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.