‘I was drawing before I could talk’, recalled Elizabeth Durack. Born in 1916, her adolescence was split between Latin lessons at a Convent school in Perth and nighttime visits to the Mirawong people, whose land her family occupied in the East Kimberleys.

Durack made her earliest drawings on toilet paper, tougher than today’s and packaged in flat sheets, like the hundreds of small sketchbooks that she eventually would fill. In November 1935 the Bulletin published a booklet. All-about, in which she illustrated her sister Mary’s story of the black community on the family property. The next year she illustrated Mary’s retelling of Aboriginal legends for children, the first of many visualisations that made her 1990s adoption of a black male persona in ‘Eddie Burrup’ appear to her as a natural progression. What had been welcomed until the 1960s as promotion of indigenous culture was now condemned as expropriation.

Because of her isolation in the North-West and her reputation as a mere illustrator, she never felt part of ‘The Club’ of professional painters. Equally, she was unable to discuss her aesthetic concerns with the station whites whose heads were full of ‘the season, the stock, and the stores’.

This double isolation nourished her love-hate relationship with Australia, a conflict that kept her homeland ‘vivid and continually exciting’. Drawn to ‘the ferment of the world’ in the late 1960s, Durack illustrated books of her impressions of Nigeria, the Philippines and Indonesia gained while traveling alone on local buses. ‘There’s nothing like comfort to dull perception’, she declared, and called on Australians to reorient themselves to Asia. Travel helped her to see her own country and to accept that ‘If you couldn’t get out of Australia, you went in. Old Elizabeth Durack went further into the desert and got bogged!’.

From the 1920s, she had held out against friends who told her to paint pretty flowers, not old blackfellas. If the least of these portraits fall somewhere between the soft porn of Jolliffe cartoons and the stick figures of Pro Hart, the finest captured dignity, drawing on empathy far more than mere sympathy.

While skinny dipping in a pool with her black women friends in 1949, she looked up ‘at the sky and the purple basalt rocks and thought it was all rock. Then Gwennie moved her head to watch the sun and I realised she was the rock.’ Durack leapt out of the water and began to sketch, soaking her pad, before working through the night by candlelight in a brushwood studio to finish her ‘Ord River Venus’ (1949), awkward and awesome, yet affirmative of femaleness and blackness.

From that vision, she learnt the integration of ‘vegetation and rock form and human life’ became a connecting thread of her oeuvre. This approach underlay her disquiet at the Mabo judgement, because Aborigines did not ‘own the land, they were the land’.

In 1963, the Institute of Aboriginal Studies commissioned her to develop a collection of her sketches of the native camps from the time when contact was still spasmodic. Because she had made many of those images as she walked, she decided to connect 230 of them into a 20m scroll, like a motion picture reel.

Durack recorded the drift of West Australia’s Aborigines from the tribalised to the fringe. Regret for the world that the Aborigines had lost fed into her alarm at the destruction of the environment and of social order everywhere. ‘Eaten Out’ (1954) showed pock-marked natives in an eroded landscape. The integration of people with the land turned from a source of strength to brittleness.

Durack had long believed that her best work came when she felt ‘completely gathered up by a force stronger than yourself’. Entering her ninth decade, she accepted that ‘Eddie Burrup’ was possessing her as much as she was creating him in protest at ‘the rim of disintegration’. ‘Shattered Wandjina’, for example, expressed her apprehension at the ‘totemic tumult’.

Two years ago, Elizabeth Durack suspected that her life remained ‘a series of question marks’. Yet there can be no doubt that her independence stands as a model which any Australian artist - male or female, black or white - could look regard with pride.


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