I’m going to indulge myself here. Just as William Mora and D’Lan Davidson in Melbourne are opening the last ever show of market-fresh paintings by the late great Paddy Bedford, I’m going to republish the catalogue essay I wrote in great heat in 2005 for an earlier Mora show by the then-living artist. That had grown from two days spent with Paddy, farewelling the sites that inspired his greatest art such as Motor Car Yard, Middle Brand and the site of the Bedford Downs Massacre. It was also an occasion to sum up the 8 year achievement of Jirrawun Arts, which had given its group of Gija artists so much confidence in both the art they made and the way they lived. One part of the project was to silo artworks during Paddy’s profitable life so that either he in old age or his estate could continue to benefit. Sadly, with the death of Bedford two years later, and the departure of catalyst curator Tony Oliver, it all came crashing down.
Fortunately, the art lives on – as in ‘I Am the Law’, this exhibition’s title. And this is my tribute to it.
HEART OF BLACKNESS – Jeremy Eccles finds a Heart of Blackness in the East Kimberley
“The horror! The horror!” were, of course, the last muttered words of Mr Kurtz – or Marlon Brando if you only saw the film – as he reviewed both the world that he’d created free from the trammels of Western ‘civilisation’ and the moral ambiguity of the masters who’d called him a heroic pioneer as long as he stayed out of sight at the end of the line. Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novella, The Heart of Darkness may have gained its greatest exposure in Coppola’s Vietnam War film, Apocalpyse Now; but its decadent despair was already thick in the air in the 1920s when TS Eliot penned probably the greatest poem of the 20th Century, The Waste Land. He borrowed Kurtz’s dying words for the epigraph to his work; and went on to caption another great poem, The Hollow Men with the line that came soon after, “Mistah Kurtz – he dead”.
I doubt whether either Conrad or Eliot was much read in The Kimberley in the 20s, when moral ambiguity loomed quite as large as in Europe. But many of the white ‘pioneers’ who imagined they might tame the nature (and the natives) of this land of ancient, worn-down rugged grandeur set up characteristically Kurtz-like fiefdoms, operating to end-of-the-line standards in what we now call ‘The Killing Times‘.
Did they ever despair? Did their Gija victims in the East Kimberley – victims of 12 attested freelance ‘massacres’ as well as 20 officially recorded police shooting actions in the period between 1887 and 1920 – reach for their Conrad to understand what was happening so cruelly to them?
Or has it taken 80 years of pain and confusion to achieve the form of closure that Eliot was looking for through art? I’m quoting Malcolm Bradbury on how Eliot wrote The Waste Land: “(It) was a way of relating the past to the present, the mythic and religious sensibility to the world of the mundane…a universal cry for faith, a search for a lost wholeness of being”.
I doubt whether that’s quite how Paddy Bedford would put it. But, boy were those some of the feelings I emerged with after spending a couple of days with Paddy. We were visiting sites of both mythic and personal importance to him on Bedford Downs Station.
Ironically, it needed a helicopter to cover the country, pace ‘Apocalypse Now’. But this was no choppered Ride of the Valkyries. This was a quietly moving experience as the 83 year old took control of our destiny at 1500 feet – as I’ve always assumed Aboriginal artists must be able to do. So much of their art is an aerial view of their land – what use would map or GPS system be to Paddy Bedford? He was, after all, born here and worked here for at least 30 years. But he also inherited its stories from his father and mother. And at each stop, it was almost impossible to hold him back from telling those stories the moment we landed.
It’ll be hard to forget the soft, urgent touch of his long fingers on my arm as he took it for support between the still-whirling helicopter and his chosen story-telling place.
But the stories he needed to tell were invariably hard ones.
At Old Bedford, for instance, the patch of open ground beside a treed billabong revealed no hint of habitation apart from half a heavyweight horseshoe. But Paddy Bedford seemed to see a whole community of paperbark humpies in his mind’s eye as he told of his mother being rounded up from the bush and brought in here for her first white contact. That became an intimate one as she moved in with the white station man and gave birth to one of the first ‘half-caste’ children locally. Neither side of the racial divide approved. The child was drowned by a senior Gija woman; and Paddy’s Mum was rushed off to Moollabulla, which had the reputation of being little more than a concentration camp.
Paddy Bedford seemed genuinely sad about the fate of his elder half-brother. The corellas on the billabong also sounded pained – but were probably only complaining en masse about this unwanted intrusion into their territory. And they got their own back when we tried to visit Paddy’s Cockatoo Dreaming place. It was there in the Dreamtime that a mob of people travelling from the south were stopped and turned to stone by the Cockatoo. Their remnant rocks made it impossible to find a flat place to land.
Could the people have been coming from Melbourne? The Cockatoo certainly did. When Paddy was in Melbourne, he spotted a pre-invasion, marked tree near the MCG and recognised it as a Men’s meeting place, the beginning of a songline that carried the Cockatoo story all the way to The Kimberley. He sang that song too. Locally, they say it’s a canoe tree. But Paddy knows better.
Wisdom is a hard thing to assess – especially in a man for whom English is a second or third language. But the sense of authority in this aging body is indubitable. Reputedly, he was the man who stood at the front in tribal fights, batting away incoming spears with his shield. It’s odd to think of that sort of thing happening just 40 or 50 years ago. But then it’s even stranger to think that, in 1920, just two years before Paddy’s birth, five Gija men were poisoned, clubbed to death, then incinerated on a pyre made from the trees they’d just cut down.
It’s even worse than that – involving many more potential victims being sent back to Bedford Downs from prison in Wyndham with tickets marking them for death round their necks. Some recognised the sign and escaped. Perhaps those that stayed felt guilty about the cow they’d speared. “Blackfellars shouldn’t have killed that milking cow”, says Bedford, the former enforcer of the Gija’s tough justice, with amazing forbearance. One hundred and sixty four spearings of cattle were punished in that era – mostly be sending someone to Rottnest Island, from which few returned to The Kimberley. This time the retribution was more Kurtz-like.
And the country records its horror – the stumps of the trees remain, surrounding land where nothing grows. No bones, though. Descendants of Bedford Downs’s owner, Paddy Quilty – “my old boss”, says the man who was named Paddy after this monster – suggest that the bones were taken to the sea and thrown in.
Which accords with the Gija legend remarkably. In it, the spirits of the Bedford Five climbed the nearby Mt King and met a ‘clever man’ in a cave. He gave them a song (joonba) to pass their tale on to the living, then sent them too to the sea.
And that must be how the Gija handle the horror. By incorporating it into the stories of their land, and later, into their paintings. This all came together in Fire, Fire Burning Bright, the mighty performance that was created by Paddy Bedford and his fellow members of Jirrawun Arts, which played at the Perth and Melbourne Festivals in 2002. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
For how could I not be intrigued by the closeness of the Bedford massacre site to Mt King – Paddy’s key “Dreaming from my Father”, where the Turkey and Emu divided day and night. A timeless Genesis site forced to encompass something so recent and so awful. Well, they say that the Dreaming is for ever – eternal and continuing. It must be – for the massacre seems to have become part of the old story, reflecting perhaps the folly of the Emu in insisting on going on when the Turkey knew it was time to rest. For his pains, the Emu became stuck in the huge fault line that runs down the mountain, heading straight for the massacre site. And darkness did fall to support the Turkey’s case – in antipodean opposition to the Bible’s version, where “darkness was on the face of the deep” from the beginning, and God had to create light.
That this complex mythology – this Greek tragedy – had to be played out in secret for the next 50 years is sad, and our loss. That it then disappeared completely during the time when the Paddy Bedfords of The Kimberley were forced off their land and off the stations where they worked into the mental and physical chaos of rootlessness, unemployment and ‘sit-down money’, was a tragedy for the Gija. And it may yet be too late to save their younger generations.
But the Old Men (and Women) are fighting back. And that blighted word ‘reconciliation’ springs inexorably to mind as I analyse the creation of Jirrawun Arts, the zealous organisation that its President, Freddy Timms imagined eight years ago, which now has Sir William Deane as Patron and Paddy Bedford as its Manambarrany. The Old People’s urgent need was to get the whole massacre thing out into the open, to get it accepted by whitefellars, and then move on. What a model for the rest of Australia!
First came Fire, Fire Burning Bright. Such courage. At the opening of the joonba in Perth, cast members still feared that white West Australians might rise from the audience and shoot them down. In 2002! But having survived that, Paddy Bedford can now say to me, “That Paddy Quilty was only a little bit bad – he only did it once”!
Then followed two major art exhibitions – Blood on the Spinifex in Melbourne and True Stories in Sydney. Old Man Timmy Timms was still alive – the Cultural leader to Bedford’s leadership of the Law. And like Bedford, he took up painting in old age for this vital step of telling their side of the story – as did Peggy Patrick, Rusty Peters, Rammey Ramsey, Phyllis Thomas and Goody Barrett. It seems that these Gija elders were freed to make their own marks following the deaths of Rover Thomas and Queenie McKenzie. No doubt the two painting pioneers had been essential in starting a spiritual revival in the East Kimberley; but perhaps they’d also limited the possibilities of political action.
Now the Jirrawun charge was coming out of the darkness – out of the Killing Times, the station times, the welfare times, the white-dominated times – to blackness, and freedom. They were free to go back into the Dreaming and forward into an artistic (and economic) present that knows no bounds. Like the Buddhist lotus, out of shit comes beauty.
And as we flew over the Black Hills at the back of Warmun and heard Paddy’s stories about them, to the black soil plains where cattle thrive, it seemed that if you have a black skin, then it’s quite logical to overturn the white-skinned moral universe of black/bad and white/good.
Emerging the other side, freedom for Paddy includes the possibility of telling other, kinder stories in his art; and of adding colour complexity – a brilliant blue hill here, a smoky, dusty pink or grey shade there. No longer just white and black!
Jirrawun Arts has been a key to the artistic freedom now enjoyed by its artists. When Bedford came to Sydney for the Australia Council’s launch of the Musee du Quai Branly project – in which one of Paddy’s paintings is being incorporated into the structure of President Chirac’s new living ethnography museum on the banks of Seine – he and friend Rammey Ramsey stole the show with Blues Brothers’ black outfits, elegant canes and the sheer panache of their demeanour. Could such cockatooing have come in part from the fact that they’d flown First Class and were staying, at their own expense in the waterside Park Hyatt Hotel?
That’s what Jirrawun’s done for them. A clear philosophy that’s come from the artists themselves. A patient ‘two-way’ understanding of that over 8 years by ex-Melbourne galleryist, Tony Oliver, which has allowed him to explain what’s needed to Arnold Bloch Leibler, lawyers, working pro bono to establish a water-tight constitution. Tax is now paid at the top rates, and even the market benefits from knowing that for each painting or gouache of Paddy Bedford’s bought at Mora Galleries another is put in store for his non-painting future.
It’s a leap into the light of transparency from the umber waste land of the old community arts centre system. In fact, the more one delves into the Heart of Blackness at the core of Jirrawun Arts, the more one’s tempted to cast out Eliot’s despair (and his elegant language) and echo the lucky young man in the Toohey’s New ad – “It’s all good mate”!
Artist: Paddy Bedford, Timmy Timms, Peggy Patrick, Rusty Peters, Rammey Ramsey, Phyllis Thomas, Goody Barrett, Rover Thomas, Queenie McKenzie,
Tags: Apocalypse Now , Bedford Downs Station , Goody Barrett , jirrawun arts , paddy bedford , peggy patrick , phyllis thomas , queenie mckenzie , rammey ramsey , rover thomas , rusty peters , The Waste Land , Timmy Timms , tony oliver , william mora ,
Gallery: William Mora Galleries ,