Also known as
William Townsend Onus,
W. T. Onus
Artist (Performance Artist),
Artist (Mixed Media Artist),
Artist (Industrial / Product Designer)
William Townsend (Bill) Onus 1906-68. As an artist, entrepeneur, actor and activist Bill Onus made an significant contribution to Art and Aboriginality in postwar Melbourne. His work is held in the collections of in the collections of the National Museum of Australia, Australian Museum, Powerhouse Museum and South Australian Museum.
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William Townsend (Bill) Onus 1906-68.
Designer, entrepreneur, performer and activist William Townsend (Bill) Onus (also known as W T Onus) was born on 15 November 1906 at the Cummeragunja Aboriginal Reserve, New South Wales. He was the eldest of three children born to William Townsend Onus, a drover from Wollambi, New South Wales, and his wife Maude Mary (née Nelson) from Framlingham, Victoria. Bill Onus, his brother Eric and sister Maude (Sissy) grew up alongside a future generation of political activists who called Cummeragunja home: William Cooper, Doug Nicholls, John (Jack) Patten, and Margaret Tucker. In 1916 with ongoing land seizures and the removal of children, Maude Onus joined the growing exodus from Cummeragunja and moved to nearby Echuca, Victoria. Two years later the family traveled in a covered wagon to join Bill’s father, a sheep and cattle drover in the Riverina. Bill Onus lived with his family for a further four years then left at the age of sixteen to work as a shearer. On 12 May 1928 he married Bella Elizabeth Patten at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, West Wyalong. Bella Patten was the sister of Jack Patten who led the 1939 walk-off from Cummeragunja. Following their marriage Onus and his wife had two daughters, Christine (1928-51) and Isobel (1930-c.1976); they were divorced in 1941.
In the following decades Onus traveled widely adding to his political education. In 1929 he moved to Sydney, initially living in an unemployment camp until he obtained skilled work. At one stage he worked as a rigger at the Bankstown aerodrome. With the onset of the Depression, Onus tried his luck prospecting on the south coast at Bega, New South Wales. In 1934 he returned to Sydney where he drove delivery trucks. During this period he lived at the Salt Pan Creek camp in south-western Sydney together with other refugee families from the north and south coast and Cummeragunja including Jack Patten Snr, Jack Campbell and Pearl Gibbs (Goodall 1996, pg 160). Heather Goodall reports that at Salt Pan Creek the older men talked politics “all the time” (Goodall 1996, pg 160) and it is likely that Onus joined the younger men who went to Paddy’s market on Friday nights to hear Aboriginal speakers spruiking on land rights. In 1939 Onus joined the Aborigines Progressive Association (APA) formed two years previously by Bill Ferguson (whom he had once met at Cummeragunja) and Jack Patten. In the political struggle for equality and civil rights Ferguson “needed an uncompromising radical like Onus” (Horner 1974, pg 92); he invited Onus to become secretary of the APA. Employed full-time by the APA and living in a Newtown flat, Onus used his organizational skills and political contacts to achieve reform. He established a Moree branch of the APA. He also played a key role in the Committee for Aboriginal Citizen Rights (associated with the Australian Labor Party) in its campaign to reform the Aborigines Welfare Board of New South Wales. Working with Aboriginal families who had recently arrived in Redfern he fostered a new community spirit by organizing weekly dances at the Railway Institute Hall to raise funds for Aboriginal legal aid for returned soldiers and the All Blacks Football Team which he founded in 1938 with Wesley Simms of La Perouse (Horner 1974, pg 135).
In 1946 Onus moved to Melbourne where he rejoined his parents and worked as a shipping clerk. He married Scotswoman Mary McLintock Kelly on 10 June 1947. Mary Kelly’s parents initially disapproved of the marriage. Nevertheless they built a house for the couple next door in Deepdene, a Melbourne suburb (Neale 2000, pg 13). Bill and Mary Onus’s only child, William McLintock Onus (known as Lin Onus) was born the following year. Bill Onus and Mary Kelly met at a Communist Party rally and in 1947 Mary Kelly was crowned Miss Communist Party. Such left wing associations created problems however: in 1952 a 'derogatory’ report received by the American Consulate prevented Bill Onus from traveling to America to participate in a boomerang throwing demonstration in a sportsman’s carnival at Los Angeles (Argus, 4 April 1952).
From the late 1940s onwards, Onus, together with his brother Eric and Doug Nicholls played a leading role in the Australian Aborigines’ League (AAL) formed in 1934. Both fine orators, Bill Onus and Nicholls traveled constantly, taking advantage of every available platform – public rallies, community meetings and the media – in the struggle to gain equality and justice for Aboriginal people. In the 1940s Nicholls and Onus organized support for campaigns such as the Pilbara strike in Western Australia and opposition to the Woomera rocket testing range in South Australia. A decade later Onus joined the protest against the British government’s atomic bomb program at Maralinga (Attwood 2003, p 102, 149). In 1949, as president of the AAL, Onus spoke at the Sydney Domain with Ferguson and Reg Saunders and he organized a deputation to H.V. Johnson, Minister for the Interior. Onus supported Ferguson’s political campaign as an Independent candidate for the House of Representatives seat of Lawson and at one stage he considered standing for federal parliament himself but, wary of party politics, he decided to withdraw. From 1947 onwards the AAL was involved in the fight to retain Lake Tyers Aboriginal Reserve in Victoria. In 1963 Bill and Eric Onus organized a march in Melbourne that coincided with the presentation of another petition to parliament. Subsequently they joined forces with Stan Davey to form the Save Lake Tyers Committee (Atwood 2003, pp 244-5). Such sustained political activism resulted in the first successful land rights claim in Victoria with the return of Lake Tyers to the traditional owners in 1971.
During the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s Aboriginal culture was increasingly mobilized as a form of political protest. Onus directly contributed to these developments: drawing upon a well-established tradition of Indigenous performance he engaged in new, more public expressions of Aboriginality. Onus perceived that the way to overcome institutionalized racism was to present to the public individuals such as the artist Albert Namatjira, actor Robert Tudawali and singer Harold Blair who had achieved success in their chosen fields (Kleinert 1999). Writing in the program for the Corroboree Season 1949 staged at Wirth’s Olympia, Melbourne, (the present site of the Victorian Arts Centre) he said:
“For many years we have endeavored to obtain full citizen rights for all aborigines throughout Australia but our pleas have been left unanswered.”
Events such as the Corroboree Seasons staged in 1948 and 1949 celebrated a dynamic and resilient Koorie culture as a fusion of Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultural forms including tribal dance, boomerang throwing and whip cracking, a gum leaf band, a choir, vocalists and comedians.
When, in February 1951, Doug Nicholls criticized the exclusion of Aboriginal people from the jubilee celebrations planned by State of Victoria, he proposed another 'Day of Mourning’ in protest. Shamed into submission, the committee allocated £2000 plus the services of non-Indigenous professionals: director Irene Mitchell of the Little Theatre (now St Martins), scriptwriter Jean Campbell, and set designer Dres Hardingham. An Aboriginal Moomba: 'Out of the Dark’ was produced in a matter of months and staged to great acclaim over five nights with one matinee from 23-27 June 1951 at Melbourne’s prestigious Princess Theatre (Kleinert 1994, 2006; Attwood 2003). Significantly An Aboriginal Moomba starred an all-Aboriginal cast with award wages funded by the AAL (MS10368 Irene Mitchell). An Aboriginal Moomba was distinctively Aboriginal; the set design reproduced a watercolour landscape by the famous Arrernte artist Albert Namatjira while the proscenium arch featured geometric designs based on the dendroglyphs (carved trees) unique to the southeast. The program celebrated the ancient and the modern within Indigenous culture. The first half, focused on The Past, relayed the myth of Toolaba, with Onus featuring as the tribal leader Wurrawilberoo. The second half of the program staged a contemporary cabaret with tenor Harold Blair and Torres Strait Islander Dulcie Pitt appearing under her stage name Georgia Lee. In the dramatic finale Onus sent boomerangs flying around the auditorium and swallowed fire. Lin Onus remembered An Aboriginal Moomba as “the most amazing shot in the arm” because it “was so extraordinarily positive and it really gave people something to be proud of” (Kleinert 1999, pg 348). Such was the impact of An Aboriginal Moomba that in 1955, the Melbourne City Council accepted Bill Onus’s proposal of the Aboriginal word 'Moomba’ meaning 'let’s get together and have fun’ as the name for Melbourne’s new Autumn Festival (Kleinert 1999, 2006). Debate continues to circulate however around the various meanings of the word (Fraser 2008).
Onus also contributed to social cohesion and cultural renewal through his skills and knowledge in the production and display of returning boomerangs. During the 1940s and 1950s Onus gained renown for his masterly displays of boomerang throwing at tourist sites such as Koala Park, Sydney; Station Pier and St Kilda Pier, Melbourne, and the Colin MacKenzie Sanctuary, Healesville. Working from his home at 33 Terry Street in the Melbourne suburb of Deepdene, Onus began to forge a new career as an entrepreneur with the sale of Aboriginal art. Although a severe road accident in 1952 left him an invalid for a year and unable to return to his former employment, the compensation he received enabled him establish Aboriginal Enterprises, a tourist outlet for Aboriginal art and souvenirs in Belgrave, Victoria, with branches at Port Augusta South Australia (1964) and Narbethong, Victoria (c.1965). Through his creative initiative Onus established a model for cultural maintenance fostering social cohesion and working to rebuild cultural pride in the Aboriginal community. Onus provided training and employment to a great many Aboriginal people including members of his extended family: Eric, manager of the Narbethong branch and his wife Winnie; sister Maude (Sissy) and several of her sons (James Onus and Joe, Bruce, Dennis and John McGuinness); his son Lin; his daughter Isobel and her son Warren (Woz) Owens. Singer and musician Margaret Tucker, who performed in weekend concerts, remembered Aboriginal Enterprises as “a rallying place for all of us Aborigines” (Tucker 1977, pg 179). Onus also employed non-Aboriginal staff such as designer Paula Kerry (later O’Dare) (1928-2008) whose screen printed textiles appear in curtains and furniture. Kerry also painted the boomerangs made from timber sourced from the nearby State forest and produced industrially in the workshop. Aboriginal Enterprises sold a wide variety of merchandise including bark paintings from Arnhem Land and locally produced artifacts, furniture, textiles and pottery featuring Aboriginal motifs. During the 1950s and 1960s Onus toured constantly in Victoria and interstate and to New Zealand performing at various venues: schools, agricultural shows, department stores and special events such as Scout Jamborees, Home Shows and the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Onus also supported the wider Aboriginal community: in the 1960s he helped Ella Simon establish the Gillawarra Gift Shop at Purflett, NSW (Simon 1987, pp 82-88, 103, 144-6, 154; Davis-Hurst 1996, p 85). Through his actions Onus succeeded in projecting a new and distinctive contemporary Aboriginal presence in south-eastern Australia.
Onus also saw the potential of media representations. During the 1930s and 1940s he played several minor parts in films such as Uncivilised (1936), Lovers and Luggers (1937) and The Overlanders (1946). In 1945 he performed in White Justice, based on the Pilbara strike in north-west Australia jointly produced by the Melbourne New Theatre and the AAL. During the 1950s and 1960s Onus pioneered the Indigenous use of 8mm home movies to document local tourists and visiting celebrities such as Jamaican calypso singer Harry Belafonte learning to throw a boomerang at Aboriginal Enterprises. In the 1960s Onus became a household name as narrator for the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s twelve part television children’s series Alcheringa (1961) aimed at reclaiming recognition for a Koorie cultural heritage (Few 1963, Kleinert 1994). Subsequently he co-starred with Doug Nicholls in Forgotten People, an AAL funded documentary film produced after the 1967 referendum which drew attention to the plight of Aboriginal people – many ex-Cummeragunja residents – living in the Murray-Goulburn Valley of Victoria. Such early forays into film and television may be seen to have contributed to Aboriginal advancement by giving publicity to the Aboriginal cause. Writing in The Age (2 July 1964) Onus said, “Without TV we would be a long way behind yet.”
In 1967 Onus became the first Aboriginal president of the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League and its representative on the Victorian Aboriginal Welfare Board. For over a decade Onus led the Victorian 'vote yes’ campaign in the Referendum of 1967. Sadly, one year after the Referendum, on 10 January 1968 Onus died at his home in Deepdene. Bill Onus provided a role model for engagement in the arts that is evident in following generations: Christine’s daughter Christine Onus (later Donnelly), founder and Executive Director of the Aboriginal Dance Theatre Redfern and her daughter Aiyisha, involved in the visual and performing arts; Isobel’s son Warren (Woz) Owens, an actor; Lin, who achieved recognition as an artist (Neale 2000); Lin’s children Kenneth and Biralee from his first marriage, and Tiriki from his second marriage, an artist and music student; and Bill’s nephew, writer, filmmaker and activist Bruce McGuinness.
Growing recognition for Bill Onus and his achievements is evident in recent exhibitions such as 'Making a show of it’ (2008) and 'Modern Times: the untold story of Modernism in Australia’ (2008), and in the collections of the National Museum of Australia, Australian Museum, Powerhouse Museum and South Australian Museum.