Robert Campbell Jr, an Aboriginal artist born in Kempsey in 1944, spent his youth carving images on boomerangs his father sold. After finishing school, he lived in inner-city Sydney before moving back to Kempsey on the 1980s, where he created paintings documenting the Aboriginal experience under the early European settlers and then his own, post-World War Two realities. These realities, both past and present, are present in vibrant artworks depicting what writer, critic and independent curator Djon Mundine OAM says reflect the “embarrassing racism not spoken about.”
Many of Campbell Jr’s works show people engaged in group activities and social interactions, and are often politically loaded, says Mundine. One painting depicts Aboriginals looking through the fence surrounding a whites-only public bath; another of Aboriginals relegated to the front, neck ache-inducing front rows of the cinema. Other paintings show Aboriginals in more historical settings, and give lie to early photography (1870s to World War I) that featured Aboriginals in “history compositions,” presenting the community as very different from the reality. Thus the title of the exhibit, History Painter, bringing a different history to the surface, explains Mundine. Campbell Jr “saw his role as portraying what happened in his life,” and as commentator on the tumultuous times of Aboriginals seeking basic rights such as voting and owning property. Campbell Jr died in 1993.
Artbank’s retrospective of Campbell Jr’s works from the 1980s and ’90s is the first of its kind, with paintings from its own collection (available for lease after the run), galleries and private collections. “His work is well-liked for both its style of graphic art and for the political content, a history people couldn’t deny,” says Mundine. “You get an idea of the time, of political action and indigenous people, ‘Yes, we remember that, my parents told me about that.’” With History Painter, Robert Campbell Jr works brings that time to shimmering light and will perhaps spur audiences to reflect on the present. (OA)
From 20 February to 23 May at Artbank, Unit 1, 198-222 Young Street, Waterloo, 1800 251 651, artbank.gov.au.