A fourth Qantas aircraft now has Indigenous designs on its body “ this time the work of the late, great Paddy Goowoomji Bedford, leader of the Jirrawun group of Gija artists in the East Kimberley. The Boeing 737-800 aircraft is named Mendoowoorrji after the artist’s 2005 painting, Medicine Pocket, a camping place on what became Bedford Downs Station “ the place that gave Paddy his name.

The artwork was selected by Qantas from a group offered to them by the National Gallery in Canberra, then 18 months of negotiation took place with the Bedford Estate and the Balarinji Design company, which has experience of the tricky art of translating a two dimensional image to the tubular surface of a plane. The result is a lot more successful than the unhappy adaptation of a Bedford artwork in the Musee du quai Branly in Paris.

Offering a danced greeting to the plane with its new persona at Boeing’s Seattle base were the artist’s daughter Kathy Watson and other Gija elders, along with dealer William Mora who is an agent for the Trustees of the Bedford Estate. His comment on arrival in Sydney was that the whole experience was very special, and we felt the Old Man looking down on us as we crossed the Pacific to bring his work home.

The Bedford family will benefit from a 10-year contract with Qantas regarding the artwork’s copyright, he continued; but perhaps their pride in the exposure of his work is even more important.

According to Gija linguist Frances Kofod’s notes in the Museum of Contemporary Art catalogue for the Paddy Bedford Retrospective in 2007, Medicine Pocket was a sacred ngarranggarni place with ‘living waters’ before the white invasion of The Kimberley. It was part of Paddy’s Mother’s Dreaming “ involving a story in which two men hit each other with sticks and became part of the country. Since Paddy’s Mother’s brothers had all died, he was entitled to paint this country.

I had the good fortune to accompany Bedford and Kofod on a helicopter tour of Paddy’s personal and sacred sites “ the notorious Bedford Downs Massacre, the Emu Dreaming on Mt King (where night and day were separated for the first time), and the sad place where his Mother’s half-caste child by a station manager was drowned by disapproving Gija elders. I’m so sorry for my brother, he commented.

2005 was a rich time in Bedford’s painting career with Jirrawun. Many bold, mostly black and white works emerged, though he also pioneered a smoky pink ground in the work, Mad Gap (Gooweriny) which reflected the dust and smoke of the Dry season, and was taken up by Paddy’s great friend Rammey Ramsey in a marvellous series of canvases.

For the first time in Qantas’s 93 year history, the iconic Qantas tail has been incorporated in the design, with the airline’s trademark red tail colour behind the white kangaroo altered to match the earthy tones of Paddy Bedford’s art work. It was also the first time that brushes were used to paint the massive exterior of passenger jet.

Mendoowoorrji will fly to Broome and Canberra for promotional visits in coming weeks after it enters service for Qantas domestic. It will also operate east-west and intra WA flights as part of its regular scheduled services.

In celebration of the plane’s re-birth, the William Mora Galleries in Richmond, Melbourne are showing an exhibition of Bedford’s work that is held in his Estate. It closes on 7th December.

William Mora Galleries