Lance Bennett was one of the more enigmatic figures in the very conflicted world of interlocutors betweens Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cultures….neither an anthropologist nor a dealer, but a heroic warrior for tribal people against insensitivity and lack of understanding in the south, against the assimilation of traditional culture, and for tribal arts. But whatever conflicts Bennett may have had with the Aboriginal gatekeepers down south, the mutual empathy and respect exchanged with the Big Men of the North “ Nandjiwarra Amagula MBE, Maurice Luther MBE, Gawirrin Gumana AO, Timmy Timms and Clive Yunkaporta and others who lead the tribal chain from Cape York across to The Kimberley – was unbroken.

As Director of the Aboriginal Cultural Foundation in Darwin for the 25 years from 1970 to 1995, they were his bosses, and Bennett’s job was to support them to maintain the links in that chain.

Lance Phillip Bennett was the second child of Alfred Bennett and Dorothy Bennett, nee Deathe, spending his early years in Strathfield, Sydney. A family weekender at Avalon on the Northern Beaches led to Lance becoming a lifesaver at Avalon Surf Club in his teens. By the time he was 15, he’d matriculated from Fort Street High School, Sydney, and won a Commonwealth Scholarship to the University of Sydney, where he majored in English and French. Having acted in both languages as well, he was one of just 32 chosen from thousands who applied for the inaugural year of NIDA “ another was Robyn Nevin.

Yet, another focus was developing, though. His mother Dorothy was medical secretary to the orthopaedic surgeon Dr Stuart Scougall who’d always taken an interest in the Aboriginal body structure, and in 1958 she accompanied Scougall, and Tony Tuckson of the Art Gallery of NSW, to Arnhem Land to collect Aboriginal paintings, carvings and ceremonial items, including 17 Pukumani Poles from the Tiwi Islands that he’d commissioned earlier. This would be the first Aboriginal art accepted as ˜art’, not ethnography, in an Australian gallery. It would also transform both Bennetts’ lives.

After several further Indigenous outings with Scougall, the establishment by Dorothy of a trust to benefit the artists, and exhibitions in Sydney, Lance’s mother moved to Darwin in 1962. She became an Aboriginal art entrepreneur: collecting, exhibiting and dealing for the benefit of the trust. From 1959, Lance had began to spend time with her new contacts, such as Mawalan Marika from Arnhemland and Nym Bandak from Port Keats, and, in his own words, I developed very close personal bonds with these leaders, and they encouraged me to visit the North; and in due course inducted me into the major secret-sacred ceremonies. Under their influence, I developed a deeply serious preoccupation with their cultures.

Compensation from an auto accident in which he was injured enabled Lance to acquire some of the Trust’s unsold works, document them, and continue collecting during his own field work, to form the Bennett Collection of works from Arnhem Land, the Tiwi Islands and The Kimberley. By 1964, Lance approached Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper to arrange an exhibition in Tokyo. It toured to regional cities over a two-year period with Bennett lecturing as it went. He was also carrying out field research in Australia under the Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Tokyo, Professor Izumi. This led directly to Japanese publishers Kodansha commissioning him to write and provide the illustrations “ both art and artists’ portraits “ for Art of the Dreamtime, lavishly published in Japanese in 1969.

An English-language edition was to follow. A dilemma arose: how much of the information provided by his artist friends should Lance allow to appear in English? He was supported in his doubts by a subsequent appraisal of the text by Fred McCarthy, founding principal of the Institute of Aboriginal Studies “ who also feared that a number of eminent anthropologists would have their noses put out by the work! But McCarthy had no doubt as to the value of the text: Even the most expert in this discipline must have yearned for a précis of individual myths and rituals; a synopsis giving a clear and simple version of each story, its re-enactment and its significance. This appears to have been achieved by the current author.

In 1970, the perfect job for such a man was advertised. ‘Nugget’ Coombs, the man behind the new Australian Council for the Arts, wanted to form an Aboriginal Theatre Foundation. He’d been inspired by the touring of dancers to Sydney and Melbourne in 1963 by the Elizabethan Theatre Trust, arising from Eisteddfods in Darwin, where Aboriginal performance had been welcomed since 1961. The job of Director was to record, preserve and develop dance and associated artforms; to establish local committees, comprised in most cases of Aborigines; and to organise tours of dance and drama groups.

Within a year, Lance, with his partner Barbara Spencer as his off-sider, had supplied performers for the Australian Tourist Commission’s World Travel Congress in Sydney, and in 1972 a company represented Australia at the South Pacific Festival in Fiji. While the main work of the body that developed into The Aboriginal Cultural Foundation in 1975 with a fully Aboriginal Board of ritual leaders, was to assist tribal groups to fulfill their obligation to attend ceremony across the North, the touring of a variable company, Dancers of the Dreaming, preferenced the world over southern Australia. They went to such events as the World Black and African Festival in Lagos in 1977, to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, Philadelphia and New York in 1981, the Festival d’Automne in Paris in 1983, and the final 1995 tour to major venues in Arizona, Texas and California, heaped with praise by no less a man than the Governor of Texas, George W Bush. In Australia, invitations came only from the Perth and Adelaide Festivals in the 80s.

Northern Australia enjoyed a series of impressive inter-tribal gatherings from Kowanyama on Cape York to Noonkanbah in the West Kimberley. Most significant, though were the three great Groote Eylandt gatherings in 1980, ’85 and ’92, facilitated by the BHP mine royalties there. As the SMH reported Gawirrin Gumana, then-Chair of ACF saying at the 1992 event, If we lose our culture, there will be nothing behind us. We will be like bits of paper blowing along the street. And when I say culture, I mean my ceremony, my language, my colour.

Guests invited to the week-long Groote events included choreographer Jiri Kylian of Nederlands Dans Theatre, who went on to create ‘Stamping Ground’; Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu who composed ‘Dreamtime for Orchestra’; the writer Dame Mary Durack, and painter John Olsen.

But ‘ceremony’ was falling out of favour down south. In the hands of urban activists like Chicka Dixon and Gary Foley, the ACF’s major funding body, the Aboriginal Arts Board at the Australia Council now declared there was no arts component in initiation ceremonies. Funding for ACF all but ceased in 1992, despite an assessment by Charles Perkins that found an essential nexus between ceremony, Aboriginal arts and crafts and the passing of lore from generation to generation. He was ignored.

Ironically, Paul Keating’s Creative Nation was the final nail in the ACF’s larrikitj. We now recognise the magnificent heritage of the oldest civilisation on Earth, it roundly declared, before putting all its eggs into the urban Indigenous training school, NAISDA’s basket “ predicting it would achieve a status comparable to NIDA and the AFTRS when it moved to Brisbane. It too was ignored. But an era had passed.

The tribal leaders of the North retired to their outstations to both avoid lawless townships and pay respect to their Country. Lance Bennett just retired, hurt. The Bennett Collection had already been acquired by the Institute of Aboriginal Studies, at Dorothy’s behest. One showing in Adelaide was opened by then-Prime Minister Gough Whitlam; it has since been warehoused at the National Museum.

In retrospect, it seems extraordinary that an organisation like the ACF could be killed off after eliciting a review like this in 1981 from the legendary Anna Kisselgoff, Dance Critic of The New York Times. Having compared the pure blood Dancers of the Dreaming with theatricalized performances by Black and American Indian dancers, she extolled, A wondrous sight … fascinating …exciting …touching .. mysterious … our thanks for enabling us to see the genuine article.

This was precisely what Lance strove to achieve during his 25 years with ACF. He retained the trust of its tribal leaders throughout because he never lost sight of the need to support the owners and managers of ritual, the wellspring of all the Aboriginal ˜arts’.

Lance Bennett is survived by his soulmate, Barbara Spencer.