A Koori Artist Recovers His Identity
MELBOURNE — LIN ONUS is painting smaller these days. The Australian economy is in recession and the art market has taken a tumble. The large two-by-two meter canvases he was selling a year ago for up to $6400 have been put aside. Instead, he is working on a series of small acrylics that examine the work of Ellis Rowan (1848-1922), a late-19th-century Australian painter, an eccentric and an early conservationist, who traveled and exhibited in many parts of the world.Ellis Rowan drew botanical specimens and depicted intimate, romantic locations in the Australian bush. Some of her best known images are of forested streams, cascades, and shady dingles. Mr. Onus's tributes recreate these scenes, but he inserts an element of Aboriginal vision. In one painting, for example, Rowan's picturesque mode of illustration is teasingly disrupted by a platypus drawn in the "X-ray" style used in traditional cave paintings. This unique manner of juxtaposition has become a hallmark. Onus's fish paintings - an ongoing series - are another example. Like the platypus, the fish are drafted in a traditional style, but they peer at us from a lily pond that is almost photorealist in conception. The message here seems ambiguous. Perhaps the symbolic presence of the fish is pointing out the limitation of the photographic gaze. Or are we being reminded of the heterogeneous influences, both Western and traditional, that help frame the perspective of contemporary Aborigines? Whatever their purpose, these paintings confound the popular notion of the Aboriginal artist. Many people cling to the idea of the bushman character who paints traditional motifs, preferably on bark, in exotic desert locations. The emergence of the now-famous Papunya-Tula style dot paintings, despite their use of an untraditional medium (acrylic paint on canvas), have done little to dislodge the cliche. This is not to deny the centrality of desert paintings to the current Aboriginal art movement. But the ir mystical quality and repertoire of desert colors can mistakenly be interpreted as confirming a dated idea of tribal primitivism. Of course the dot painters do live in the desert, although often in makeshift shantytowns. But they are hardly representative of the overall Aboriginal population, 66 percent of which lives in urban areas. For this reason Onus's comfortable dwelling in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, the studio with fax machine, computer, and stereo equipment playing classical music, seems a bit incongruous. But Onus is an artist of mixed heritage, whose pride in his Aboriginal ancestry is combined with an interest in European-Australian painters that include Arthur Streeton, Ellis Rowan, and contemporary artists such as Collin Lanceley. Onus is one of the 6,000 Aborigines who earn money by selling art (although few have had his financial success). It's a boom that has been applauded in some circles as a cultural renaissance. Other observers see this as another chapter in the history of Aboriginal exploitation: traditional imagery appropriated by the Western art market. According to Onus, the art boom is not a phenomenon where Aborigines are the passive victims of exploitation. There's a sense in which they have hijacked the art market to further their own ideals. One objective is to use the market to promote Aboriginal solidarity and thus confirm the validity of the indigenous culture to a community that has suffered persistent degradation and marginalization. They also hope to fight the racism and injustice that lie entrenched in Australian society. Onus is indeed unusual in having carved out a comfortable suburban niche, for the majority of his compatriots endure social conditions that are harsh and demeaning. Aboriginal life expectancy is 20 years less than that of other Australians. The infant mortality rate is 2.7 times higher, and while Aborigines make up only 1.09 percent of the general population, they comprise more than 20 percent of the country's prison population. Aboriginal housing is generally poor, health care is inadequate, and drug an d alcohol problems are endemic. These are among the concerns that energize many Koori artists. (Koori is a traditional word that many Aborigines use for themselves, particularly in urban areas on the East Coast.) Their work is often political, sometimes overtly propagandist. Lacking access to the mass media, they use the medium of art to convey their political convictions. On another level, distinct but connected to the need for political expression, is the presence of an "inner dialogue" in the work of many Koori artists. Dispossessed of their land, which formed the basis of Aboriginal religion and mythology, urban dwellers have, in many cases, lost touch with their traditions and ancestry. Art for these people has provided a means of reconstructing their identities. Lin Onus feels that his family was more or less "deculturated" by the time it settled in Melbourne in the mid-1940s after moving around Victoria and New South Wales for years. Having left school at 13, worked as a mechanic, and assisted in his father's craft business, Onus took up painting in 1974 at age 26. "I was a fairly proficient landscapist," he said, "but there was always some sort of need to show my Kooriness in some way, but I didn't know what the device was." It was not until 1986, when he visited the remote Aboriginal community of Maningrida, that he began to find some answers. He befriended and was eventually adopted by Jack Wunuwun, one of the master painters of the area. "I remember that when I first made contact with Wunuwun it was through his son Terry Ganadila, and they were both fascinated to know what it was like to be a Koori living down south. When they learned that people had lost law and language and culture and all that sort of stuff, they thought 'Wow, this is a really terrible thing to happen.' The next question was, 'Well, in what sort of ways can we help?' " The help came in the form of an ongoing education into the language and rites of the highly traditional Maningrida community. Onus's adoption by Wunuwun was an artistic as well as a spiritual breakthrough. His acceptance by the community allowed him, under Wunuwun's guidance, to reproduce images from the Dreaming, the expansive oral text that explains creation and forms the basis of indigenous law. Under the law, there are strict conventions about who is allowed to depict certain images, just as there are taboos on drawing, describing or even mentioning the name of someone who has recently died. In Maningrida the cosmos is divided into dhua and yirritja - a binary opposition that Onus compares to the idea of yin and yang. Every element in the environment is either dhua or yirritja, and depending on his birthright, an artist is permitted to represent only one set of symbols or the other. Since Onus is the adopted son of Wunuwun, he has access to dhua rather than yirritja. His portrait of Wunuwun shows a realistic likeness of the old man with dhua elements of the landscape emanating from his paint brush. It's a revealing portrayal of Wunuwun's relationship to the environment, but more than this, it's a time-specific statement on the extent of Onus's induction to the traditional beliefs. Each of the icons in the picture - the bird, the water hole - could only be introduced to Onus when Wunuwun thought he was ready. While he was painting the portrait he had not yet been authorized to paint the morning star, an integral part of the dhua dreaming. Onus dealt with this dilemma by painting the star using European technique. (Wunuwun would have drawn it as an elaborate burial pole.) This helps explain the hybridized quality of so much Koori art. Western practices are invoked as a loophole to a void the representational problems that traditional religion so often presents. Onus's main interest at the moment is a series of fiberglass sculptures, mostly of Australian animals. Last year he was making wild dogs, some of which were caught in traps. This is a comment on the practice of national park authorities who are known to slaughter these former companions of the Aboriginal tribes. Now he's creating a set of fruit bats that are to be installed on a rotary clothes line. Once again, he aims to comment on the problematic relationship that people have with wild animals. According to suburban folklore, bats are the enemy of the traditional housewife who finds her washing smeared by their droppings. Another sculpture, a memorial to the Aborigines who were maimed during the British nuclear tests in Australia during the 1950s, shows a windswept woman and child and an effigy of a mushroom cloud. The work was acclaimed and has recently been purchased by the Art Gallery of Western Australia. Onus is one of many Koori artists who have embarked on a journey of personal exploration in order to recover their Aboriginal identity. Like the abstracted images of Fiona Foley, or Robert Campbell Jr.'s pictorial narratives of black/white segregation - and the work of a host of other artists - Onus's prolific output creates a scenario where elements of varying cultures are assembled and arranged in close proximity and subjected to constant negotiation.