The award-winning artist Lin Onus (b.1948 d.1996) was self taught. He was the Victorian representative of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council in 1986 and co-founder of the Aboriginal Arts Management Association in 1990.
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Born on 4 December 1948, Lin Onus is widely acknowledged as a pioneer of the Aboriginal art movement in 'urban’ Australia and as a man ahead of his time. He was the only child of Bill Onus, a Yorta Yorta man from the Aboriginal community of Cummeragunja in Victoria, near the town of Echuca, and a Scottish mother, Mary McLintock Kelly, whose family was from Glasgow.
His political education was partly the consequence of living with parents who were politically active on a number of fronts, including a close association with the Australian Communist Party: they first met at a rally, and his mother was crowned Miss Communist Party 1947. It was from them that Lin gained his strong social conscience and the determination to fight for the rights of the underdog and the oppressed, which can be seen in many of his later works. He was also an incisive commentator on rights through his active involvement with organisations such as the Aborigines Advancement League in Melbourne and the Aboriginal Arts Board in the 1980s with a strong undercurrent of land rights activism since the 1970s. He also exhibited a passion for teaching – from conducting the first Aboriginal cartoon workshop in Melbourne in 1988 to lecturing on Aboriginal kinship systems in Japan the following year.
His cultural education on his Aboriginal side was provided by visits to Cummerangunja with his father, and stories told by his uncle Aaron Briggs, who gave him his Koori name – Burrinja, meaning 'star’. They would sit on the banks of the Murray River within the view of the Barmah Forest, Onus’s spiritual home and the subject of many of his paintings and also his final resting place.
Another training ground of profound cultural significance was his father Bill Onus’s 'Aboriginal Enterprises’ shop in the Dandenong’s, Victoria – a pioneering venture by an ex-mission man established 15 years before Aboriginal people gained voting rights. This shop produced tourist trade artefacts and was a model of economic independence and cultural maintenance that provided the young Onus with a grounding in many of the critical issues such as Indigenous copyright, appropriation and equality that would increasingly occupy his art and life.
After being expelled at the age of 14 from Balwyn High School in Melbourne, Onus applied to be a fireman with the Victorian Country Fire Authority but this application was rejected reputedly because of his father’s high political profile.
Onus discovered a set of watercolour paints left at his father’s Aboriginal Enterprises shop, and with these, created his first painting. The sale of this painting in 1974 encouraged him to continue and the following year, 1975, he mounted his first exhibition at the Aborigines Advancement League in Melbourne. This organisation, initially established by his father, his uncle Eric Onus and others, was a symbolically significant site for the young Onus, foreshadowing the powerful link between his art and the political and cultural milieu that was to become a distinguishing characteristic of his career. He had another 17 solo exhibitions, which together with group shows, totalled some 80 exhibitions in Australian and international venues.
Onus was the recipient of many awards and appointments of note. These included the Introduced Media Section in the Fifth National Aboriginal Art Award, Darwin, 1988; the Kate Challis RAKA (Ruth Adeney Koori Award), Melbourne, 1993; he was made a member of the Order of Australia on the Queen’s Birthday Honours List that same year. In 1994 Onus was overall winner and the winner of the People’s Choice Award of the National Indigenous Heritage Art Award, Canberra. Appointed a member of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council in 1986, Onus became chairman of the Board from 1989 to 1992, was co-founder of the Aboriginal Arts Management Association in 1990 (later known as NIAAA) and was a founding member and Director of Viscopy in 1995.
Onus was a self-taught artist and it was this trait that afforded him, according to his primary agent, Gabrielle Pizzi, in a 1998 interview with the author, “a wonderful freedom” to develop into one of Australia’s best known and most individual landscape and photorealist artists. It also enabled him to study a diversity of artists, from cultures, times and places best suited to his purposes.
It was as the Victorian representative of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council in 1986 that Onus had the opportunity to visit Maningrida in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, and to meet traditional elders such as Jack Wunuwun, who became his adoptive father and mentor. He was given stories and designs that expanded his visual repertoire and enabled him to develop a distinctive visual language from a combination of traditional and contemporary Aboriginal imagery and photorealist landscapes.
According to academic and curator Ted Gott (Urban Dingo, p.18), it was Onus’s ability to “unsettle the natural or established order of things, to subvert conventional expectations” that made him such an extraordinary artist. Gott sees Onus at his most “wicked” in the pivotal work Fruit Bats 1991, which by popular demand have been on display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales since they were acquired. This installation is of carved fruit bats striped with rarrk, suspended on a backyard Hills Hoist clothesline. Littered below are the bat droppings on small discs of flower designs, referencing the Flying Fox Dreaming to which Onus was permitted access.
From that initial 1986 Arnhem Land visit Onus managed 14 more trips in the following 16 years to Maningrida and Garmedi where he was further inducted into the laws, customs and language of his Arnhem Land affiliates.
From 1988 Onus discovered that sculpture was the medium through which he could best combine his wide range of manual skills from previous occupations as a panel beater, motor mechanic and carver, as well as provide the interaction with his viewers that he desired. It also became his most effective tool for incisive political comment on contemporary issues such as Aboriginal deaths in custody, oppressive Indigenous policies, the 1950s atomic tests and injustices perpetrated against the East Timorese by Indonesia.
Onus was a “cultural terrorist” of gentle irreverence who brought differences together by exploring what it means to be Australian.
Onus died prematurely in Melbourne on the 24th October, 1996 not living long enough to see the mounting of a retrospective of his art, Urban Dingo, curated by Margo Neale, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney from August to October 2000, which then toured to Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane November 2000 to March 2001 and the Melbourne Museum in Melbourne from April to July 2001.