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The scandalous outing of Eddie Burrup

The works of this aboriginal artist were much admired in Australia - until an elderly white woman revealed that she had painted them.

John Walsh
Wednesday 26 July 2000 00:00 BST

An aboriginal painter called Eddie Burrup had the first British exhibition of his work unveiled last night in Cork Street, arty London's most hallowed thoroughfare. In his mid-80s, Burrup was a stockman, jailbird, cartographer and maban - a tribal honorific meaning "Man of High Degree" with tribal access rights to huge acres of Western Australian bush territory.

An aboriginal painter called Eddie Burrup had the first British exhibition of his work unveiled last night in Cork Street, arty London's most hallowed thoroughfare. In his mid-80s, Burrup was a stockman, jailbird, cartographer and maban - a tribal honorific meaning "Man of High Degree" with tribal access rights to huge acres of Western Australian bush territory.

Though he drew animals and primitive figures from an early age, his work found recognition late in life, in a touring exhibition at the Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute during the Adelaide Festival in 1996. Critics found much to praise in Burrup's earthy clay-and-cochineal palette and his delicate, webby landscapes - somewhere between the design of a butterfly's wings and an aerial view of the Yule river. His work was considered at the forefront of aboriginal painting and entered for the national Art Awards.

It was a shame Eddie couldn't be in Cork Street to see his work praised by the Australian High Commissioner, David Ritchie. Some Australian visitors might have been surprised to see, on the Gallery window, the words "Elizabeth Durack: The Art of Eddie Burrup". Ms Durack OBE, CMG was a distinguished, elderly, Australian painter and illustrator of charming children's books written by her sister, Dame Mary Durack. She died in May. What could be the connection between the fragrant, white colonial milady and the white-bearded, aboriginal roughneck pictured in the catalogue in straw hat and overalls?

Then came the biggest revelation: Eddie wasn't at the gallery because he was in the grave with Elizabeth. They were the same person. She had invented him in 1994, painted his paintings, given him a back-history and apologised to art dealers for her protégé's reclusive ways. Even in the catalogue photo, that's the lady herself behind the white whiskers...

It is the most extraordinary Australian arts scandal since the Ern Malley Hoax. You can see the Eddie Burrup case as fraud or cultural appropriation; as an hommage from a white artist to an indigenous black one, or a sneaky way of embarrassing the politically correct. But the same question persists: why should an 80-year-old woman wish to create a bushman alter ego?

When the artist's identity was revealed in Australian Art Monthly in 1997, a whole can of ethno-cultural worms was wrenched open. "It's a massive fraud," complained Doreen Mellor, who had exhibited three Eddie paintings in her Tandanya gallery. "How dare anyone appropriate a culture like that?" The boss of the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Cultural Centre called it "The ultimate act of colonisation".

At Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art, the Aboriginal art curator Djon Mundine went ballistic. "It's the last thing left that you could possibly take away [from us], other than the rest of our lives or shoot us all," he declared melodramatically. Ms Durack's assumption of the Burrup persona was, he thought, "a total obscenity". "Saying that because your family has lived on the land for years, you feel about it as deeply as Aboriginal people and can pick up the culture, is absurd".

But that, in an innocent sense, is just what Elizabeth Durack has claimed. Her family were Irish emigrants; her grandfather, Patrick, was a pioneer who helped open up the vast Kimberley region to settlers in north Western Australia. Young Elizabeth and her sister grew up on farm stations and developed close ties with local tribesmen, who trusted the young painter and gave her a "classificatory" place in their society. In her teens, Elizabeth would escape from family tensions into the Ivanhoe Bush Camp with old aboriginal men and women - a privileged walkabout for a white girl.

She saw sacred sites rarely seen by non-indigenous eyes. According to Rebecca Hossack, owner of the famous gallery that specialises in ethnic Australian art, "Elizabeth considered her introduction to the great overhanging gallery of Aboriginal rock paintings on the Keep River as one of the key artistic experiences of her life."

In her long career, Durack's painting developed from figurative illustration to dream landscape, moving into violently-coloured abstraction. It never looked very European. Her work was shown at London's Whitechapel Gallery alongside that of Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan, but she was clearly dissatisfied with where she was going. "Back in Australia, in her 80s," says Rebecca Hossack. "It was natural to revert to memories of childhood, the landscape where she grew up. But the Durack name conjured up money and imperialism - in Australia, it's like being called Windsor - and she wanted a new identity. So she invented Eddie, who stood for all the aboriginal men she'd known when young. He was completely real to her. He liberated her, as an artist, from being Elizabeth Durack."

The artist's daughter, Perpetua Hobcroft, who runs an art gallery in north Western Australia, remem-bers the moment when Elizabeth met Eddie: "She was showing me this new work she'd done and I said, 'It feels very aboriginal. If you put this up as the work of an aboriginal, it would be acknowledged and recognised. But you're too straight and honest to do that'. A day or two later, we were walking by the Swan River, and she stopped to look at the native plants and said, 'I just might consider showing those morphological works under another name'. And that's when the whole thing started."

As far as Perpetua is concerned, her mother "believed she was reconciling two cultures or trying to", starting with the truth of the heart's affections from childhood. But the can of worms stays open and wriggling. Was the invention of an aboriginal artist and his "elemental" works a legitimate phase in the work of someone drenched in Australian ethnic lore? Or was it a case of stealing the culture of another group for artistic or commercial reasons, like white soul boys pinching black street clothes and slang? Or are the pro-aboriginal polemicists responding like native tribesmen who fear that photographers will steal their souls away?

"I put on this show," said Rebecca Hossack. "Because I'm sick of having people shy away from the subject. We couldn't do this exhibition in Australia; it would be banned or picketed. In my view it should be shown at the Sydney Olympics, to show we're not afraid of discussing issues of black and white culture."

Meanwhile, a fictional character is the talk of Cork Street. "Elizabeth Durack is dead, God rest her soul," said a visitor to the gallery launch. "But Eddie Burrup is alive and well and being exhibited in the heart of London." Indeed.

The Art of Eddie Burrup, 28 Cork Street, London W1 until 5 August

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