Mickey of Ulladulla was an Aboriginal artist active in the ninetenth century on the south coast of NSW. Five of his paintings were included posthumously in the catalogue of exhibits in the NSW Courts at the Chicago Exposition in 1893.
Micky or Mickey of Ulladulla (1825-1891), also called Mickey Flynn, was an Aboriginal artist who used pencil and watercolour paints to create lively scenes crowded with Aboriginal people and their daily life, animals, plants, fish, boats and ships, in a naïve European style. Mickey found fame after his death when five of his works were exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in the United States of America in 1893. When he died on 13 October 1891, Mickey had been living for many years on the Aboriginal Reservation at Ulladulla and was said to be nearly 70 years of age. One year after his death a visitor described the lifestyle of Mickey’s Dhurga people there in the Sydney Morning Herald (12 April 1892):
“Some 40 or 50 blacks live here after the fashion of Europeans, having their houses and cooking utensils, and gardens. They live mostly by fishing.”
Mickey was born on the south coast of New South Wales, perhaps at Nelligen, a village nine kilometres along the Clyde River from Batemans Bay, some 50 kilometres south of Ulladulla.
Three pencil drawings in the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney are noted as ‘Drawn by “Mickie” an old crippled blackfellow of Nelligen, Clyde River, NSW 1875’. ‘One of these, Ceremony’, a corroboree scene, is attributed to ‘Old Micke”. These images were donated on 22 January 1935 by ‘Miss M. Olley’. It was tempting to think this could be the artist Margaret Olley (1923-2011), but she was only 12 years old at the time. The donor was most likely Miss Matilda Sophia Olley, daughter of the Reverend Jacob Olley, a Congregational minister for many years at Ulladulla, where she was born in 1873.
What little is known about Mickey’s life is well covered by Andrew Sayers in Aboriginal Artist of the nineteenth century, published in 1994 by Oxford University Press in association the National Gallery of Australia.
His art speaks for itself.
Five paintings by ‘“Mickey”, an Aboriginal of the Ulladulla Tribe, N. S. W.’ were included in the Catalogue of exhibits in the New South Wales Courts (Sydney 1893) at the Chicago Exposition. In his Book of the Fair (Chicago 1893), American author Herbert Howe Bancroft said they were ‘executed by a famous chief of the Ulladulla tribe, dealing principally with hunting and fishing scenes’. George Ilett of Milton, NSW, was awarded a bronze medal for exhibiting two of Mickey’s works described as ‘unique and valuable as a specimen of primitive art, being uninfluenced by the white man’.
Mickey of Ulladulla is represented in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia, the National Library of Australia and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), all in Canberra, the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney and the Clarence River Historical Society at Grafton, NSW. A few more are in private hands.
As Sayers points out, Mickey drew with pencil and watercolours on large sheets of paper, often in pairs, one usually depicting a corroboree and the other a fishing or boating scene. He was encouraged to paint by Mary Ann Gambell, wife of the lighthouse keeper at Ulladulla.
Mickey was lame and walked with the aid of two sticks. He puts himself into some of his pictures, always wearing a long coat and a hat. In one, ‘Old Mickey’ is written below his figure. A painting of the coastal steam ship Peterborough is captioned: ‘drawn by “Mickey”, an Australian Aboriginal. A cripple over 60 years of age. 1888’. In another work, Mickey is glimpsed near a rack of brooms, holding out a broom he has for sale.
A note written on the reverse of his painting ‘Ceremony’ reads: ‘Drawn by Old Micke the conductor of the corobbary before the Duke of Edinburgh’. More than 300 Aboriginal men, women and children, many from the south coast of New South Wales, assembled to stage a welcome corroborree at Clontarf in Sydney’s Middle Harbour for Queen Victoria’s second son, aged 23, who was touring the Australian colonies in the royal sloop Galatea. The men were provided with pipes, shirts and trousers and the women with blankets, in order, according to The Empire (11 March 1868) ‘to do honour to “the Queen’s picanniny” as they call the Prince, in befitting costume”.
Mickey’s corroboree, planned for 12 March 1868 never took place because Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, was shot and wounded by an Irish rebel named Henry James O’Farrell, who was later hanged at Darlinghurst Gaol. The figures of dancing men in Mickey’s picture, waving spears and boomerangs, wear trousers. The dancing women wear skirts, but the seated women are wrapped in blankets. See Mickey of Ulladulla, Ceremony, V / 93, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney at http://acms.sl.nsw.gov.au/item/itemLarge.aspx?itemID=430341
Like chapters in a visual autobiography, Mickey’s paintings illustrate the unique Aboriginal viewpoint. His subjects are the Indigenous people, plants and animals of Ulladulla’s saltwater environment. He celebrates their spiritual life: ritual revenge combats with spear and shield, and corroborees, in which painted stick figures act out stories and myths in song, music and dance. He pays attention to details of the rigging of ships’ sails and the species of snapper and other fish and sharks that he catches with his pencil and watercolours.
A constantly repeated motif in his corroboree drawings shows Mickey, supporting himself with his sticks, standing with the spectators at the ceremony, next to a song man beating out the rhythm with his clap sticks.
Through the legacy of his art Mickey of Ulladulla is still telling us stories.