Australian Biography

Elizabeth Durack - full interview transcript

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When you were young, Djanba was much more dominant in your area. Is that correct?

Djanba was the only cycle of songs that ... that ... not the only cycle of songs but his ... his antagonist, Mulaga, was certainly forbidden within the big area of the ... including the, the Connor, Doherty and Durack properties, which took in Wyndham, nearly as far out as Katherine and nearly as far south as Billiluna, involving Halls Creek in the Tanami - that big loop. Djanba was in control and it ... it would be known if Mulaga was coming that it ... it was not going into that area. So where Mulaga ... it ... it's a strange manifestation of ... of resistance to ... to ... to invasion and retribution and revenge - all those things that were incorporated in ... in a strange performance, which I never saw but I know of. And I've heard the old people talk of it. But Djanba was many songs. So some of them were play-about songs and corroborees and, of course, the Djanba was the biggest song cycle and they ... Boxer, Argyle Boxer owned it but then he had brother relationships with ... with Bungledoon and Bulla and they too had property rights to the Djanba songs, some of which we saw personally on the stations.

And who banned Mulaga?

Argyle Boxer. He wasn't having him on it any ... he wasn't going to have any of that around in any country that he had control of because he ... he ... he was entering the new life. He was entering a new way ahead and a lot of the old ones felt that. Of course the ... my grandfather's man, Pumpkin, Old Pumpkin was the same. He went over ... all his loyalty went to the ... to the new order. There was a new order coming and if you played it along and went with it, you ... you would become a part of it. Don't forget they were not doing this in an abject way. Aboriginals have never been abject. They've never created ... they've never been bowed to us as the Orientals do. I sometimes think that that on the Orient and those places, they almost created the colonial overlord. But the Aborigines never did. It was much more even ... even, although they more frequently call someone Mary and me misses. At the same time it was Mary and Betty you see. They ... it was a equality there and ... and the ... if Djanba had have really succeeded, there would have been full pride of ... pride of place and pride of race within a new situation. And that was ... that was Boxer's ideal ... Argyle Boxer's ideal and, and all ... all the men that he was following with. At the same time, I mean, he was ... he was a man of ... we've never found the right word for it. Sometimes the blacks call them 'magic's' and sometimes they call ... they don't use the word 'sorcerer' but they were ... They had enormous psychic powers and sometimes they're called 'witch doctors'. We've never found a satisfactory word. Wurrawin is a word used in New South Wales by Langloh Parker and the ... there's many words for the witch doctor and, of course, Argyle ... Argyle Boxer was a powerful Wurrawin or 'bush magic' as they call them. And so they ... he ... he would perform rituals of curing people. He could bring rain, of course. That was a very big aspect of Boxer's ... I can hear dad talking to Boxer now and saying, 'Come on Boxer, you get those stones out. We're getting very dry up that top end'. [Laughs] Dad sort of half joking but also telling Boxer to bring rain. 'Oh yes old man I'll get to work on that'. Yes. [Laughs]

And so for him it was perfectly natural to keep up these old ways at the same time as embracing the new?

Yes, yes he did, he did. And he ... he had such power that he could, he could bluff the ... bluff the Aborigines around him. They respected him too but he ... he ... but he was also one with them. They gave him a wife but he didn't like having a wife so he gave the wife back. And he always moved on his own, Argyle Boxer. He moved on his own. He felt that he didn't want family life but he liked to ... to join in the camp life and he'd be ... he had a very good voice too.

Is there anything of him in Eddie Burrup?

Oh, I'm sure. I'm sure. If you ask me that now, of course I could get rid ... Our audience might think I'm really over the top because I've sometimes thought that Argyle Boxer himself came into me because he had this reputation for appearing suddenly out of the nowhere. He just came up because there's the ... there's the legend that he ... he never died. No one's found Boxer's grave although Jack Kilfoyle went really looking for it. Then some .... sometimes the blacks say that he went back to Queensland, he went back to the ... to his original people, the Kalkadoon. And then others say that, no, he's there still and that he never died. So that's the ... that's the extraordinary part. If you want to get really fanciful there, it would be a lot of Argyle Boxer in Eddie Burrup. So between living in this world, between two worlds, is the world I inhabit to a large extent.

You were raised a Catholic, educated at the Loreto Convent here in Perth and yet you seem to relate terribly strongly to the spirituality of the Aboriginal people. Where do you sit now? Where ... where is your spiritual life? How far is it affected by your Catholic upbringing? What do you think about God?

'Ah, that old man up top there, you talking about now? He might be there missus. He must be there. You know, don't ... don't ... father been talking there love. He true fella. We got 'em too now. We got 'em that old man. He come ... he come on mass, me and you, too, fella'. They mix it in, Robin, between ... I mean, over ... over God, an over-ruling power. The Aborigines incorporated that, fairly early on. I think ... I think the early missionaries into New South Wales ... I don't think ... I can't talk with any authority what pre-contact Aborigines were but I don't think there was ever any over ... over power. But fairly quickly worked into the Aboriginal world was this figure, Beammi. And I think it's God that came with the missionaries. And to a certain extent that was ... that was paralleled in the north. Professor Elkin was among the first anthropologists that ever came to the Kimberley, shepherded around by dad, because he worked out from Argyle. But he moved further too and dad welcomed him very much. This was early ... early twenties and ... mid twenties. Then ... but he was talking to Aborigines, the Forrest River Mission Aborigines. Forest River was established quite early, before the turn of the century. And I can almost hear what Elkin would have said to them: 'Now, you've got all these spirit forms and do you have an over arching power that would be the big authority', or whatever he might have tried to communicate to people with very limited English. And the ... some ... the native to whom he was talking, this is partly my imagination, he said, to Elkin, 'That ungud ain't it?' And Elkin wrote all this down and 'ungud' appeared in Elkin's works and he refers to U-N-G-U-D but I think it was an Aboriginal mission man talking to Elkin and again wanting to appear to please the ... please the person to whom he was talking and knowing that a ... a learned man would believe in God. And I think he said, 'That ungud ain't it?' And 'ungud', every time I see it written in his book, I think it's partly Aboriginal English - ungud, U-N-G-U-D. So that, there's that quality within the Aboriginal is the wish to ... the wish to fit in with to whom they are speaking, particularly an important visitor or someone that was talking to them about ... There was another interesting feature, [which] parallels what I think that ... that old Aboriginal might have been saying to Professor Elkin. One of the projects set up in ... not so long ago, by the respected Dr. Coombs ... He set together a nice little expensive project with some very learned young women, as it turned out - doctors of this and that. They were to go out to the Kimberley and make communication with the Aborigines and really find out where the massacre sites were, you see, where to find out. So, a great project I think went on for two or three years, funded by the Australian Government you can be sure. Then I met them. They were very nice young women, not too young but young women, learned, degrees and true blue stockings, you see. So, you see, they'd conscientiously mapped out the area I think between Halls Creek and Wyndham where massacre sites were. At any rate they were on ... they were working in Kununurra and I was up there. This was a few years ago. It might be ten years ago. And they were talking to ... to some of our old blacks and I said to one of my bush sisters, Dot, my special bush sister ... She ... she died this year. I said, 'Dot, what are you dragging up all those old stories for when, you know, blacks shooting ... whites shooting blacks and blacks spearing white fellas. You never talked like that when we were together on Argyle', and I remember she couldn't answer me. She didn't answer me. And we didn't talk ... well we talked of something else: problems with her grandchildren as it happened. And the next day I was talking to her ... no, she came up to me. She came up to me. We ... we met. I was walking around and she came up to me and she said, 'Mrs. you been asking me about them fella', and she took my hand and she said, 't'em like 'm massacre'. It's an extraordinary story because they've been trying to accommodate the questions that they were being asked. 'Well ... well if they want to know, we ... we haven't thought of it for ... for a hundred years but we'll map them out', because, of course, they've got memory. My God, it's we who haven't got the memory. They've got memory so you can re ... regurgitate things. You can regurgitate but a lot of that would rightly be best left at the present time I should say. I mean, that that would be what ... what Djanba would say. The past is past.

From your point of view, now, at this stage of your life, when you think about things, what do you think, what do you imagine with this amalgamation? And I think your answer tells me that you've adopted to fit the ideas of the Aboriginal people about spiritual things and you've put that together with what you learned from the nuns, and so on, and made your own belief system. What do you think is going to happen when you die?

You mean the concept of heaven? Well, I ... I'm like anybody educated I suppose, you're sceptical but it's consolation and you find yourself ... and seeing that it's so draped in mystery, the whole of life and death and everything ... In a sense, I think it's ... it's as good a thing to believe some of the old teachings of the formal religion. If anything, it's an act of humility for how little we do know and how little our understanding of anything is. We can only grope. We can only grope.

And at the present moment in Australia's history where you have this great sense of disintegration that's disturbing you and which, perhaps, has had something to do with the emergence of Eddie.

I think it has. I think it has. I certainly felt I could speak more. That ... that what I wanted to say about my concern of the ... of the ... of the splitting of Australian society as ... as has happened since the ... since Mabo. It's been quite a disaster for Australia. I don't think we're big enough or ... or ... or secure enough a society to take the fact that, that, that the land which was a legal situation has now been turned into our ... the right of Crown Land and the right of Australia, the right behind Terra Nullius has been thrown into dispute. if not into the fact that we are living illicitly on this land. This is what it is leading to.

The basic idea, though, that there should be the capacity for both the pastoralists - the whites - and the Aborigines who are living on the land to jointly live there under these, sounds like a fairly close description of what you were used to as a ...

Yes, it does. And, that's ... if dad had been challenged ... All this is new. All this is new of course. If dad had been [asked]. 'What is your relationship with the Aboriginal people?' I'm sure he would have said, 'We are sharing this land'. You'd go riding with dad and there might be a mob of cattle coming ... a small mob going down to Wyndham that we weren't sure where it was. Dad would just go over and see the ... one of the black men and his term was 'Good day countryman, good day countryman'. He called them 'countrymen' you see, if he didn't know them by name if they came. So if he ... if he had ... if it had have been put to dad, he would say, 'We're sharing this country'. We're making better use of it than they did but the ... they have six ... nearly six months of the year to live their old life. you see, when they went walkabout, which they did at the end of the year. But the walkabouts got more and more contracted because they ... they just turned into sitting around on ... very close to the station depending more on beef you know. It was ... it got slacker and slacker, you know. Not to say that they wouldn't automatically kill a kangaroo if they saw it.

But the reason now that there's a concern that this sharing has to be spelt out has been partly because not everybody has had the attitude that your father had.

I suppose so, although on the stations and anything you know or hear of, it's still a fairly good relationship between the Aborigines and the station people I think, on the whole. Although, that ... that's altered because the whole of running a cattle station's altered with the ... with the ... they are no longer so necessary you see with the helicopter and the different methods coming in for collect ... for mustering cattle and so forth.

Elizabeth, what do you most want to be remembered for?

It's partly what I want to be remembered for, I suppose, is will be what I will be remembered for, is it? Or what I ... I'd like to be remembered for? I don't know. I really ... I do find that hard to answer Robin, what I'd like to be remembered for. I can ... I can tell ... I can think of a few things I wouldn't mind putting on my tombstone - that you live and learn that ... to a certain extent. You know, you go on trying to understand and to live and learn and to express what you believe. I ... I think, perhaps, I might like to be remembered for being genuine and sincere and that ... that gets back to ... to dad, who was a ... a very loving father, who didn't ever preach or anything to us. He ... I can't ever remember dad getting cross with me really, you know. You know, it was just a sort of harmonious relationship between my parents and our ... and ourselves except on the big arguments that I mentioned earlier. The ... he would say ... I can see him sitting at the head of the table, now, when we were little, and he'd ... he wouldn't drum it in as though it was something that you had to absorb but he would say, 'Well it would be a nice thing if this could occur, that you could be a credit to your family and an honour to your country'. It was an objective well worth aiming for ... for people ... for his family that was, if he ... He didn't drum anything into us but he did say that a few times as I recall now.

All your life you've been an artist, you've been a painter, you've worked terribly hard at it and you've wanted some recognition and that recognition hasn't always been forthcoming. Now at eighty-three, with the emergence of Eddie Burrup you are suddenly a cause celeb and suddenly there is a huge amount of attention being paid to you. How are you dealing with that? How do you feel about it?

I don't know, you'd have to tell me after we've finished this interview Robin. I'm dealing as best I can. At first, of course, my ... my impulse was to absolutely say nothing ever. That was a ... I couldn't really cope with it and then gradually I've ... I've relaxed that and I must say that it's been a ... a great privilege to speak to you for these interviews. It's given me a new appreciation of the medium in which you work and it's been lovely to meet your ... your fellow people that you've come to my place to see me for this occasion and I ... I thank you.

You talk about your morphological painting. What do you mean by morphological painting?

Morphological means a sort of an integration and blending of things at different levels, different characteristics. I was in search of ... of a word that I ... I remember one of the sketchbooks when ... when what I now see with the Eddie Burrup images just starting to emerge some years ago using reference to the zoological approach to work. And then I thought no, it isn't only zoological because I must consider plant forms and other forms. It's morphological, a melding of ideas and shapes and forms all into ... it was just the word that seemed to fit best to describe the block of work that was ... that I was doing and that did just precede the ... the Eddie Burrup, although it had been going on for quite a long time. But it was easy for the ... so when I looked back into some of the morphological works with Eddie's eyes, I saw they were an Eddie Burrup. Some were not. They were blurred too far but some of them were definitely within Eddie Burrup's and I was able to put them into my Eddie Burrup folios.

Is Eddie Burrup somebody who finds integration, connection, oneness, in a world that is otherwise disintegrating?

Not entirely. I don't think that would cover it completely. No, he's concerned the ... with the ... with the ... with the strange world of the mythological beings and their ... and their lost function within his world - that are non-functional now but they are in revolt at that. Because he knew that ... the relationship between men and other living creatures - all living creatures, all the physical world and human beings - was ... was a oneness. It ... Man the measure of all things is a very modern concept. Man the measure of all things. Adam is a ... is a modern concept. The Bible is recent. Narranganni and the Altcheringa is ancient and you can't apply a biblical situation to what's been ... what's been a much older ... older philosophy, an older way, an older ontology.

People have felt that because your knowledge of all of this has been passed to you culturally and that you don't actually have as it were, Aboriginal genes, that you have no right to be speaking about this or to be representing these works through Eddie. What's your answer to that?

Well, are you referring somewhat there to the idea of cultural appropriation? All I can say to that is that you can't appropriate something that was given freely to you as a gift, both with my inner perceptions and my direct contact with the original people of Australia. It's been ... it's been a gift that I ... that I hold, although I mightn't have a very black face, you see. So to a certain extent it gets into the argument of ... of what is Aboriginal? Because of course some of the people challenging what I've done, with respect, I say, they are very little Aboriginal and they have not had the privilege of the contacts that I've had with the ancient world.

Do you feel that Eddie Burrup, to some extent, came into being because you needed to be able to express what you were carrying from those days?

Yes, to that degree, that was what liberated me as an artist. I feel liberated. That's the nice part about Eddie Burrup. I'm happy doing Eddie Burrup. I'm thrilled to be doing it. The images come out and I'm getting them out, I'm working in quite a big form and of course the big ... the big canvas is very demanding to, and the energy is coming from some source, I don't know. But I can't ... can't believe that anything that's given me such a ... a ... a wonderful resurgence of ah, energy and, and ah, enjoyment in the creation of images, can't be coming from any ... anything other than some benign source.

Did you mean to deceive with this?

When we get into that you can easily track it down to there is deception there, but I didn't mean to. It was woollier than that. I didn't want to deceive. I didn't want to hurt sensitive Aboriginals for heaven's sake, you know. I didn't want to do any of those things. I didn't sit down and think out ... The word 'hoax' worries me terribly, really, because it wasn't a hoax it was a device, a device to get myself liberated. And it did liberate me and I would like people to have seen it that way and say, 'What fascinating work'. There must have come a time when I said, 'It's all my own work. Betty did that'. I might have got that but it was ... it wasn't well thought through perhaps or it was extraordinary that the ... that the reaction occurred. I thought nothing would occur. I thought there would be nothing, you see. There wasn't ... certainly not hostility. It still worries me, of course. I haven't come to terms with that. You asked me earlier.

Was that the first time in your life you had experienced hostility from Aboriginal people?

Definitely, definitely, it was, definitely. Yes, I'm not ... I'm not kidding myself that, you know, that blacks love me or anything. It was just fondness and affection there and give and take and ... and ... and of course always very mutual respect. And always the sense that I was learning from them. That was the joy of being in ... out with them by myself in the bush - to be ... to be on the ... on the end of receiving and getting: getting knowledge because around the homestead you'd be the authority. I mean, if ... if ... if ... if a table's not set properly you'll tell them how to set it or that mightn't matter, you know. But when you were out in the bush, they were the authority and, of course, I was their guest so I behaved myself and as a good guest does.

Over this whole business you seem to be in a state of shock.

Am I? [Laughs] Is that evident Robin?

Did you feel ... do you feel that?

Yes, yes, I think I am. I think I am. Yes, because of the suddenness of ... of ... of ... the unexpectedness of hostility and the suddenness of ... of it being of interest. I've said to others ... But it's a non-event. It's nothing. It's a non-event. I'm just using a nom de plume. Why are people so interested in the fact of what I've done? But ... but then I hear people say, 'But it is interesting', you know, and I get comment from the United States that they are still wondering about Eddie Burrup. [Laughs]

What's your real hope for Eddie Burrup's work?

Again, it ... it could go on for a start, that I'd have the strength to develop the ... the ideas that are in my mind, and that the poor ol' boy might receive some recognition, yes, as an artist in his own right.

Now that sounds odd. Why not recognition for Elizabeth Durack for the work she's done under the nom de plume?

Well, I've got lovely freedom between the two names, haven't I? Perhaps I can write all sorts of pieces for the ... for the press or journals under the name of Eddie Burrup and they'll say. 'Of course, you know that's Elizabeth Durack', so perhaps ... perhaps I can use him as a cover.

Do you feel you need a cover?

That he needs a cover?

No, do you feel you need a cover?

I think I did. I think I got very tired of being Elizabeth Durack that had been stereotyped - stereotyped as a relic of old colonialism, a relic of conservatism, a daughter of a murderer. You know, I'm very tired of that. I'm very tired of that. Yes. And that's ... that was there and no doubt that was one of the pressures, although you can't quite rationalise it but it ... it might have been why I liked the idea of working under a nom de plume.

[end of interview]