Sydney Morning Herald Column

Robert Campbell Jr.

Published April 18, 2015
Robert Campbell Jnr, 'Giver of Life' (1986). Photograph: Artbank

Artbank, the Australian government’s art rental agency, has been around since 1980. It was an initiative of a Fraser administration returned to power for a third consecutive term that year – a reminder of an era when both sides of politics took an active interest in the arts. By contrast, today’s politicians seem completely devoid of arts initiatives.
Take for instance the destruction of the ‘art for superannuation’ scheme. The previous government went out of its way to torpedo a program that provided vital support for a struggling commercial gallery sector. The current government, which styles itself as the friend to business, has shown no interest in correcting this piece of economic vandalism.
Artbank may be the only reliable source of government support for the industry nowadays. The agency spends a million dollars a year acquiring work by living artists, mostly from exhibitions at commercial galleries. It has amassed a collection of over 10,000 pieces – 3,500 of them stored at its new, purpose-built headquarters in Waterloo. With a turnover of approximately $3.5 million a year Artbank is both profitable and self-sufficient. This profitability is the main reason it has been able to resist calls that it be privatised.
Artbank is currently expanding the scope of its operations. Last May it auctioned off major works by artists such as Jeffrey Smart, John Coburn, Margaret Olley, John Brack and William Robinson, raising $1.6 million. Director Tony Stephens defended the sale by saying the money would be spent buying work by living artists, as per Artbank policy. First of all it should be noted that William Robinson is alive and well. Secondly, the sale shows the gulf that exists between an art rental agency and a public collection which would never dream of selling its most valuable assets.
In other ways Artbank is moving closer to the public gallery model. It now publishes a magazine called Sturgeon – the odd title being a tribute to the organisation’s founding director, Graeme Sturgeon. It has also opened a space in which it will be hosting museum quality exhibitions.
The first of these is Robert Campbell Jr.: History Painter, for which Djon Mundine has served as guest curator. It’s an excellent beginning as Campbell (1944-93) is overdue for a survey, and Artbank owns no fewer than 12 of the 25 works on display. Other pieces have been borrowed from public and private collections in Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide.
Campbell came to prominence in the late 1980s when a first wave of indigenous masters had been joined by many so-called ‘urban Aboriginal’ artists. This broad category included just about everybody who hadn’t grown up in an isolated desert community, ranging from the highly sophisticated art of figures such as Gordon Bennett and Fiona Foley, to all shades of naïf, amateur and Outsider.
Campbell was neither one nor the other. He painted in a deliberate, hyper-decorative style, exploring issues such as racism and dispossession, but he was a story-teller rather than a theorist. His images have intelligence, humour and charm. They are folk chronicles fed through the style generator of the artist’s mind. In Campbell’s paintings the white fellas and the black fellas both wear ties, although the white faces tend to smile while the blacks look morose.
There’s not a lot to smile about when your land is being desecrated and your children carted off to foster homes. The cheerful black faces only appear in paintings in which people are engaged in traditional activities such as gathering Pandanus leaves or making shields.

 'Women getting pandanas leaves' (1990). Photograph: Artbank
‘Women getting pandanas leaves’ (1990). Photograph: Artbank

Campbell was born in Kempsey and attended a Mission school until the age of 14. He helped his grandfather make tourist souvenirs and produced his own brightly coloured paintings before moving to Sydney. Over the years he would work as a factory hand, a labourer and a pea-picker. It was only after returning to Kempsey in the 1980s that he began to paint in the distinctive style that would turn him into a minor celebrity. Campbell’s work was ‘discovered’ in an exhibition at the local RSL Club by artist, Tony Coleing, who facilitated an introduction to the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, where he would show thereafter.
The subjects of most of Campbell’s paintings were drawn from his own memories and the local history of the north coast. He claimed to be searching for the Aboriginal identity he had lost. His flat, stylised landscapes with their rows of dots paid homage to traditional Aboriginal art without borrowing from any specific source. When he painted a portrait he would revert to a more realistic style for the figure and save the patterns for the background. Nevertheless, it could be argued that the suit worn by Senator Bonner in Campbell’s portrait is as vibrant as a Western Desert painting. In My Brother Mac Silva, the drummer wears a shirt that would be equally at home in a Papuya Tula catalogue.
'My Brother Mac Silva' (1989)
‘My Brother Mac Silva’ (1989)

This playfulness is a trademark of Campbell’s work. There is also a slightly self-deprecating aspect, as if he were cautious about his own credentials as an artist-historian of Aboriginal life. Even when he is telling stories about massacres, deaths in custody or the stolen generation, there is an unflagging positive energy in his pictures. “Here are the facts,” he says, “make of them what you will.”
As Djon Mundine points out, Campbell’s work came along at a time when Aboriginal issues were being discussed like never before. The Land Rights movement had made white Australians conscious of the injustices perpetrated on indigenous people. There was widespread public sympathy for Aboriginal protests and a rejection of the bigotries of the past. The stage was set for an artist to portray the history of black and white relations in a simple, non-aggressive manner.
While Campbell’s political views are unambiguous, his approach to painting is completely disarming. In Chained Aboriginals (1986), the white soldiers and their black captives seem to be posing for a team photo. His faces – Emoji avant la lettre – convey only the most basic feelings of happiness or sadness. There is no space for subtle psychology. We are chiefly conscious of the similarities between two groups distinguished only by their skin colour. They’re all wearing the same red ties – even the horse!
It might be best to interpret these ubiquitous ‘ties’ as X-ray images of the body, like those found in Arnhem Land bark paintings. Most first-time viewers will see only an unusual degree of sartorial panache.

In Roped-Off at the Pictures II (1986), the blacks sit in a confined area in front of the movie screen while the whites occupy the better seats at the back. Yet both groups are apparently enjoying the same western in a theatre that suggests an indigenous version of Art Deco.
A two-part work, Rape of the Cedar (1986) shows a band of white timber cutters in the top panel, and a completely denuded forest at the bottom. Such paintings in which Campbell divides the canvas into two or more segments may be compared to the complex condensing of incident in early Renaissance art, or merely to cartoons. In both instances there is an attempt to defeat time by the simultaneous presentation of different parts of a story.
I’m reminded of the posters commissioned by Governor Phillip that tried to convey a sense of British justice to the indigenous inhabitants of Port Jackson. If a black man killed a white man he would be punished, but the same applied to a white man who murdered a black. It’s a principle that may not have worked so well in practice. In Shooting the Blacks (1986) Campbell shows the basic method of “dispersing” local inhabitants adopted by the first settlers in the Macleay River Valley.
The stories may be brutal but there is nothing confrontational about Campbell’s depictions. It seems bewildering, almost comical, that the white figures take such delight in abusing their black counterparts. In Giver of Life (1986) Campbell abandons the social history and steps back into the past, depicting a golden age in which his ancestors are chasing fish and game in a glorious sun-drenched landscape. Looking at this work we realise the politics were forced on the artist by his emotional need to respond to the injustices he saw and experienced. In an ideal world he might have preferred to go fishing.
Robert Campbell Jr.: History Painter
Artbank, until 23 May.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 18th April, 2015