It’s Not Just What We Learn, It’s About How We Learn It—

Tiriki Onus

All artists have their secrets, those techniques and tricks that they’ve honed over years and years of (sometimes painful) dedication and devotion to their craft. For my father, Lin Onus, it was the way he painted water. He brought the skills he’d refined from his previous life as a panel beater and spray painter to large-scale canvases, depicting his own long and fraught journey back to connecting with his Country and the stories and narratives contained therein.

It wasn’t that Lin was selfish about the techniques and style he’d developed, rather he wanted to make sure that the gravity and importance of his own journey was recognised in the relationship he had with his art, those who viewed it, and those to whom he passed on his knowledge.

Lin taught lots of people to paint water the way he did, but there was a process. The artist with whom Lin was most committed to sharing his knowledge was, undoubtedly, Ray Thomas.

Art in our house was always a family affair. My mother still fondly recounts the story of arriving home from work to find me in the studio with my father, hanging his completed lino prints on a makeshift clothesline which was strung across the back room of our old house in Upwey, Victoria.

‘What are you doing, Lin?’ my mother said.
‘He’s only three. He might drop them!’

‘Then I’ll just print another one’, Lin replied.

Art was incredibly valuable, but it wasn’t treated as precious. It was the making and the doing that had so much value. It was in the sharing of stories, and the creation and deepening of relationships, that the true power was manifest. Unbeknownst to my three-year-old self, I was immersed in the same traditions of artistic education that my father had been at a similar age. Growing up in my grandfather’s shop at Belgrave, Lin was exposed to extraordinary artists, designers and makers like Revel Cooper, Harry Williams and Paula Kerry. Their selfless and generous sharing of their own knowledges and stories helped start Lin on his path to become the artist that he ultimately was.

I sat in many an audience throughout my childhood, watching my father speak about his practice. I lurked around his studio as he was recounting his experiences with other artists and makers, always hearing the same thing; ‘so-and-so taught me this’, or ‘so-and-so showed me how this works’.

There was always a sense of the lineage of a technique or story in what was being produced. These weren’t just a series of technologies which were being pieced together to form a whole, these were meaningful relationships that were drawn together to create images of beauty and cultural significance.

I don’t believe I shall ever forget the loving way in which I heard stories of artists like Ronald Bull, and the mentorship he had offered Lin, when Lin’s own career was just getting started. One of the first exhibitions Lin ever had of his work was a joint show with Ronald Bull at Taurinus Gallery in Upwey, in 1976. Bull’s stories of the times he had spent in prison (his iconic 1960 mural in Pentridge Prison’s F-Division still stands as a testament to his resolute determination to maintain connections to Country and identity in the face of incredible odds), and the therapeutic benefits he had found in art, drove Lin for many years to deliver workshops in Pentridge. There was a balance to be restored, a bill to be paid, and a love for all those who had given of themselves that needed to be celebrated.

Perhaps one of the greatest and firmest friendships formed throughout the course of Lin’s life was with Ray Thomas. Ray, or ‘Buster’ as he has always been affectionately known in our family, had come into our lives as a fresh-faced young artist with a burning desire to bring his stories and talent to the world. And Lin obliged, by sharing whatever he could in the same way that others had done, and were still doing, with him. Like Lin, much of Ray’s work centred on questions of identity and reclaiming a narrative of place and belonging that had been denied our families and community for so very long. If there is one artist who embodies the traditions and convictions of artists like my father, it is Ray Thomas.

The initial collaborations between artists like Ray and Lin, and their contemporaries, came at a critical time in our shared history. Art by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and their allies was starting to break out of the galleries and private spaces—in which it had been fostered—and was beginning to reshape our public landscapes. It was the relationships created and reinforced by collectives of committed local artists that brought these works to the world.

‘Like Lin, much of Ray’s work centred on questions of identity and reclaiming a narrative of place and belonging that had been denied our families and community for so very long.‘

For as long as I can remember, murals have been a fixture of many of our community-controlled organisations. As a child, I’d make the journey to Koori Kollij while my father was coordinating the creation of murals for the old Victorian Aboriginal Health Service in Gertrude Street with Ray Thomas, Lyn Thorpe and Lyn Briggs. Around the same time, the Northcote Koori Mural was created by many of the same artists, along with Millie Yarran, Ian Johnson and Les Griggs, in collaboration with non-Indigenous artist and ally megan evans.

These powerful reclamations of space decolonised and transformed once-dowdy office spaces and city streets to vibrant spaces, in which First Nations people were seen and where we held an authority over how we were represented.

As these works were contributing to the amplification of First Nations voices, and making visible that which had been kept invisible for so long, I was a primary school student. At the time, thousands of children, including me, were introduced to historical fallacies that maintained that all Aboriginal people from the south east of the continent were gone, extinct. That our language and culture was no more, and that little hope existed of ever reclaiming that which was taken from us. The world around me and the art contained within it, however, told a different story. It was through the intervention of the extraordinary women and men around me that I was mentored, not just to find my own voice as an artist, but to know the stories of those who had gone before—the deep lineages of the knowledges I was being made privy to and the strength they had needed to get us here.

Collaborative works of public art like this one at Monash University between Ray and artists from The Torch are another step in a long line of reclaiming space and celebrating the strength and resilience of our community. As a medium, the mural is perhaps one of the most powerful opportunities for expression that we have as artists. It requires no special gallery and audiences aren’t obliged to overcome the barriers of actually walking into a space that may or may not be safe. Rather, murals have the opportunity to reach all those who pass by. They are passive, yet potentially powerful statements, which can expand our scope and understanding of the world we inhabit, enriching our lives by showing us more than we knew existed. We need these stories, and we should be eternally grateful to the collectives of artists who bring them to us. As therapeutic as the creation of artwork might be to the artist, I’d contend that the potential for healing and growth is just as significant for us as an audience.

It was around 1990 that many of the traditions of my immersive education started to make more sense to me. Lin had travelled to Arnhem Land as the chair of the Aboriginal Arts Board and returned from his first trip with a new clarity as to how he was going to meld the artistic practices of two worlds—black and white—together in his work. The senior artist and lawman who adopted us into his family— who has since passed so will refer to as Big Wamut—is the only grandfather I have ever known. It was through our visits to Gamerdi outstation and his journeys to Melbourne that an ongoing practice of reciprocal giving and relational accountability was instilled in me. I had responsibility to my family and to the Country from which the knowledges had flowed, but I also had a responsibility to the story itself. It was now my job to see that the story lived on and was engaged with respect and the same guidelines which I had been given through the telling.

‘Mentoring’ can seem like such an inadequate word when we’re talking about maintaining a constantly evolving and living practice of knowledge transfer which has forever belonged to our grandmothers and grandfathers. It’s not just what we learn, it’s about how we learn it.

It has taught me so much about responsibility and strength, as well as fear.

It can be a tremendously difficult and painful process to reclaim our histories and stories, but it can be just as hard to give those knowledges to the world again. As First Peoples, we haven’t ‘lost’ anything. Some things have been taken from us by force or coercion, but there is so much we have managed to hold onto and keep safe. The innate need to protect that which we have made, or reclaimed for ourselves, is an incredibly powerful and difficult urge to overcome. But as my educators have demonstrated to me time and again—oral traditions don’t survive without giving. We wouldn’t be here were it not for a practice of sharing and mentorship dating back to the beginning of all things.

We will never fully understand the sacrifices and experiences that our mentors had to go through to get us to where we are as a community, but isn’t that also kind of the point? It’s their generosity that has kept us moving forward for thousands of generations.

Artists like Ronald Bull, Lin Onus, Ray Thomas, Lyn Briggs, Lyn Thorpe and countless others have changed the landscape of our cities and towns. No more are we invisible. Instead, we see the strength of our community and, just as importantly, others do too. But none of the changes which have taken place have happened in a vacuum. These are the result of stories, relationships and lineages of practice that stretch back further and wider than we could ever know. Our responsibility now is to hand them on to those who will cherish them and see that they live and grow, as it’s our duty to maintain the narratives of where these stories have come from.