A man almost written out of history in his life is receiving due recognition in death. Dr Robert (Bob) Edwards may have been the first Director of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council in 1974, but his name never appeared on its lists when the 50th anniversary of the AAB was celebrated at the Purrumpa conference in Adelaide last year. They began only with the first Indigenous Director.

However, since Bob died last month, the Australia Council has made amends via press release, saying:
“He was Director of the AAB during a period which saw the greatest expansion of Government support for Indigenous arts ever. Many of the early projects and causes he helped initiate, champion, and support have formed the backbone of First Nations arts and cultural support at Council since.

“Such projects include copyright in Indigenous art works, the establishment and ongoing support of arts centres within communities, Australian involvement in the Festival of Pacific Arts, and the commissioning, funding and delivery of major overseas tours of collections of Aboriginal art.”

Indeed, for many, Edwards and his strong, all-Indigenous Board that was evenly balanced between remote and urban First Nations artists, emerged as the saviours of the nascent Aboriginal art movement at Papunya. For while boards and canvases were pouring out from the twenty-odd ‘Painting Men’ in the township, 70% of them were ending up in the AAB’s storerooms. As no local Gallery would accept them as art, the only answer was international exposure. By the early 1980s there had been twenty exhibitions in 40 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, North and South America and the Pacific Islands. In retrospect, Edwards claimed that the program was perhaps “one of the most subtle and brilliant marketing exercises” in the history of Australian art.

He also created a longer-term boon in the establishment of the Aboriginal Artists Agency – still going. This pursues copyright for First Nations artists where images of their work appear in books, catalogues, films and TV.

Edwards himself had earlier enjoyed his own conversion on the road to Damascus. For his job as anthropology curator at the South Australian Museum sent him out on the road to make archaeological surveys (and take 32,000 photographs) of Aboriginal sites in the Deserts and Arnhemland. En route, he realised that what he was seeing were not just relics of a dying race but aspects of a continuing, living culture.

Mind you, his 1969 book ’Aboriginal Bark Paintings’ featuring both artworks and artists from across Arnhemland fails to name a single one of those artists.

In Adelaide, though, he worked with Darby Jampitjinpa Ross to develop the curation skills that would allow the Warlpiri artist to become the manager of the Yunedumu Men’s Museum in 1971. And the murals there became the model for the more famous Honey Ant mural on the school wall in Papunya

Bob Edwards’s expertise in museum culture then lead to him becoming founding Director of the Melbourne Museum, beginning its transformation into a lively, hands-on experience. Later he’d Chair the board that established the National Portrait Gallery, also chairing the National Museum board. That organisation was sufficiently grateful to hold a day-long festsprechen in 2011 at which an international panoply of experts paraded his skills – which had been recognised with an AO.

His last role was as CEO of Art Exhibitions Australia (formerly the International Cultural Corporation of Australia) where his highly personable skills blandished museum and gallery directors from all over the world to lend their treasures to block-buster exhibitions that toured this country.

The Entombed Warriors from Xian was an early triumph, thanks to Art Gallery of NSW Director, Edmund Capon’s Chinese connections. Subsequently Picasso came three times, while Rembrandt, Gold of the Pharaohs, Taonga Maori and The Age of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent made it just once each. In all, there were 31 exhibitions during the Bob Edwards years at AEA.

At the 2011 festsprechen, former gallery director Doug Hall identified a more fundamental contribution to both First Nations art and museology: “The American Association of Art Museum Directors shared with me their fascination, bewilderment and admiration of the way in which Australian institutions had incorporated Indigenous art and culture into the mainstream of art museums in Australia. I realised that the wellspring for that, if we are going to find it in any particular person or institution, is in fact Bob Edwards”.

A fuller appreciation of Dr Edwards’s career will appear in the Sydney Morning Herald soon.

I have also noted two other deaths that deserve recording:
Jilamara Arts on the Tiwi Islands has reported the sudden loss of the brilliant, young artist, Dino Wilson. They said, “He captured the radiance of the sun and the spirit of Tunga in his paintings beautifully. He was larger than life, with a radiant smile, perpetually cheerful and very committed to his culture and his exceptional art”.

I also noted the death of Dr Jill Stubington at 78. In 2007, she wrote the significant text, ‘Singing the Land’ with the subtitle, “The power of performance in Aboriginal life”. As well as recognising ceremony as the wellspring of Aboriginal art, she, and the pioneering Dr Alice Moyle were vital in helping to preserve traditional music and dance for future generations in Arnhemland, The Kimberley and the Deserts.

It was a significant failure of the Aboriginal Arts Board in the 1990s to deny the role of ceremony in its arts funding. And, since there have been no remote Aboriginal artists on the AAB since 2008, one wonders whether anything has changed?

Soon I intend to bring news of an important original publication, ‘The Way of the Ancestors’, written by the unlikely pairing of Prof Marcia Langton, the Voice spokesperson and activist academic and her musicologist colleague, Aaron Corn – bringing an expertise in NE Arnhem manikay and the Yothu Yindi band.

Coincidentally, Sydney University Press is bringing out ‘The Old Songs are Always New – Singing Traditions of the Tiwi Islands’ by Genevieve Campbell and many Tiwi Elders. Impressively, it’s the 10th in SUP’s Indigenous Music, Language and Performing Arts series – one of which is by Aaron Corn.