Also known as
Graham Swag Taylor,
Perth-based Noongar artist often known as 'Swag'. His paintings recall childhood experiences and depict landscapes from the southwest of Western Australia, a region with which he feels connected. He was a finalist in the 25th Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Art Awards in 2008. Largely self-taught. Some guidance from fellow Noongar artists.
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Noongar artist Graham (Swag) Taylor was born in 1955 in Merredin, which is in the wheatbelt region of south Western Australia. He signs his paintings with the name Swag, and this is the name used by those who own or are familiar with his work. Swag is a member of the Baladong people of the southwest, and also has family connections with the Pilbara region.
As a child he lived on the Jureen Rock Reserve (just to the northeast of the town of Kellerberrin), which at that time consisted simply of humpies and an ablution block. When he was thirteen years old, Swag was taken away from the reserve and placed in Roelands Mission, where he remained for two years. His early teenage years were spent in the region around Kellerberrin. In a conversation with the author (2009), Swag spoke of being an enthusiastic drawer at school and of being inspired by the Western Arrernte artist Albert Namatjira while he was at high school. He sold his first oil painting in his teens when he was living with his auntie in Merredin. They had no money for food, and having found some oil paint in a rubbish tip, Swag made a painting which he sold to a local publican for $30 – a large amount of money in those days.
At the age of seventeen, Swag spent four and a half months in Fremantle Prison for having committed a minor theft to get food. Amongst the older generation of inmates at that time were Revel Cooper, Goldie Kelly and Lewis Jetta, all of whom were accomplished Noongar artists who painted regularly during their time in prison, and often taught painting techniques to younger inmates. Cooper and Kelly were among the renowned Carrolup children artists who, under the guidance of teachers Noel and Lily White, created landscapes of the country around the settlement that were widely exhibited in Australia and overseas during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Swag recalls watching and learning from the older painters during his brief time at Fremantle Prison, and they and the Carrolup 'school’ style have been an ongoing source of inspiration for him.
Other artists who have influenced Swag are Lance Chadd and Shane Pickett. It was Geoffrey Narkle (half-brother of Goldie Kelly) who encouraged him to pursue art seriously in 1984, after visiting Swag’s home in Katanning and seeing the murals he had painted on his walls. Narkle and Swag would go on to become very close friends. Swag’s art practice was nurtured further when he and his wife worked at the Marribank Family Centre (the site of the old Carrolup mission), which in the late 1980s housed a thriving art cooperative. Swag created paintings and ceramics while at Marribank, and continued to exhibit and sell work when he moved to Perth in 1987.
Swag paints portraits, landscapes, native animals, and scenes that recollect his childhood experiences, both those from his happy days as a child in the bush and those associated with his harrowing time in the mission. He works with a range of media, including acrylic, oil and enamel paints. He has also created paintings on paperbark. In 2008 Swag’s mother discovered a paperbark work from 1987 in a secondhand shop in Bunbury. She bought it because it was similar in style to her son’s work, but only realised later when she showed it to Swag’s brother that it had in fact been painted by Swag.
With respect to the depiction of Noongar country, Swag related to the author that it is important to “paint it as you see it”. This aesthetic philosophy reflects both the legacy of the Carrolup school and the influence of Albert Namatjira’s watercolour works.
A defining moment in Swag’s life came in 1983 when he toured Australia with a gospel group for three and a half months. The tour involved visiting regional Aboriginal communities across the nation and Swag was inspired by the diversity of landscapes and the richness of the colours he saw on his travels. He was exposed to a variety of Aboriginal art forms during the tour, but was most strongly attracted to the Namatjira school paintings he saw in an Alice Springs gallery. He identified with their naturalistic style because it is a form of painting founded in “visualising where we want to be in country” (Taylor Pers. Comm. 2009).
In 2007 Swag participated in the exhibition 'saltwaterfreshwater’ at the Central TAFE Art Gallery in Perth. One of his works included in the show was Tijnang Koomba Kep (Look Big Water), which imagines how Bunbury may have looked prior to settlement. In an artist’s statement for the exhibition, Swag writes: “I was sent to Roelands Mission, as a child I used to walk to the top of the hills and look towards Bunbury, the place where my Great Grandmother was born.”
In his Artlink review of the show, McLean writes of the work: “Painted in the magic realist style of Nyoongar [Noongar] landscape painting, it has a melancholy mood as if the artist’s memories of good times are soured by the crushing loss of what has happened since” (2007).
The painting Mission Boy (2008), in which a small boy stands in a bare room looking up to a window high above his head, is a memorial to the trauma and longing Swag experienced at Roelands Mission. In conversation with the author (2009), Swag described the moment that is being recalled in this work: he and two other children had run away from the mission, walking approximately 80 kilometres northeast to Darkan, and then hitchhiking on the road to Williams before being picked up and taken to a police station. Upon being returned to Roelands Mission, Swag was given a hiding and left for many hours alone in a large gymnasium with bare walls and high windows. Swag recalls the sense of desolation he felt in that room, and his painting shows the dirty marks left on the wall by his bare feet as he tried to climb up to look out the window at the other children playing in the yard. He has a strong memory of fearing further trouble when his dirty feet marks were discovered. This work was shortlisted for the 25th Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (2008) and included in the exhibition 'The Legacy of Koorah Coolingah’ (2009) at the Brisbane Powerhouse, an exhibition that juxtaposed historical works made by the Carrolup artists from the collection of the Berndt Museum of Anthropology with the works of contemporary Noongar artists who are affiliated with Mungart Boodja Art Centre and feel strongly connected with the Carrolup legacy.
After creating Mission Boy, Swag produced several paintings based around the story Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence written by Doris Pilkington Garimara (1996) and subsequently made into a film. The story narrates the escape by three Noongar girls from Moore River Native Settlement. Swag identifies strongly with the girls’ experiences. In 2008 these paintings were exhibited at the Aboriginal art exhibition which is staged annually during the Tom Hoad Cup (an international water polo competition) at the Melville Water Polo Club in Bicton, Western Australia. This exhibition series was initiated by Larry Foley, a dedicted supporter and collector of Noongar art who owns a number of Swag’s works.
Other exhibitions in which Swag has participated include 'Noongar Boodja: Contemporary Aboriginal Art, Ecology and Culture’ (2008), in which he exhibited alongside Athol Farmer and Troy Bennell at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art in New York, and 'Noongar Koort Boodja – Noongar Heart Land’ (2009) at the University Club of Western Australia. In 2008 he won the Worsley Alumina Indigenous Art Acquisition Award, which saw his work enter the City of Bunbury Art Collection. Alongside his art practice, Swag has worked for many years in the mining and civil works sector as a machine operator. He has been heavily involved in AFL football, coaching football clubs and supporting younger generations of his family in establishing their sporting careers. In 2009 he was living in Perth with his family.