Obituary: Lin Onus

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The Independent Online
Lin Onus was an artist who did much to broaden the scope and unite the strands of Australian Aboriginal art.

He experimented not only with painting but also with sculpture. His 1989 installation piece Dingoes was one of the stars of the 1993 Atatjara exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London. An energetic and articulate campaigner for Aboriginal rights, he sought to address the key issues of his community in work that combines both humour and acute political awareness - a very rare mixture.

Born in Melbourne in 1948 to an Aboriginal father and a Scottish mother, Onus left school at 13 and worked for several years as a motor mechanic. He then helped in his father's shop in the Dandedong hills in Victoria, making art and craft souvenirs for the tourist trade.

The Onus family home was always a local centre for the interstate Aboriginal community. Lin's father, Bill, was much involved with Aboriginal welfare and social issues - and visitors to the house included such Aboriginal luminaries as the painter Albert Namatjira, and the actor Robert Tudawali.

Lin Onus began painting in 1973, while waiting to hear whether he had been accepted for a job with the local fire service. He was largely self- taught as an artist. His early work, although acknowledging the influence of two Aboriginal artist friends - Revel Cooper and Ron Bull - drew on the "European tradition" which was readily available to him. With typical self-deprecation he characterised his own beautifully- finished landscape works of this period as "the panoramic Australia Felix, with a gum tree in one corner".

In 1986, however, he travelled to the far north of Australia, to Maningrida in Arnhem Land, and spent time with the "traditional" Aboriginal community at Gamerdi. He was befriended by the master-painter Jack Wunuwun, was adopted into his family and learnt his native language - Djinang. (Onus's own language group - Wiradjiri - had become extinct.)

The time spent at Gamerdi in 1986 (and on many subsequent trips) radically altered Onus's artistic direction. He sought to fuse elements of "traditional" Aboriginal perspective and representation with his own "urban" Aboriginal motifs and experiences. In the process he began to break down the perceived division between these two strains of Aboriginal culture.

Onus also did much useful work in the field of art administration. He was a member of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council from 1986 to 1988, and he chaired the Aboriginal Arts Committee from 1989 to 1992.

Lin Onus's achievements were widely recognised. He won many awards, including the national Aboriginal art award in 1988, and in 1993 he received the Order of Australia in the Queen's Birthday Honours.

Lin Onus, artist: born Melbourne 4 December 1948; AO 1993; died 23 October 1996.