Australian Biography

Elizabeth Durack - full interview transcript

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In talking about your art, you've talked about these themes of disintegration and loss and also the organic connection that you've felt with the Aboriginal people and their way of looking at the world and this all expressed itself in various phases of your painting. What do you see as the culmination of that work? What were you moving towards, do you think?

I ... I wouldn't have known at the time what I was moving towards, Robin but it seems to be moving towards, and into the latest phase, which is the art of Eddie Burrup, which somehow, as you know, which is ... I've been subsumed by my subject matter to a large extent. If I could put it that way. Because I have been ... it didn't ... I didn't ... There was nothing deliberate about it. And I think I mentioned earlier that I was working on different ... different activities, from the simple and visual to graphic, to the more ... more complicated and almost metaphysical. And the work was getting even beyond The Rim And Beyond, into what I was calling the morphological phase, where ... where all ... all life and forms were becoming integrated. Both animal and vegetable and mineral were integrating in a loose, which again, was not abstract. I haven't worked abstract but they were sort of abstract. And I was doing this work at the same time as doing work that was going out to the public, or that was ... that I was aware of it was a development of The Rim and Beyond. But my morphological works were the ones that were ... I had no plans for them at all. And it was that point ... it was at that point, when my daughter was down from Broome, and I said, 'Well, I will just show you some of these morphological works' and I had a lot of them. They were down in the rear studio. And she sort of ... when she saw them, she sort of started to get cross with me. And she said, 'Well, what are you doing these mad works for? Why are you doing this mad work? You say you're not going to exhibit it, you can't exhibit it. No one will ever look at it. It's going to be ... it's just ... you're just wasting your time and your materials. Why can't you do some ... at least do some simple graphic work that could go through my little gallery', you see. And she got really sort of angry and I thought, that's funny. And then she looked ... looked at them again, and she said, 'But, they're sort of Aboriginal, mum. They're sort of Aboriginal', and then she sort of drifted on, looking at them as though she was seeing them. She's very sensitive to art ... very sensitive to art. [She's] got a good knowledge of it, although she doesn't practice it herself. And she said, 'Of course, if these were done by an Aboriginal, then they would get somewhere. But', she said, 'you'd never agree to doing that. You've always played things so dumb and so straight, you'd never sign things under another name'. I didn't even answer her. You know, I didn't even answer her. I've been working in the morphological way, of which I'd done descriptions - verbal descriptions - on my notes on the computer and everything over the last four years or more, four or five years. And then I can remember, we went for a walk. It was beautiful, early summer day, we went for a walk around the river here. And I was just ... an extraordinary thing. We stopped under a kurrajong tree, with some pink blossoms on it. And I was just looking at the flowers, the way you do look at flowers. And I heard myself saying, 'You know ... you know Perpetua, I'm not totally opposed to signing those morphological works under a nom de plume', and it was though from that moment, Eddie Burrup appeared. Eddie Burrup appeared, with his name, his ... the way he looked, the age and everything, and then that was ... that was the beginning of Eddie Burrup, which was now over four years ago. And I worked on ... and then you see, then Perpetua thought ... no, was I working ... did the ... did ... I can't quite ... I must track it back, whether the morphological work ... yes, some of the morphological works were Eddie Burrup's, which could be shown as Eddie Burrup's. But then Eddie Burrup took over more and it became the totemic tumult of Eddie Burrup's basic expression. The tumult that has occurred within the ... within the Narranganni, because of the neglect into which they've fallen, both with the present world of the Aboriginal people, and because they were so ignored in the ... in the decisions of Mabo. The fact that the land was shared with the totemic creatures was ... was neither known nor considered and so Eddie Burrup's work concerns the totemic world in tumult, and he talks through that world, and that's the essence of his world, and that's the way the paintings come out, you see.

You had been painting these mature paintings that were a culmination of things you'd been exploring all your life, before Eddie appeared in your life ...

Yes, before he had a name or a persona.

Now, once he had that persona, and you started painting as Eddie Burrup, what effect did that have on the paintings?

Oh, it was thrilling. It was thrilling. They began to take shape, and they emerged, and themes came, and all the past came back through me. Everything sort of came back to me not in big sequences, but in fragments, which occur as the names that he gives his pictures. For the Eddie Burrup's, the name is important to the picture, and they're fragments of the old life, a half remembered story that perhaps is ... you see, as you get older, you remember more. And I remember fragments of things that I would have only casually ... casually listened to when I was a girl on Ivanhoe. You know, about the ... about some totemic creature doing something. It just sort of went into my head, but now it comes back vividly to me as though in old age recall. I can recall more than I did twenty years ago. And that's moving through the Eddie Burrup's and so that there's a big element of mystery in it, although I don't want to sound, again, as though ... [INTERRUPTION]

This is some of the best work you've ever done, Elizabeth. Why did you give it to Eddie, instead of keeping it for Elizabeth?

I don't think it would have worked through Elizabeth Durack. I would have been lost. It would have just sit ... sat out in the rear studio. It was Eddie Burrup that somehow brought it to life. I can't ... I can't ... I can't answer it. I simply can't answer it. It'll have to evolve itself out. He might run out of ideas. I don't know. You see, but ... but it's certainly been an enormous output of work. I've done lots of work, and big work. I've got quite a volume of Eddie Burrup's work. When I see it through Eddie Burrup's eyes, or feel it through ... through ... through in that way, it emerges.

So it wasn't a sort of calculated thing for the market, from your point of view?

Not at all. No, not at all. What's more, a few of the Eddie Burrup's then ... then hung in ... Perpetua hung a few of them, just to get comment on them but they were always not for sale. They were always not for sale, you see. It wasn't ... we must have known, or I must have known, I must have said, 'Well, put them up if you want to, see what people say', and of course, people did say and they liked them. And it became harder and harder for someone running a small commercial gallery to keep on saying they were not for sale. But of course, perhaps it was the fact that it had an Aboriginal ... it isn't an Aboriginal name, it's an English name. He's called ... as he describes in his own words, in ... in ... in his taped biography, he was called Eddie Burrup when his mother, as the ... on Yandeyarra station, where he was born ... she brought him up as a little piccaninny, for the ... for the ... to be named by the owner of the station, old Mackenzie Grant at the time. That's historic, as the Aboriginal mothers did bring their babies up and ask them to give them a gudea name, a white fella name. 'You give him good white fella name'. They ... they were doing that all through the years, you know, right up to recent times. And then this ... this station owner, he said, 'Okay, we'll call him Eddie Burrup', because Eddie Burrup ... Henry Burrup was ... was a bank man that had ... had lived on Burrup Peninsula. Burrup Peninsula's named after him. He'd lived at Onslow I think, running the Commonwealth Bank, or whatever bank there was then. And it was a mysterious ... He'd been mysteriously murdered. And it was a big story through the north: the murder of Eddie Burrup. It was never quite solved. It wasn't ... he wasn't killed by an Aboriginal. Might have been killed by an oriental man. It was never quite solved. But everyone talked of Eddie Burrup at the time, the early ... yes, in the teens, I suppose. Forget what year he was murdered. The name was still around in 1915 and that's what the station called him, Eddie Burrup, you see. But it's an English name. His tomb's up there and the Burrup Peninsula's named after him. So it's actually an English name.

Of someone who was murdered?

Yeah.

Why do you think a name with that background drew you?

Just came to me when I was doing the biography, yes.

And Eddie, though, is much more than a nom de plume or nom de brush. You've created a whole character, you've - under that name - written his life story, but the thing that's most striking is that you talk about him in the third person.

Yes, I suppose so. Is it?

I mean Eddie is you. But he's not. Could you explain that?

I can't. I can't explain it. It's quite worrying. But as I say, I'm not really losing it completely. But I am part ... I suppose one is ... everyone's part of certain mysterious forces, you know, that keep you ... keep you going. But what's been the strange thing is that when you most readily run of energy, there's always energy. I could paint every day if I had the time, or if the days weren't broken, as Eddie Burrup. Sort of something that's ongoing, that draws me out.

And you were finding it more and more difficult to paint as Elizabeth Durack?

I just haven't done much. I don't say that I can't. You know, I suppose I could but it seems to lie in the past. Figures moving through a landscape, a literal landscape, or a gentle pastel, or a well drawn ... No, it belongs to my past. This ... this has opened another vista to me.

Just how frustrated were you that people weren't taking notice of your paintings at the level that you wanted them to, at a serious level?

Well they weren't ... It wasn't very frustrating. I was receiving perhaps more attention than I'd had for a long time, from the - from certainly in nineties. LISWA, the Library and Information Service of Western Australia, mounted a wonderful exhibition for me - virtually a retrospect. They did that, and that was open for six weeks. There was a video made of that. The Art Gallery of Western Australia mounted an exhibition of work from the thirties to the fifties. Hamersley Iron had me touring the north with exhibitions of their work. I was ... I had massive exposure. I'd never had so much in ... in the nineties. And things were going ... things were going pretty well. This is isn't ... oh, I don't say that ... that your question, that there wasn't perhaps through somewhere ... you ... you ... I think you're trying to position it that his emergence was due to frustration?

Well it was a possibility to explore.

Yes, yes, and it is to be explored. And it is. But under the immediate circumstances things were going well for me, you see. Certainly I hadn't got the ... I'd never crossed the Nullarbor, and I did say to my daughter, 'Before I die, I would like to cross the Nullarbor'. It was very hard to do that from Western Australia.

You mean be exhibited on the east coast?

Ah, yes. I had exhibited, but not widely. You know, and again it's very expensive to move on your own steam and do any exhibitions. Melbourne has always been very supportive to me as a city.

So ... but you had in some senses felt that maybe you were running out of artistic steam and Eddie gave this whole new fresh ...

Fresh stimulus, yes. But all those factors could come into it, but I mean perhaps it's too early to ... to come to any definite conclusion over it.

Your daughter's original suggestion was that of a practical person, who owned a gallery and was looking at the market. Was that what you were responding to?

I really don't think so. I really don't think so. Because she was ... she can readily sell work of mine in reproduction, as Elizabeth Durack, you see. There's a demand for that. Still is. And ...

So what do you think was her motivation in making the proposal?

I suppose she herself has followed the career of quite a lot of Aboriginal artists, and has seen how rapidly they can be unknown yesterday and be the lead artist at the Biennale, the Venice Biennale, the next. You know, these thoughts must have passed through anyone's head, which is wonderful, that all the Aboriginal artists are acting as such wonderful cultural ambassadors for Australia. I mean you can how ... how the Japanese say, 'Well it is the only really Australian work', you know. And how they would prefer that to any Streeton or Hayden - whatever he's called.

So you were doing these paintings as Eddie, and then how did ... what was the next step after ... after you decided that you couldn't go on just saying they're not for sale. What ... what evolved out of that?

Well what happened was that Eddie did ... did do a Christmas card. And that, we ... Perpetua and I got that printed and she circulated it widely. It was one I'll show you: the first Christmas card of Eddie Burrup, which was a sign of ... which was a baby form, but with a reference to a wandjina head, lying in a strange perspective, a manger, with some ... with two adapted figures from the petroglyphs of the Pilbara, which is his birthplace. And ... and it had a Aboriginal ... Aborginal title to it: Two Fella Angel Singing Out 'la Lovely Baby, 'la Horse Trough, I think it was or some words to that effect. And it was from a set of paintings that Eddie does from time to time, which have reference to Sister Philomena's Bible stories because he was in the Broome convent for a while, and developed this great affection for this nun, who encouraged his work, you see. This is all in his biography. This all comes out in his biography. At any rate, that Christmas card reached the Tandanya Aboriginal world in Adelaide and the proprietor of that phone Perpetua and said, 'We just love the Eddie Burrup Christmas card. Would he consider entering for our exhibition that's coming up for the Adelaide Festival called Native Title Now'. And Perpetua just let me know this as a piece of ... a bit of news. She wasn't going to follow it, or I don't think she replied or wouldn't have replied, definitely. And then, when she told me, I said, 'Okay, tell her that Eddie Burrup would like to go into that exhibition', and that was the beginning of it. That I think answers that. And it went in to that exhibition and ... and was selected for ... for the touring exhibition, and received a lot of ... a lot of interest and appreciation. Perpetua was told that some people were in tears in front of the Eddie Burrup paintings of the shattered wandjina. Then of course, it was getting difficult. And it was getting difficult for Perpetua and difficult for me because I couldn't see where we were going to get out. And then I heard that Robert Smith was coming over to Perth, to give a set of lectures. And that was just about a year ago. It was last September. And I thought, well when Robert comes, having known him ... he was Assistant Director here at the art gallery. He's been away from the West for thirty years. And I thought I'll tell Robert all about it, and see what he suggests and then he suggested that I should admit to it in an article that he'd write for Arts Monthly. That's how it worked out. And he said, 'In this way, that by admitting that you've been working under a nom de plume' - don't think anything had sold but we'd certainly gone into the Tandanya exhibition - 'In that in that way you'll avoid any conflict', or something. I didn't see that there would be any conflict, actually. Didn't foresee any of that.

But he did. He thought there might be.

He said, 'It's a very sensitive area, anything to do with the Aboriginals. Surely you know that, Elizabeth? It's a very sensitive area'.

And you didn't know that?

Not to that extent. Not to the extent of the reaction that happened when ... when the urban Aboriginals in Sydney were ... raised an objection to it. So there it is. So what's the fate of Eddie Burrup, I don't know. Or Elizabeth Durack. Remains to be seen.

When you're painting as Eddie Burrup, what's your interior state? I mean, do you feel yourself to move into a different personality?

I feel thoughts and words running through my mind, as I make the compositions. The titles come out of the compositions, yes. And the compositions come out of ... out of not looking at a scene or translating it, but a shadow world, a sort of shadow world, where things are one. You know, when you see things in shadow, if it's foliage or a flower or ... or an animal or ... or a human, when they're thrown into shadow, they're all one. They're sort of all one. And so that I can find Eddie Burrup's in ... in shadows. That's one essence of it. It's one origin of it. I don't know where they come from really.

And when you sat down to write Eddie's biography, did you feel, in a way, you were writing your own story?

Ah, no, I don't think so. I don't think so. No, it was a separate person. And another worrying aspect of it, you see. I'd done the biography with the foreword and the editor's introduction and explanations of the development of the Aboriginal English, which is quite good, studious comment. And then I thought, you know, we're getting sort of ... I was getting sort of, how do I get this out? What happens from here? So I took it to my brother, Reg, and he's my eldest brother. Not at all well. But he ... well, he's very alive, very bright mentally. And I said, 'Reg, read this for me and just give me a comment on it, will you?' you see. And he read it and then I went back to pick it up a few hour's later. It's only very short. And then his wife, my sister-in-law, came to the door, and she said, 'He's reading it all over again', and I said, 'Is he?' And then he ... he said, 'Yeah, that's pretty interesting, Bet. Yes, yes, I'd go along with that', and he'd made reference to the fact that even up to the time he and Enid were on Kildirk station, he said, 'Yes, the mothers would bring their babies up and ask them to be named, just the same even in the fifties', you see. And he made several comments. And I was sort of aghast. I didn't know quite what to say to Reg. And I didn't at the time. Because I thought he'd say, 'Look, Bet, you're not going to get away with this. What are you doing?', you see. And then I thought we could get on to a talk. Now what should I do? You see? But it was so completely accepted that ... so taken ... it was such a complete acceptance of a manuscript and a biography written in ... in Aboriginal English and all the rest of it. He read it carefully, found it most interesting and he said, 'I think, yeah ... I hope Perpetua does well with him', you know. 'Sounds an interesting old boy. I've never met him', he says, you know. And I didn't take it any further. And then it was only last year - yes, last ... last year - that my brother, William, my dear brother Bill, the architect from Toowoomba, he and his wife were going over to Broome, and we met there in Broome and I brought this manuscript with me. I thought, well Bill will be a help. Reg - I can't go on with that. He accepted it so completely I couldn't sort of say, 'Reg, can't you see that I've made that all up. That it's ... that it's a story and I want your comment and direction on it'. And I thought he'd criticise or something but he didn't. Right, I brought the manuscript over, because Noni's in the literary world. She writes under the name of Noni Durack, Noni Braham. And I thought, well she might have ... being in the literary world, she might have contacts. Well she read it and she said, 'Oh, it's lovely Elizabeth. You'll have no trouble getting a publisher for that. It's lovely'. And Bill did the same, you see. And then I thought, this is funny. This is ... this is funny. And we were so busy and doing so many things and having such a lot of fun in Broome, that it ... [I] didn't open it up with ... I didn't open it up with Bill. It's hard to know, but I didn't sort of know quite what to say to my most intimate family relatives. And then I thought, well I'll try another one. And my daughter's husband, who's a musician, Rex Hobcroft ... he was ... he's opened many of the conservatoriums in Australia, and was in charge of the Sydney one for many years. He's now retired here. I thought, well I'll see what Rex thinks, because he doesn't know ... Both Reg and Bill know a lot of ... have a lot of bush background, and they could have been the best critics you could find but here's someone with a completely urban background and a musical background. What's his reaction? Well, he read it too and he said, 'What a wonderful old man. He hasn't got a nasty word to say about anyone. What a wonderful old character he must be', and then he said, 'I didn't know Perpetua was trying to help him. I hope she does well with him'. And again, I couldn't say anything. Now, these are three parties of intimate people that I'm with, you see. And this ... this is before I'd spoken to Bob. And I thought well ... well what? I'll have to come right out and say to somebody - in this case the art world - and that's when I made the contact in ... in the September, with ... with ... with Robert Smith.

Why do you think you've found it so difficult to say, 'Eddie Burrup is a character from my imagination'?

I don't know. Well, I didn't, you know. I didn't know. I know with Bill and Noni we were doing too many things, and I didn't want to get into it too deeply. But there were the pictures in the manuscript - reproduction ... photographic reproductions of the work, which they found interesting, too. Oh, there was a terribly funny bit about Noni and Bill. [Laughs] This is where it got ... got tricky, you see. Bill and Noni ... Perpetua was too ... had another appointment, and so on this morning, Bill and Noni, very thrilled, they were looking after Perpetua's desk, you see. And in ... in comes somebody and they said they must have this Eddie Burrup. I think they must have been going for sale at that time. And at any rate, they explained to the ... to the purchaser that he was an artist of great promise, who had just appeared. And they were building up Eddie Burrup, unbeknownst to this prospective buyer, who did buy it. And then to their delight, they told Perpetua that they had found a new career for themselves. They could sell paintings. That was not without its humour. At any rate, the ... the answer to all that was that the very few that were sold - there were a few sold - which of course is worrying - Perpetua contacted them all. But with ... with one exception, everyone said they loved their Eddie Burrups. At some future date they might like me to countersign it with Elizabeth Durack, but they were not going to part with them. And that was their reaction. A couple wrote two beautiful letters about it. So we ... oh, one ... one did say that they thought it was Aboriginal and they would prefer if it was not by a biological Aboriginal ... They weren't cross, but they just said, 'We would prefer not to have it'. So quick as ... quick as ... you know, we refunded the money and the painting came back.

When did you first realise that you were in hot water with all of this?

Well, it was getting worrying, you see. But ... but still there wasn't anything that couldn't be said. I had no idea there'd be a reaction. What I ... what I'd ideally thought, that that article would appear, and that then perhaps at some future time, we could go on doing it. I don't know, it's a little bit vague. It is on tricky ground I must admit, but at some future time, someone might challenge him or ... or I might, myself, further expose it, or something. And then I would have said, 'But six months ago, that was in print in Art Monthly, where it told the origin of Eddie Burrup'. Or someone might have said, 'Well what is this all about? We'd better ring up Elizabeth Durack or see some of these Eddie Burrups'. You see, I thought there might have been that reaction, in which I would have been happy to ...

But what was the reaction? How did you discover ...

Well, just the reaction. How did I discover? I had the press of the world coming to my door.

So what happened? You got up one morning ...

The ... the ... what was the man's name? He runs a gallery. He's a part Aboriginal. Mundine, is it? Mundine? Well, he just said that the whole thing was sacrilege. It was robbery. It was theft. All the dreadful ... And then the ... for some reason or another, although I'd never understand why, it was picked up as a story. Went all around the world.

And when you say they were all at your door, what happened? You just opened the door and found the press there?

Mm, mm. They were down, with the hammer-headed sharks and everything. No, I wasn't going to talk. They said, 'Oh, you've got to talk. You've got to talk. You've got to give your side of the story'. I said, 'I don't know what my side of the story is. I'm just not going to talk'. And I didn't talk for four months, you see. Then I agreed to give the story to the Australian New Magazine. The magazine got ... to the print media. But all sorts of people were in touch. I've got a box of media there, a box of it. I can't remember it now, you know, because I waited for a while, and then ... then that was the first story. And then Channel 9, the ... the next story, and then our story.

[end of tape]

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