Australian Biography

Elizabeth Durack - full interview transcript

Tape of 9

Tape 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Physically on these walks, like for example, this long three week walk that you went on, what was it like? Was it hard to keep up with them?

You had to be able to walk. A big advantage to be able to walk and the days start very early. They move very early after a very scratchy breakfast. Little bit of ... another thing, they treated me always as a guest. So I'd have the special end of cold ... cold goanna for breakfast ... for breakfast. You had to get it down somehow. And then ... then you'd pad along, and then the party would break up. Say the ... I was with the couple of women, and a couple of the older men but the younger ones, you know, this age, [RAISES HAND] would have been able to ... they'd go off and they'd catch a kangaroo or something. We wouldn't see them 'til the evening. But we'd be going from a point ... a special point for that day and then, of course, in the middle of the day, they wouldn't walk in the heat. They'd never walk in the very intense heat.

Did they eat in the middle of the day?

Not much, no. No, nothing. Just water in the middle of the day. Yes, you had water if you were near a waterhole. And then the main meal was at night.

And what was that?

Kangaroo. Kangaroo.

Always kangaroo?

Yes, yes, always kangaroo. Yeah, I had brought a little bit of beef with me, but ... we brought a little bit of beef, salt beef, but it soon ran out.

Did you have any sort of things that you gathered, like berries or leaves?

Nothing, nothing at all. That's right, I know you can starve in the bush. You get very thin. You know, you get very thin. Very thin and very constipated, I can tell you. The ... the ... This idea of people saying that you ... that Burke and Wills should have just been perhaps more friendly or more going with the blacks, because they were living well, the whole of our system has been adjusted to a different diet. You know, you could ... you can starve on bush tucker, I can tell you.

So after this three weeks walk, you were looking forward to some food that you were more familiar with.

Oh yes, oh yes. Yes, you don't ... well, we had some flour. We did have flour, yes. Make little johnny cakes in the ashes. But that's not very palatable. But it's ... you keep going. You know, I didn't think about it much. You know, you just fit into it. And I was drawing all the time, you know. But the time went quickly and of course it's lovely. It's a lot of fun too, you see. It's wonderful. You go into beautiful places. And all sorts ... and I remember the one big excitement because the ... we ran into a big mob of wild camels. There are wild camels out there, a lot of them. And then they were stopping the dogs from chasing the camels, because the camels can charge you, apparently, if they're really wild. So you know, all sorts of little incidents would occur like that. Never a dull moment. I mean you miss all that if you go through in a four-wheel drive, you know, you don't see anything. And then, incidentally, there were areas where there were little special parts, you know, and everything, yes.

Where did you sleep?

On the ground. On the ground. I had a light swag, yes. It ... it wasn't ... luckily, the thing to dread in the bush is the cold. The heat's not so bad at all because you can rest in the heat of the day. And at night, of course, it's beautiful, balmy. The mosquitoes weren't bad at all. And I didn't have a tent or anything like that. Just ... just rolled out a swag.

What if it rained?

It didn't. It wouldn't rain. It didn't rain. It wasn't ... the rain was over. It was just after the wet, this was, yes.

When you got to the end of this three week trek, it was to meet men from the desert.

Yes, there were still a few old men that they were exchanging songs with or ... or boards or something. Or it might have been the remnant of an old trade route, or something like that, you see. It was a remnant of something. But ... but it wasn't anything that was more than ... they half were not going to do it at Moolaboola. They thought it was ... they wouldn't go. Perhaps they won't ... perhaps the old men won't meet them at whatever point it was. But they did, and they picked it up pretty quickly as we went along. There were signs of the smoke and once they saw the smoke, they knew that the men were waiting for them. And that is the occasion ... that particular occasion is when I saw the nearest thing to - and this was 1948 - to what would be traditionally living Aboriginals. They were very thin too. They were a remnant of ... of something there.

And even the meeting was a remnant of an old way.

Oh yes, oh yes. Absolutely. Yes. There wouldn't be many corners like that that. None. These had come up from the Pitjandara [also spelt Pitjantjatjara] I think, somewhere like that.

This witnessing of something that was passing, something that was disappearing, what effect did that have on you?

Oh, extraordinary, I think. Quite extraordinary effect, I suppose. You ... you normalise things, but it's ... it had a latent effect upon me, too, particularly under the pressures that we live in today, when you hear it more or less said ... I'm always amazed when they sort of more or less say that there are Aboriginals living in this country in a pristine state. Because it's ... I can never follow what the thought is behind it but there's something driving that thought. Because they're not, you see, they're not. It's a different way of life. I mean the way ... their culture, which was so delicate and so fragile, it ... it virtually collapsed when the first bag of flour came off the ... off Governor Phillip's ship, you know. Keeping their world alive, which they did ... and this is an aspect that interests me, because the garden culture was just, you could almost say, a stone's throw away, in the islands between the tip of Cape York and the islands that lie between there and the south of Papua New Guinea, and they had experience from all the ... the Macassans coming down, who cultivated the land, and did little gardens when they were there, for a long time. But they never ... they ... they rejected the garden culture, I think, because their own world the power of the Narranganni was so strong and made so much sense to them that they couldn't accept anything else. This is only ... I'm only talking theoretically. I haven't discussed this with ... with any anthropologists but it is a mystery why any garden culture didn't come into Australia. You see, it's quite extraordinary. It can't be really explained because you can be sure that the ... the Indonesians would have left spades with them and said, 'Keep those gardens going while we're away', but they didn't do that. Those spades were turned into the dreaded shovel nosed spears that ... that were used with the incoming of ... say, of the cattle, certainly in the north there.

And clearly when the rituals were being observed in their full force, they were pretty busy with them.

Oh yes, yes it was. It was a very ... well, this is it, it was pretty much a full time job, keeping the whole ... the whole of creation going. You know, it must have been. And then I suppose in parts where the ... where the pressure wasn't so great on them - the big coastal areas and along the rivers, where sustenance was more or less assured, there would have been quite a lot of spare time.

And beautiful art in the rocks and so on.

Well, they kept that going, yes, yes. And the more ... the more that's found the more there is to find of that and the more mysteries there are. You might have followed the Bradshaw story, the Bradshaw paintings: all the ... all these questions that have been raised with that.

With the paintings, as you became more aware of Aboriginal painting, and you'd seen the rock paintings in your own country, you'd seen the paintings of Aborigines on bark and what was happening in other areas, did that affect your own work?

Yes, to a certain extent and I used it fairly freely with the illustrations that I did during the fifties for the Langloh Parker. They did a new edition of Cate Langloh Parker's Australian Legendary Tales and there I adapted Aboriginal art for those illustrations and wrote a foreword saying how I had done it and why, and my link with old ... some of the old people, you see. And that was done in the early fifties. So there is nothing new about adapting. All through the fifties, I was doing big paintings. The big set of paintings that is ... that was acquired by the University of Western Australia, called The Cord to Altcheringa [?] was a stylised form of ... using Aboriginal ... well, clearly influenced by Aboriginal art, openly influenced by Aboriginal art. And of course, one of the ... one of the amusing parts was that it hung in Winthrop Hall for about forty years, and then the local gallery here, the Art Gallery of Western Australia, wanted to use it in an exhibition, a semi-retrospect, in 1995. By that time there'd been this reversal, and they had this ... this authority on Aboriginal art, and they said that I couldn't use ... couldn't hang them. I said, 'But this is ridiculous', you know. But they were being vetoed from going into the exhibition. And the curator of the exhibition, Janda Gooding, who was curating it, she came down. She said, 'A very serious thing's happened. Our ... our guardian of Aboriginality here at the gallery says we can't hang your paintings'. I said, 'I don't believe it, Janda. They've been hanging in a public place for forty-five years'. And ... and I said, 'We'll just ignore it'. She said, 'We can't, Elizabeth, we can't. They could ... they could boycott the art gallery. It's very serious'. And so the ... for a quite a long time, whether the exhibition went on or not, hung in ... in doubt, you know. And I was in total disbelief over all this. But then, our current ... our then director, Paula Latos-Valier, a lovely young woman from ... from America ... She came into Australia and then she was here for some years and she managed to effect a breakthrough. I don't know, she said, 'Now look, we'll get through this somehow if everyone keeps very calm and if no one talks excitedly, and no one, for goodness sake, goes to the press', and this sort of thing. And then it was agreed. All this is new to me. This is sort of new. This is such a new world. She said, 'It's been agreed that if any of your associates in the Kimberley say that those paintings can be displayed at our exhibition, they've agreed that they can go up', so of course, the first thing I thought was well, I'll just get in touch with my classificatory son and I thought it was serious enough to fly up to Kununurra. But as it turned out, he was here in Fremantle Hospital, with some problem ... health problem. And ... and with the help ... I had a lot of help from my cousin by marriage, Tom Stephens, who's a member of the Legislative Council here ... very active in the whole world. He went first to the north as a Aboriginal adviser or somebody, and ... and he said, 'I'll go down with you to see Jeff', and we went down together, and we spoke to Jeff, and he explained it all. And I told Jeff ... brought down photos of the pictures and everything and so we had ... Jeff then said, 'All them picture that my old mum she been make, him all free for man or woman to see', and he signed it. And with that, and their Aboriginal help down at the hospital, and down the ... the exhibition went on. It was a very traumatic time, you know, and all ... as I say, all new to me. This sudden burst of ... of I don't know what, I don't know what. That was in '95 ... '95, not so long ago.

Why do you think you, right from the beginning, felt so drawn to painting, drawing, sketching, Aboriginal people and their lives?

It's funny, isn't it? I don't know. It's just a ... I remember talking to Henrietta Drake-Brockman, a good friend of mine and Mary's, a writer. And she said, 'You seem to be obsessed with it, Elizabeth'. I said, 'I'm not, but it's all very interesting'. So I really can't say. But it's ... I suppose there've been some wonderful work done by other artists, but nothing to such ... anything like the extent that I've done over the years.

Do you think it had anything to do with the fact that at such a young age, and then it was followed up right through your life, you were privileged to be steeped in a lot of what they lived and experienced, and you shared some of that?

I think so. I think so. And the early ... the early contacts with Argyle Boxer staying with us at ... at Claremont and that sort of thing had an influence. Because with my ... with the nursemaid and me, we'd go down to the little white beach here, and find little creatures: crabs and things like that.

And this response to nature and to the land as it was, was strong in you. I'm wondering, when you were walking with the Aborigines, and they were explaining and seeing themselves in the land ...

Yes.

... did you relate to that? Did you feel ...

I was learning. It was learning, you see. This is back in the forties and it's been coming. You can only learn slowly. It comes to you slowly. The ... the ... the ... I'd seen it visually, the incarnateness of the ... when I was doing literal paintings. I remember saying once that I don't use any other colour to ... to paint the skins of the Aboriginal than what's on my brush from painting the landscape and it was always that drawing them into ... that was sort of a visual thing. And then it became more understanding the theory behind it, you see. The continuum of the Narranganni, which ... it's a hard concept to get because as you might be walking along, the head, the old goanna man would say, 'And then he go down there, you see that. He go down there and he coming out again. You see head there? He coming out again'. And then he said, 'And then I go down and I'm going to have a big sleep now'. And what ... he was interchangeable with the creature that had shaped the land because he ... he too ... he was a living goanna man, you see, part of that landscape. And he still incarnate[s] you see. And that ... it's so ancient that it must have been so fragile that it ... it was too easily destroyed, you see. But of course, it's terribly understandable how ... when the ... when settlement ... European settlement came to Australia, they tried terribly hard to see how you could come to terms with the land, but they couldn't understand that. I mean land was ... you owned land by the ... by tilling it for a start. You know, it was tilled land, or land conquered or occupied. But these ... they were still drifting and moving, you see. They couldn't find ... there were no things like ... there was no chief, there was no king, there was no ... it was ... There was a hierarchy, but it was ... it was a geriatric type of hierarchy, a hierarchy that was achieved through wisdom and knowledge, you see, and all these ... all these subtleties that would have been totally incomprehensible to ... well nobody understands it now, let alone a hundred ... a couple of hundred years ago. So this is what leads on to a much bigger topic. Perhaps we'll take that at another time.29

At the time that you were learning these things ...

Yes.

... did you find this way of looking at the world and this way of understanding the relationship with the place that you lived, very appealing, more appealing perhaps than the ideas that you'd been brought up with as a European Australian?

Yes, you did ... did in a way. Yes, a sort of fascination to it. And also, it would lure you in further and further. You'd get like little glimpses of knowledge, and then ... then you'd get a bit of a new opening, you see. It's ... A full understanding of it has only come to me gradually. You know, you don't suddenly understand what ... what was the essential depth of the relationship of the Aboriginals to their environment. It only comes gradually. And the power of it, you see.

Did you envy it? Did you feel that is the relationship that I'd like to have with this land?

No, I don't think so. I don't think so. I don't think it was a case of envy. It was a case of appreciation, a case of even admiration of the ... because it had survived so long, you see. It had survived through from ... I think then of course, you get into other areas of ... of study that bring you back to the whole sequence of ... of the history of man ... mankind on this earth.

After you had been working on the banks of the Ord River, and you had been doing bigger paintings that you might call heightened realism, you began to move, didn't you, into something a little more abstract in the work you were doing for yourself. What did you start doing and why did you start doing it?

I think, Robin, it might have come a little bit later than perhaps the late 1940s, if we're moving chronologically.

Yes.

... because by the early fifties, I was moving into another sphere of development, which was the adaptation of ... of Aboriginal - not motifs so much - as semi-styles, and using an Aboriginal palette of terracotta, white, black and grey sometimes. So I think that might have preceded the ... the later developments of moving into ... although I've never worked as an abstract artist, but more into abstractions. These ... these ... unlike the graphic paintings that you describe as heightened realism - these ... these were very sharply patterned works, based on Aboriginal, in this case, legend, the big set of murals that I did for the Charles Gairdner Hospital. That was based on the legend of the black swan in ... in Perth, taken from the ... from the manuscript of Catherine Langloh Parker, whose ... whose re-edited illustration ... I'd illustrated her book that was reprinted by Angus and Robertson from her first edition in the 1890s. She was one of the first collectors of Aboriginal legends.

And this work that you were doing using Aboriginal ideas and motifs, where did your inspiration for that come from?

Well, as I mentioned in the ... in the prologue to the Australian Legendary Tales, I there gave full acknowledgement to the ideas that I acknowledged that I had of Aboriginal bark painting, because one of the old men that ... with whom I was friendly on the banks of the Ord, was a Northern Territory person who was adept at ... at bark painting. Although he didn't do a lot, and this is long before they became such a collector's item, and he ... he explained the ... the methods of bark painting to me, well known now. At the time ... how there's never a right way up or a wrong way up, because they're done flat on the ground and they can be looked at ... and all these idea I was able to absorb from him.

And in doing this work, were you also bringing to it some of the experience you'd had with the more European traditions of painting? Were they melding in the work?

They were rather separate I think. They were fairly separate. And one of the interesting factors about this work, which was adaptations of either legends or some ritual, that was exhibited here in Perth, at Newspaper House, together with some of my lyrical paintings of Aboriginals walking through the bush, they created quite a lot of interest because two or three Aboriginals from the ... from the Leonora area - that's in the eastern gold fields - they came down to Perth. They didn't know about this, but it's ... and it's unusual for Aboriginals to go to an exhibition, but they must have heard of it somehow. And they came down and were delighted with these paintings and these were true old Aboriginal people. And the ... the gallery was so intrigued that they got a photographer to take one of the old men - he was called Mr. Green ... had an English name ... and talking and telling a group of girls from St. Hilda's school, explaining how the paintings [were] indicating what this old ritual was, with the greatest approbation and enjoyment. So that was, of course ... that was about 1953 - sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety - forty-five years before there was objection to my doing this, you see. It was ... the whole thing's been a very extraordinary story.

Why do you think they were so pleased to think that you'd done this?

Oh, they ... they were already saying, 'That's what we used to do'. It was laid in the far past, but they knew that I picked it up, you see. These ... these were ... these were ... that was the first display of the set that I did call The Cord to Altcheringa, Altcheringa being another word for the Narranganni or Dreaming, and ... of the dozens of words that exist in Aboriginal languages, some of them completely now forgotten. But those two words are very strong. The ... they were ... they just sort of saw it as something interesting that ... that was on display.

And so they were happy to see ...

Yes. And I've got photos of that. Yes.

They were happy to see the tradition continued, and they didn't much mind who did it, so long as it was someone who respected it.

In a way, although as I say, I think they saw it as their past. 'That's what we used to do, we used to make a bit pattern on the ground, and then we'd ... we'd sit', and this sort of thing, you see, because the ground patterns were a feature of ritual.

Now, this was a period when you were doing this kind of work from Aboriginal legends and using Aboriginal motifs. What was the next phase for you as an artist?

Working all through the 1950s, I think several streams working at the same time: graphic work, and more imaginative work, and it was by the ... and there are overtones of what might come later in some of the paintings, if one goes into the detail of it. Because by the 1960s, I was moving into what I describe as the 'Melted Image' paintings, where ... I ... I suppose you could say that the concept of it occurred in the 1940s, particularly with the painting that's quite well known now. It was called Ord River Venus, and has been rather widely displayed, and there I had a picture of an Aboriginal woman standing against the basalt rocks, at the rock pool where we used to go swimming together and the ... the colour of the flesh and the rocks are identical. And it was then that I saw this unity of earth and flesh, you see. And ... and I've written about that too, around that time. And then ... then as the Melted Image series evolved, the recurring theme ... and I used to run out of titles: Figures Into Landscape, Landscape Into Figures, Figures into Landscape, and the two were intermingling as one. That was a fairly long theme, again, by the early sixties. Contemporary to that, I was doing the ... the graphic work of the towns of Western Australia.

What were your Melted Image paintings? What were they ... how were they done? What sort of medium did you use?

Yes, that's a good question, because I used quite an innovative form. I'd dilute enamels, and float them on to a hard surface, using - I think I used masonite mainly. Work very flat and on ... on a wet surface, wet of enamel. But draw into the ... draw the image in over it, and then slightly move it this way or that. If it went too far it got out of hand, or sometimes the paint would slide off the board altogether. But ... but I used thin dammar varnishes on a hard surface and working flat, to get the effects that I did. I showed some of those in Melbourne, about ... about 19- ... oh, in Canberra too, in about the early sixties - '63, '64.

And you were also part of the famous Whitechapel Exhibition, at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in the early sixties, weren't you?

Yes.

Could you tell me about that exhibition, who was in it and how you came to be included?

Yes, it was ... it was quite interesting, because it was a time when ... [INTERRUPTION THEN END OF TAPE]

[end of tape]

Proceed to Tape 5