for all of Bedford’s many hundred paintings, Oliver knew exactly what to do. At this stage, no more than black lines on the white background, the work would be set aside and admired, and some words would pass between them.

Next, the background would be painted in. This would usually be done in white, with a few carefully chosen highlights of deep ochre red or patches of velvet black. Drips of red oxide were often used to contaminate the pure white, creating an evocative effect as the brush roughly mixed the pigments together. If the black lines described the landforms of the surrounding country, the brushed grounds hung over them like dust clouds, or the smoke of a late dry-season fire.

The last task was to add the filigree of white dots that traced the edges of the black lines, highlighting and intensifying their effect. Paintings like these were originally based on iconographic boards that Gija dancers held aloft during ceremonial performances. In the flickering, dim firelight the white dotting was used to enliven the images, quickening their transmission from dancer to audience. Now they had become something else entirely: highly aestheticised objects prepared in a context provided by the Western art market. In this iteration the dotted outlines were emblematic of the East Kimberley’s regional style. As it often is in Aboriginal art, the task of dotting would be shared, the brush passed from one hand to another. Finally, Oliver would turn the canvas and Bedford would initial the back with a shaky “PB”. To an ex-stockman this gesture couldn’t help but echo the branding of cattle, with one key difference: the work was his.

Bedford, also known by his Gija nickname Goowoomji, came to painting late in life. He shared this with many of the senior artists who carried the boom in Aboriginal art in the 1990s and early 2000s. Like the late Anmatyerre artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye – a grand lady in her 80s whose work had entranced and confused the art establishment when it first gained a wide audience in the early 1990s – he seemed to embody something of the charged space that lay beyond the borders of the settler Australian world.

But although his paintings spoke insistently of cultural difference, it was a difference wrapped in aesthetic familiarity. Indeed, a thread that has run through much remotely produced Aboriginal art has been its visual resonance with late-modernist painting. Works like Bedford’s recall the large abstract canvases that dominated European and American art in the 1960s and ’70s, a resonance which, for Western eyes at least, has made them easier to embrace. Oliver gave this quality a logical expression. Driven by a long-held passion for the great artists of late modernism, he was able to frame Bedford’s work squarely within Aboriginal art’s seemingly paradoxical affinity with modern art. Throughout their years together, Oliver played an intimate advisory role in Bedford’s painting, a process for which, as an ex-gallerist and painter himself, he had an innate feel.

This working relationship was carried by a friendship that extended far beyond the studio. The two were rarely apart. Along with a wider group of elders, Bedford drew the much younger man towards the very heart of Gija life. Oliver glimpsed something of their world; he experienced love and loss alongside them, and gained an understanding of the epic and timeless qualities of their traditional belief system and its guiding concept, the Ngarranggarni, the complex ancestral presence that activates both life and country and is often glossed by the general term “The Dreaming”.

As a body of work, Bedford’s paintings trace the arc of the relationship of the two men. At first tentative, the dialogue between them builds throughout the old man’s oeuvre; towards the end it’s entirely counterproductive to try to separate their roles. Although the art world remains largely blind to the exchanges that played out between them, it’s hard not to see the decade that Bedford and Oliver spent working alongside each other as one of the great and most unlikely collaborations in the history of Australian art.

Bedford first met Oliver in 1998 in Warmun, the main Gija community, situated some 150 kilometres south-west of Kununurra. Although it sits in striking country – all deep-red ranges and sweeping plains – Warmun itself is a bleak place. It was established in the early 1970s, after Aboriginal pastoral workers were granted equal wages. Their cheap labour had fuelled the region’s industry, and an unintended consequence of the law was the sacking and forced exodus of Aboriginal families from the cattle stations, leaving them displaced, once again, in their own land. Tin-clad housing and a small school were added to the existing site of a small ration depot; the Sisters of Saint Joseph moved in and a government-backed community was formed, with an economy dependent largely on welfare payments. Warmun unavoidably retained something of its unsettled origins and quickly fell into the vicious cycles that have driven many remote Aboriginal settlements into cataclysmic decline.

In 1998, Bedford had been staying in Warmun with his friend Chocolate Thomas. At Thomas’ request, the culturally senior Bedford had shown him a few “stories” to paint, sketching out rough approximations in ochre on sheets of discarded board. Thomas planned to show his works to Oliver, who’d arrived in Kununurra 12 months earlier at the invitation of Freddie Timms, a Gija artist who had met Oliver in Melbourne.

By this time Oliver had largely dropped out of his previous life. He had been living rough within the local Gija community, initially unrolling his swag in a drinking camp that occupied a vacant lot opposite Kununurra’s drive-in cinema, before moving to a rented house on Pindan Avenue. Although it was the destructive and seemingly aimless rituals of Gija town life that guided Oliver’s initial experiences, Timms had brought him to the Kimberley for a reason. Timms hoped Oliver would be able to help set up a new kind of art project, and had been introducing him to various artists and influential elders.

When Oliver visited Warmun it was Bedford’s paintings, rather than Thomas’, that caught his eye. In the old man’s quick compositions he sensed an innate understanding of material and form. Oliver encouraged Bedford to continue painting. Within a week, Bedford had joined him in Kununurra, where a number of other artists, including Timms, Rusty Peters, Goody Barrett, Phyllis Thomas and Peggy Patrick had also begun to gather. A nascent painting group was formed. The late Hector Jandany, a flamboyant Gija intellectual and artist, gave them the name “Jirrawun”, a Gija word that, loosely translated, means “us together”. Jandany would also introduce Oliver to the notion of “two-way”, a Gija Kriol conception of cross-cultural collaboration that would guide the Jirrawun project.

Oliver’s approach was unique; where others who have held similar positions maintain at least a semblance of distance, he actively sought to be embedded in the community. As he recalls:

It happened over a long period of time. A big part of it was kind of about checking me out, getting to know me. The fact that I lived with them, in exactly the same way, was really important. I wasn’t the white guy from the government, or the one who lives in the house and comes.

Over the next decade, Jirrawun would move throughout the East Kimberley. The group’s first successful forays into the art world were made from the tiny outstations of Rugun (Crocodile Hole) and Juwurlinji (Bow River), where they were joined by Rammey Ramsey. After this they occupied a house in Kununurra next door to the linguist Frances Kofod, on whose verandah Bedford would end up living. In its final years, just before Bedford’s death, Jirrawun built an impressive purpose-designed studio on a block of land near Wyndham, the long-declined port town 75 kilometres north-west of Kununurra.

The artists’ paintings quickly gathered acclaim. They were soon included in museum exhibitions and graced the walls of some of the most respected private galleries in the country. By the early 2000s, Jirrawun exhibitions were regularly selling out. Bedford, the most successful of the group, went on to sell paintings for as much as $60,000; by the time of his death in 2007 he had long been, in his own estimation at least, a “millionaire”.

Paddy Bedford painting in Kununurra, 2004. © Tony Oliver

Although Oliver’s role has never openly been understood as collaborative, the intersection of his vision with that of the artists undeniably provided Jirrawun’s driving force. In Kimberley painting, Oliver glimpsed not only a new kind of Aboriginal modernism but also a means to re-establish his own dreams as an artist and dealer. The love of late-modernist painting that had underwritten his early success as a gallerist in the 1980s in Melbourne, and had drawn him to New York on a number of occasions, found new expression in the evocative works that emerged under his guidance. Echoes of key artists such as Philip Guston, Andy Warhol, Joan Miró and Sean Scully began to surface in Jirrawun paintings. This was far more than a superficial response to the market’s desires. Oliver always saw the project in deeply collaborative terms; for him, these kinds of connections were unavoidable. In 1982, for example, he’d met Warhol in New York and subsequently shown Warhol’s work at Reconnaissance, his gallery in Fitzroy. It’s unsurprising, then, that he eventually came to conceive of Jirrawun as a kind of frontier version of Warhol’s Factory, the socially driven enterprise over which the father of Pop Art had presided with famous entrepreneurial flair.

The artists, however, were far from secondary players. Traditional Gija people are alive to the opportunities of exchange, a quality ingrained by the intercultural history of the frontier. Oliver’s intent to live beyond the segregated realities of local life proved to them his commitment to and affinity for their world view. Where others had come and gone, gambling for quick money or seeking a brief experience in Aboriginal Australia, Oliver stayed. The qualities he came to elaborate in their paintings – whether graceful minimalism or the darker narratives of colonial history – were all guided by what he found there. Indeed, if Jirrawun briefly brokered itself some space beyond the exploitative textures of the Aboriginal art world, it was driven by a genuine creative accord. It reflected Gija patterns of thinking and doing just as, through Oliver, it drew much-needed air from the broader art world.

For a time Jirrawun was one of the most successful organisations of its kind. Painting, although central to the project, was far from its sole concern. Whereas the Aboriginal art centres scattered throughout Northern and Central Australia generally rely heavily on government funding, Jirrawun was self-supporting. Oliver wanted to prove to his Gija friends that it was possible to remove the smothering layers of bureaucracy that separate Aboriginal and settler Australia and keep one subjugated to the other.

For a time this ideal found tangible form. Through Jirrawun, the artists achieved previously undreamt-of access to the white establishment. An exhibition of their work was held in 2005 at Parliament House in Canberra, where they were feted by politicians and ambassadors. A steady stream of influential people visited them in their country, including judges, art historians and international curators. The likes of former governor-general Sir William Deane and New South Wales Governor Marie Bashir spoke on their behalf. For the artists – Gija elders whose foundational experiences of the settler Australian world had occurred in a much harsher phase of colonisation – it must have appeared quite a turnaround.

Jirrawun arguably peaked with Bedford’s celebrated 2006 retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. The exhibition, curated by the MCA’s Russell Storer, brought together a compelling body of work. The Sydney Morning Herald’s chief art critic, John McDonald – famously hard to please – noted, “If one had to choose a single indigenous artist to represent the state of Aboriginal art, it would be hard to go past Paddy Bedford.” Yet McDonald, writing a world away from Jirrawun’s base in the Kimberley, sensed that there was more to the exhibition than met the eye. Oliver, he went on to suggest, although undeniably dedicated to the Gija cause, “bears a closer resemblance to Svengali than he does to Daisy Bates”.

This comparison goes some way towards illustrating the difficulty the Western art world has in perceiving a role like Oliver’s. Svengali – the archetypal manipulator – acts only in his own interest; by contrast, if Jirrawun was a manipulation, it was one that went both ways. This was well illustrated by a photograph that accompanied a short preface by Oliver in the MCA exhibition’s catalogue. Taken in 1999, a year after the two first met, it shows Oliver seated beside Bedford at a temporary studio in the Darwin suburb of Coconut Grove. They are dressed in similar fashion: cowboy hat, jeans and Western-style shirt. This is the uniform of the northern Aboriginal stockman, a point of sartorial pride for the men of Bedford’s generation and one that Oliver adopted soon after his arrival in the Kimberley. Oliver leans in towards the much older man, resting a hand on his leg. The detritus of a recent painting session fills the background. There’s a sense of almost proprietorial closeness.

Although his work with Bedford was the defining artistic relationship of his time in the Kimberley, Oliver had a broader influence. In 2006, for example, Phyllis Thomas, a senior Jirrawun artist, began a series of black-and-white horizontally striped paintings. These were based on gemerre, the traditional Gija scarring that cuts across Thomas’ arms and torso. Oliver showed her how to paint them and worked on the first painting in the series alongside her. For inspiration, he looked towards the work of the Australian modernist Tony Tuckson, the Irish-born American painter Sean Scully and a series by Emily Kame Kngwarreye that had gained iconic status within the canon of Aboriginal art. He also drew on the Gija practice of body painting for joonba, narrative dance performances he had attended many times during his decade in the Kimberley. In the process, the paintings became Thomas’: from a local perspective, Oliver gave them to her.

This kind of transaction goes to the heart of Oliver’s engagements in the Kimberley. Although the question of why the paintings were never marketed as collaborations is unavoidable, it is important to remember that the artists were acting within a cultural framework in which their understanding of collaboration – whether conceptual, physical or otherwise – never threatened their right to claim sole authorship of the resulting paintings.

For Bedford, a manambarrany (senior law man), this had little to do with studio process and everything to do with ancestral responsibility. He only ever painted sites in his mother’s and father’s country, places integral to his identity. This line, clearly marked within Gija law, he never crossed. For Oliver, being welcomed into the Gija world also carried its own responsibilities. He was given the skin name Joongoora, which placed him in certain relationships with his Gija friends. He called Bedford “father” and Bedford called him “son”. In Bedford’s final years, this was reversed and he called Oliver “dad” in an expression of Oliver’s responsibility towards him.

Regardless of these local realities, the art world still struggles to understand what “collaboration” means in environments like this. It’s usually best not to mention it: between Western notions of individual genius and the perceived postcolonial need for indigenous agency, there is little critical space to consider nuances of authorship. This is especially true when a white hand is involved. Yet if speaking in depth about Oliver’s role raises a certain anxiety, it is a productive one. The value of work like Bedford’s – or that of any Jirrawun artist – has been constructed on notions of its “Aboriginality”. If paintings like theirs are understood as products of cross-cultural collaboration, the fear is that their value will be diminished. But surely this simply reveals a particularly static understanding of both collaboration and cultural identity? In defining “authentic” practice, more revealing ways of conceiving creativity are unavoidably limited.

Take, for example, Oliver’s own conception of creativity. His work in the Kimberley was always driven by what he terms a “true feeling”. Everything that happened was not only authorised by the artists he was working with but also deeply reciprocal in nature. His work with Bedford developed the way it did simply because, within the boundaries of their relationship, it felt right. Labouring alongside each other in the Kimberley heat, bent to the same task, brought them into intensely focused creative alignment. Bedford, Oliver recalls, “genuinely loved painting. And it was just something that in the end we shared; we met, we understood each other very well. It became like a dance or something. Choreographed. It was just something otherworldly.”

Contingent as it was on such heightened moments, Jirrawun eventually proved to be unsustainable. Its exhibition projects hinged on an increasingly interdependent form of creativity, yet the true implications of the process – in particular its cross-cultural aspect – remained unspoken.

This blind spot was combined with the ever-present spectre of emotional burnout on Oliver’s part. His modus operandi had always been to live at the centre of a charged and often traumatic social space. By the end of Oliver’s time in the Kimberley, young Gija people he’d known since their childhoods were entering adult lives beset by alcohol abuse, violence and ill health. In addition, the older generation that had drawn him close was now passing, and with it much of the knowledge that had granted the Gija such intellectual and cultural poise, as well as provided some resilience against the tragedies that punctuate contemporary life. For Oliver, an unavoidable realisation began to take shape: the painting movement Jirrawun had sparked and the independent economy it had briefly enabled would make little difference. He began to question his own motivations. Whose dream was it that had played out over his years in the Kimberley? If he left, what would remain?

In 2007, following a brief illness, Bedford passed away. By this time he was famous, his instantly recognisable work collected around the world. The funeral service, at Bow River, saw many of the dignitaries and collectors who’d supported Jirrawun over the years gather alongside Bedford’s family from the greater Kimberley. Sir William Deane delivered the eulogy.

In front of this crowd, many of whom had flown the length of the country to be there, Oliver arranged his own memorial: an uncannily precise approximation of one of Bedford’s Cockatoo Dreaming works. He had painted it on a large sheet of calico after Bedford’s death, and it depicted the same story as the rough works on board he had seen all those years ago in Warmun. Although few made the connection, Oliver had not only lost his friend, he had also lost the daily practice they had shared so closely. In the following months, free to make his own paintings once more, he found himself unable to make a mark that felt truly his.

Still, Oliver’s sadness was tinged with relief. He’d attempted to leave the Kimberley a number of times, and in recent years had holidayed in Vietnam where he’d begun to build another life. Yet he recognises that he and Bedford had been, in a sense, “chained” together until the end: he “had to see it out”. In late 2007, he relocated to Vietnam to be with his new wife and infant son. It wasn’t a smooth transition: in his first years there, the darker experiences he’d had in the Kimberley would constantly return to him and he was plagued by nightmares.

Jirrawun folded two years later. I was there, brought on board for 12 months in 2009 to try to turn around an organisation that, despite Oliver’s attempts to plan an exit strategy, had been left in freefall. Most of the artists had already lost faith, and the largely non-indigenous board of directors – originally set up simply to provide governance support – was overcome by indecision and infighting. Jirrawun had slid irretrievably into debt. Like many others, I hoped that it might survive in some form. However, also like many others, I had little idea of how robust Oliver’s creative engagements had become, how much each artist’s practice had depended on his presence. Those that did know kept quiet, perhaps uncertain of how this unique narrative might appear in the harsh light of public opinion.

Since then, most of the remaining artists have continued to paint, yet within the rapidly shrinking Aboriginal art market there’s a tangible sense that if Jirrawun represented a new form of indigenous painting, its moment has passed.

Bedford’s work remains highly regarded; he is often mentioned in the same breath as two of Australia’s most recognisable Aboriginal painters: Rover Thomas and Emily Kame Kngwarreye. In late 2013 an interpretation of his work Medicine Pocket (2005) was painted on the fuselage of a new Qantas 737-800 jet. His estate, containing more than 150 works at the time of his death, has been carefully managed by the executors of his will. A single-artist sale drawn from this collection was held in Sydney by Bonhams auction house in late 2011. It netted close to $1.5 million from 26 lots. Proceeds are passed equally between his family members, an education trust for Gija students set up at Bedford’s behest, and, until recently, Jirrawun, reduced to nothing more than a legal entity.

It’s tempting to conclude that Oliver’s departure and the subsequent failure of the ambitious project that he created with his Gija collaborators simply reflects the drama and tragedy of the frontier. The Kimberley remains a colonial place; its landscapes are shot through with the recent trauma of its invasion, the subjugation of its people and the nightmarish cycles of disempowerment that have followed. It often seems as if contemporary relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people can’t help but bend to these enduring realities, regardless of either party’s attempts to transcend them.

To focus on details of authorship in this light might seem to miss the point. Yet the fact remains that the paintings that mark this unique moment in Australian art demand critical review. The difficult truth they show is not that they are, in the truest sense, products of cross-cultural collaboration. If anything, this is their revelation: it proves that creativity will cut its own path regardless of the ideological barriers that so often surround cross-cultural engagements in Australia. What is unsettling is how these paintings have been received – the stubborn blindness that has foreclosed a nuanced understanding of what made them possible. It’s almost as if, by overplaying the indigenous agency involved, the art world is making a desperate bid to counter the enduring guilt of colonisation. It’s uncertain of how this might be overcome, but one day we will surely look back on the grand paintings of Jirrawun and wonder how such a significant collaborative episode in Australia’s art history was missed.

Quentin Sprague

Quentin Sprague is a Geelong-based writer. His first book, The Stranger Artist, won the 2021 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for nonfiction.

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