Australian Biography

Elizabeth Durack - full interview transcript

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During the war, you'd moved to Melbourne, and after the war, you moved from Melbourne and went up north, back to Western Australia. Where did you go and what happened?

We got a house after the war, when there were absolutely no houses to get, in Melbourne, in Grey Street. And we were there for a while and then I was doing quite a lot of work with my sister, Mary, too. I did ... no, I did it in Brisbane, where Michael was born. And at the time ... that same time I was doing the illustrations for The Magic Trumpet and then I was doing a lot of work with Mary when I was in Melbourne, including the illustrations for what Kings in Grass Castles was first called, which was They Reached A Land. That was the original title of the book, and then she got the much more inspired title, Kings in Grass Castles. And I did a lot of illustrations for that then: very fine work, in pen and very fine nib. This is before any of the felt nibs came in. That was a wonderful breakthrough for quick sketching: using a mapping nib. And then I was getting the end of something. I also illustrated an unfinished book, which was called Star of Darkness. I might show you some of that tomorrow. I shouldn't say that, should I? Then two things occurred. I was getting very restless, and I was also ... the old English nurse that we were left with when mother went north, when we were in our town house in Perth, died and left me a small legacy. I didn't deserve it because I was pretty cruel to nurse. I used to do terrible caricatures of her. And this combination, with the fact that my brother-in-law, Horrie Miller, had just brought a house in post-war Broome for a song ... and he asked me to go up there because he wanted to go backwards and forwards, and at any rate, I went up to Broome, with the two children, in 1945. And that was a very big break from the illustrating work that I'd been doing. I started ... I got a big lot of material. I didn't bring much with me. I brought paints, Windsor & Newton oil paints, but I didn't have any canvases. And there were ... they were holding disposal sales all through the north at the time and I went to one of the big disposal sales, run by Gregson's, [a] very well known auctioneer in this city, and I bought, for a very small amount of money, a big pile of masonite, which had been the tops of RAF [sic] mess tables and I got that sawed up into relevant sizes. And that I used for a big outpouring of work in Broome during the 1940s ... 1945. We were there about a year, I suppose. And then I showed that work. That was my first exhibition, an exhibition called Time & Tide, the first exhibition of easel paintings, as it were. It was like a complete departure from illustration, you know. And then ... then from that, then I showed in different ... I showed in different places. Showed first in Perth. And then after that, I went back to Ivanhoe. That was when I had my studio on the banks of the Ord, and continued working very big paintings. One of them is the one that's behind me in the studio here, although I did a lot of them, and ... and I lost a lot of them because in 1950, Ivanhoe House burned down. I wasn't there at the time, and a lot of the paintings that were in my room there were burned. And so I lost a lot of work at that time, but also [I] still had a lot of work. That was 1947, '48, '49, and so on. And then in 1950, I was back in Western Australia. I'd been ... yes, I was back in Western Australia, living in this street.

During that time, that you were up north again, you also had a lot of ... you renewed your contacts with the Aboriginal community there, didn't you?

Yes. And they'd got older, of course, in that decade. And some of the very ... the older men ... now, you must understand that on a lot of stations, certainly on our stations, there was the station blacks and there was the bush camp. The bush camp was the ... the natives that were less prepared to work, and a lot of them were old, very old people. They were sort of pensioned off. And they ... they lived in a camp, and the station killed for them once a week. They got their beef, you see. So it was my ... my bush studio, it was pretty rough. It was just a bower shed. It was ... I looked for it the other day and couldn't find anything of it left. That was adjacent to the bush camp, where some of the old men came. And we'd talk. And they were terribly interested in the paintings I did, you know. Watched them very carefully and would comment on them. And one, I remember, it's the one just that happens to be there: there was a dog that I had in it, and the painting went on for a good while, and then the dog died in the meantime. And when they saw the dog had died, they were so sorry about the death of the dog, they didn't like to see it in the painting so I painted it over. But then, there were old Jubul and old Roger and old Jerry - all those very old men that I was in touch with. And the amusing part was too, that the ... the women that I went for walks with from the station had also matured in the time I hadn't seen them, they were very worried about me talking to these old men, you see. They thought ... they didn't think that was good at all. They weren't joking. They were very serious. They said, 'You want to look out, missus. He going to sing you, that old man. You can't trust them. He going to sing you'. And I used to laugh about it. But that's what they said and lately I've wondered whether it mightn't have been true. [Laughs]

They were concerned that the old men were telling you things that they felt a need to tell you ...

No, they thought I'd be at harm, talking to them.

Yes.

They were frightened of the old men, you see.

Right.

They were doing it for my ... concern for me but only in an agreeable and loving way, you see. They'd say, 'You want to look out. You don't want to talk to those old men. They going to sing you bye and bye'. They'd come down of an afternoon, to swim in the rock hole, the water hole there, a beautiful water hole. Still water in it. Where I did the painting of Ord River Venus and quite a lot of big paintings.

What were the old men telling you?

Oh, well, as the season would advance, and the river was very dry, and the cattle were bogging in the river, there would ... there's a whole process of river magic, very ... all sorts of things went on. One of them was they'd make a sort of a model of something and throw it in to a diminishing pool and sing it. And there were all sorts of ways. I've done a lot of drawings of it in different places. And all sorts of things, hard to say what exactly, you know, recalling it. But it went in. And then they had their stones and their ... and the little magic bag around their neck, of which they'd ask for some of my hair. They often asked for my hair because they loved the yellow colour, you see. And then, of course, I used to encourage them to talk because I'd always have some tobacco, and they loved that. And so that was a very ... a very mystical time, really, with those old men. They knew that ... that ... that the old way of life was finished and they were sort of upset about it, you see.

And how did you feel about it?

Well, you get pulled. You can see their point of view. And you can see their worry. You felt ... and their feeling that the young ones weren't paying any attention to it. And well, those ... they'd probably been ... but the younger ones were coming more into the modern world, you know. If you were ... if you were riding with them sometimes, they'd say, you knew there was some paintings in an adjacent rock or crevice ... in some of the crevices there were bones placed and everything, and they'd say ... they'd know about that, and tell you about that but they'd refer to it as 'blackfella humbug'. It's only 'blackfella humbug' now, you see. They were leaving it behind way back then but that didn't mean that they ... That might have been sort of a bit of an act for oneself, or for the whites, you see, because they would never camp near any of the places that ... that were ... had sort of a spirit significance - certainly not near any of the places where ... where bones had been deposited in niches of the rock and that sort of thing.

And this impact that your settlement, and the settlement of your ancestors on that land, had had on their way of life, did they ever refer to that in, as it were, personal terms?

No, of course ... of course it was totally destructive to their old way of life. Once you put in fences and start fencing off waters and putting down ... you know, the whole thing was antithetical to the ... to the old way of life, where the ... where the Narranganni [?] had to have access to the entire region. I did ... I missed the question.

Well, I was thinking really, what it was like for you, being as it were, privy to this Aboriginal experience, and at the same time bringing with you, what you were, which was a member of the Durack family, who had done the fencing ...

Yes, well of course, my brother's a bit interesting on that. And of course, we've often discussed it because he ... he follows all the political trends and everything. As for reconciliation he said, 'But they were reconciled', and then I... then we might argue, and I'll say, ' But was it reconciliation, or was it resignation, Reg?' He said they were reconciled to the whole thing when they came into the stations to work, you see. But it's a bit of an open question, and certainly a very vexed one at the present time.

Why do you think these old men chose to tell you these things, and to allow you to be part of their world?

That I'll never know. That I'll never know. I only know that I have been. I am privy to areas of the ... the old life and ways of the old people of Australia. And in that way, of course, I feel ... I feel both enormously privileged and in one side of the mind you can feel deeply distressed for them. And then ... then you've just got to feel the flow of history through ... through life, and through this continent.

During this time, you were saying that you'd shifted from working primarily as an illustrator, or in small sketches, and you'd moved your work into a completely different dimension, on big, big scale.

Yes.

What did this mean for you as an artist?

Oh, it was exciting. I was very thrilled about my work, really. Yes.

Why do you think it had happened?

I don't know. But these ... these doors keep opening in one's career, you see. You think, oh, how marvellous. You enter into a new ... into a new area that keeps opening and you get very excited about each move. And each time you go, open another door, as it were, it seems like the last one, and then you go on a bit further and something else occurs. That's happened a lot, because of course, when ... by the time I got ... the fifties was mixed work, but mostly highly graphic, of Western Australia as a whole. During that time I did a big set of graphic drawings of the outback towns. And I called it Look At The State We're In. And the ... the library at present is bringing out a brochure, and we're wanting to negotiate on that. And it was just before the mineral boom, although ... and some of it the mineral [boom] had started in Australia, because Cockatoo Island was going, and I spent some time there, with BHP. And then Hamersley Iron, CRA was starting up in the Pilbara. So I was on the verge of all this. But before that, many of the outback towns of Western Australia, including Meekatharra, that I did a lot of work in, they were literally in a state of decay, you see. They were just hanging together. But now, Meekatharra's quite a little city, you see.

Why were they just hanging together at that time?

Well, everything was so depressed. The only commodity was wool, which at that time wasn't at a very high price. And they had come ... a lot of them had come into ... into being as mineral towns and then the minerals had dropped away. You know, whatever it is makes a town go up and down.

And so you did drawings. What were you depicting in those drawings?

Literally what I saw. Literally what I saw. I'll show you some of that tomorrow, perhaps. Oh dear ...

Now, these were, again using your graphic skills ...

Yes.

... but at the same time, you were beginning to think or move towards a different type of painting, weren't you?

I was, yes.

Had your materials changed?

Yes, I think so. I was using pencil. I just can't remember what year the felt nib came in, but I can remember being terribly thrilled with a felt nib. It ... it's just rapid and permanent and a wonderful, wonderful instrument for quick drawing. Through this where things begin to meld one into another. I think I was on the verge of doing the Melted Image paintings. Again, in all these towns and everything, I did a big depiction of the Aboriginals who were living in, on the fringes of the town. Did a lot of work of that. Most of it's ... most of it's been spread, you know. Because I'd hold exhibitions. I've held many exhibitions. Sometimes I'd hold two or three a year, you see, showing the work, getting it on. Always to keep the wolf from the door, I might mention, too. Although the whole thing was wrapped up, you know.

So what was happening with your family at this time? They had been living on the properties and how was that going?

Oh well, by 1950 ... by 1950, almost before ... a few weeks before he died, our father, to my and my brother's great upset, he'd sold the properties. The properties were sold in 1950 and dad died. So that ... so that altered. Then after dad died, mother lived in Perth. She had her own little home. And Mary was here and I was here. My brother, Reg, as part of the sale ... a section of the property was cut off for my brother, Reg and he developed Kildurk station, which was the first station in the north to go to the Aboriginals. It's now called Amanbidgi. And he ... he had a young wife, and they built that station up between them and raised a magnificent family at the same time. So that's what I mean, with my brother, Reg, he's ... he's had the longest unbroken contact with the Aboriginal people.

Why did your father sell what was his and yours and ...

Again, I think it was that he had the role image of how people of that generation ... He lost faith in the north, too. He lost faith in the north a lot. It had never come into the flowering. It was a recessive part of Australia, you see. The whole thing is a bit of a phenomenon, that we were on the edge of something which had long gone out in other parts of New South Wales or Queensland. You know, they'd moved into further development. I'm not saying there were masses ... masses of stations there, but this was ... Queensland was more advanced in lots of ways. And it's interesting because, of course, the family brought over Queensland Aboriginals with them. Or some Aboriginals came over to the family from Queensland and the Queensland Aboriginals looked down on the Kimberley Aboriginals. They thought they were a lot of myalls. They themselves felt that they were more developed, more advanced and of course, primary among those men was Argyle Boxer, who was of course, very crucial to my life really.

And so Argyle Boxer was actually from Queensland.

He was a Queenslander, yes. He was a Kalkadoon, yes. He ... he was ... he came over to the Kimberley in about 1880. Oh no, well it might have been 1890. I don't know the exact dates. You'd have to think back. And then, Pumpkin, who was another man very attached to the ... to dad, from Queensland days ... this little party was coming over from Queensland to go to the gold fields, the last of the gold fields at Halls Creek, and Pumpkin saw this lively boy, and he bought him for a horse and a tin of jam and brought him to Argyle, and raised him, you see: Argyle Boxer.

So he - Pumpkin, an Aboriginal, actually bought ...

Yeah, Pumpkin had a lot of authority. These Queensland Aboriginals were moving around the stations and helping, you see. Yes.

And he bought him from his parents?

From his mother, yeah. She was travelling with ... with a party of two or three white men I think, you know. The exact circumstances I can't tell you but that's the story.

And that's how Argyle Boxer came ...

That's how Argyle Boxer came to be Argyle Boxer. And he dominated, he dominated from the ... from a position of tremendous power and strength and it was Boxer who ... who introduced all sorts of new songs there, and had control of big song cycles, including the great song cycle of Djanba. And some people think that Boxer was Djanba. But we get into too complicated a subject for a conversation, I think, Robin, there.

And what was your relationship with Argyle Boxer?

Well, of course he was ... he was ... by the time I knew him, he was retired. He was retired, but he had his own plant of horses. And he and dad were in a sort of a ... an ... an arrangement, a loose arrangement, where Boxer moved around the stations in his own time and in his own way, with his plant of horses and his rifle, keeping an eye on things. He kept an eye on things. To that extent, if there ... if cattle were being speared down some remote corner of the Behn River, Boxer would come back and report it, you see. And then, between that, he was also looking for gold. He was always looking for gold. And the first time that ... that I remember him vividly was that he came up to Argyle, up to the homestead, with a very ... in a very ... He always walked very assertively, boots and spurs. And he ... I was just there on the verandah, I can remember, and he said, 'Which way old man?' meaning dad, you see. Then I... that was really when I was just a young girl then, very young. And I remember looking at him very keenly, you know - almost as keenly as I looked at the frog. And I drew him quite a bit too. And so he was in a unique position, Argyle Boxer.

And was he one of the old men who taught you things later?

Yes, he did. He did, but ... but then I lost touch with him, and he died at some stage. Or he went back to Queensland. He moved around a lot. And then I think it was Jack Kilfoyle at Rosewood station heard he'd been buried in ... in Darwin. So he went to find Boxer's grave, because he was in close touch with all the station men. He was a very big power in the land, Boxer. And Jack Kilfoyle found a grave, but there was nothing in it. So the rumour spread that ... that Boxer had never died and that he comes up to life every now and again. So there's all sorts of mysteries that circulate ... rumours that circulate. So we don't quite know where Boxer is buried, if he's buried at all.

He was primarily your father's friend. Is 'friend' the right word?

Oh yes, yes. Well you'll talk to some of the older people now and they'll say, they'll say, 'Oh, that old M.P. Durack and Boxer, they two for the brother now', you see. Yes, they were. Well there was that sort of relationship with some of those old men who had the full dignity of it. But they'd come completely over to the white man's way of life, you see. And they just held in contempt the bush ... the bush blacks. They just called them myalls, you see. 'Ignorant blackfellas', that's what they called them. But this ... this again, might be a front, you know, because you'd find that Boxer had a very liveable arrangement among the Aboriginals, although he was ... he used to bluff them. There's no doubt about that.

But he also knew the old laws. He knew the old stories.

He'd have known, yes. Yes, he knew that, yes.

And ... and including the song cycles that were so important to ...

Yes, oh yes, he was ... he held many songs. He had control of many songs. That was strict among them ... was that ... as it were, the copyright to the songs. And they'd always say whose song it was. But you can go ... I can talk to some of the older ones, even today, and they'll say, 'That was so-and-so's song', and the song cycles followed. Well, not only song cycles, news went in ... in circles, too. All sorts of news travelled around the map.

Were you part of that news circle? Did they talk about you? Did they ...

They probably did. They certainly spread news of the coming of the ... coming of the gudea, in the early days, which is the name of one Eddie Burrup's paintings, The Coming of the Gudea.

And what does that mean?

Gudea is an Aboriginal English word for ... for 'white fella' and there's lots of songs and stories of that.

When you were being taught by these old men about their ways, were they bothered by the fact that you were a woman?

Well, they couldn't have been. I mean, take for instance the very big walk that I went, the longest walk, three weeks I was out with them. We walked ... didn't go out from any of the Connor Doherty & Durack places. I was staying at ... see I moved around a lot, too. I was staying Moolaboola at the time, when it was an Aboriginal station, and I knew that there was some ... there was a link going on between the station ... the old men at the station and they were going to meet up with some desert men. And they were going down the road towards Lake Mackay and I asked if I could go with them and they let me go with them. And we just walked off into the bush. That was the longest trip. I did other trips of two or three days. I didn't ... there was a woman there, too. A couple of women would be with us, you know. And in that case ... For instance, it wasn't a case of them saying, 'You're forbidden', or anything. Most of it was just walking and learning, and they'd describe the country, and the creation of the country. This is where I got my knowledge of the Narranganni, from walks like that, where you see their ... their ... they're written into the landscape. They're living ... these men were goanna men, and they saw themselves written into the landscape and the travels that they'd done when they were forming the land, you see. They're literally the land incarnate. And by keeping the whole cycle going, they were able to perpetuate that. But of course, it ... it was fragile too. But this was a remnant of something. I always felt very lucky if I got in on anything like that. No, there wasn't any much. I ... now, for instance, there was one afternoon where obviously they were going to do some special chanting, or exposing special boards. Well, old Jenny I think it was - nice old girl - she said, 'Come on, missus, me and you - two fella - we go look our pretty flower now'. And what they mean - well look, that's the men are having a singsong there, we'll go off and ... It wasn't to say, 'You're not to watch this', or anything. It was all done very, very gracefully and you'd just comply with whatever. If she said that, I wouldn't for a thousand pounds have said, 'No, I want to listen to them'. Not for a minute, you know. I knew that there was etiquette in the bush. It was etiquette all the time. You've got to be on your guard. And I think you only pick that up instinctively, you know. Not instinctively - with experience. You don't ... it wouldn't be instinctive. But with experience you can know where you might be trespassing, or making a mistake. And also they make a lot of allowance for the fact you were a stranger, you know. So there was another world out there that I got a little look on to. And probably there wouldn't be too many in Australia that ever have been able to. No, there wouldn't.

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