40. LIN ONUS
In a short life of just forty-seven years Lin Onus spanned the triumph and tragedy that is Aboriginal Australia. The talented and imaginative son of a successful Aboriginal businessman, and a Scottish mother, both of whom were active campaigners for Indigenous rights. Lin built a career of great promise and integrity, a life cut tragically short in what was then the norm for young Aboriginal men. Bill was a founder member of the Aboriginal Advancement League and a pioneer in Aboriginal business enterprise. Lin grew up in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, but endemic racism both in the community and at school saw him leave sooner than he might have wished. Working in his father’s business, Aboriginal Enterprises, gave him an insight into the possibilities of a career in the arts and he grasped the opportunity with enthusiasm. Many visits with his father to the traditional lands of the Yorta Yorta in the Murray riverlands of northern Victoria gave him deep affinity with the Barmah Forest, the beautiful wetland that became the subject for so much of his painting. The Murrungun Djinang family at Garmedi gave Lin access to clan designs and they gave him permission to use their own intricate crosshatched style. The key to Lin Onus’s vision was the blending of two distinct styles into one telling image. He mastered the techniques of western representational landscape painting, which he then subverted with the introduction of Aboriginal motifs – birds, fish and animals that inhabit the apparently real world of Australia. The message was clear – however much European norms and values might conquer and suppress the land and its people, beneath that comfortable surface the spirit and traditions of the original inhabitants flow through every part of the land and its waters.
Since his premature death the paintings of Lin Onus have become highly collectible and the values realised at auction reflect the esteem in which his work is held. Large numbers of prints and reproductions fill out a market driven by a scarcity of work and the fierce competition for its acquisition. Beyond the two dimensional work there is a small group of sculptures that are essential to an understanding of Onus’s legacy. The wry humour and immediate appeal of his Fruit Bats sculpture at the Art Gallery of New South Wales has made that work an icon of contemporary Indigenous art. He takes a simple premise and loads it with irony, humour and cultural undercurrents to produce a work of enormous power. It shows an artist completely at home working in three dimensions, perhaps grounded in his father’s small factory where boomerangs and other artefacts were manufactured for the tourist market. Similarly his powerful group Dingoes showed how Onus could use the techniques of western technology, in this case fibreglass, to produce imagery that is accessible, appealing and yet deeply troubling in its message. He identified closely with the plight of the Dingo, the native dog whose history of ill treatment and alienation closely matches that of Indigenous Australians.
Within that tiny group of just six sculptural works, one stands alone, unique in the artist’s oeuvre, East Timor. On many occasions Onus stepped away from his lifelong concerns with his own people to support the causes of oppressed people around the world – the Palestinians, South Africans and other oppressed and colonised peoples. He provided a devastatingly clear and memorable work commenting on the plight of the people of East Timor. Onus drew clear parallels between the East Timorese and his own people, who he felt had suffered, and continued to suffer, under the effects of colonialism. His imagery was stark and uncompromising. A burned plastic doll, an image of innocence destroyed and of a future blighted, represents the Timorese people. Even once oppressed and subjugated, they continue to be exploited by the evil puppet master, the Indonesian overlord who, with the backing of the Australia, took over the small island from its Portuguese colonial power. While a work in three dimensions, it has a strong graphic quality that produces an immediacy and power; line and shape replacing form in a masterly arrangement quite shocking in its impact.