Lin Onus (1948 – 1996)

Widely acknowledged as a pioneer of the Aboriginal art movement, the versatile and greatly innovative painter and sculptor, Lin Onus played a major role in leading the cause of Aboriginal advancement in Australia.

Born in the Aboriginal community of Cummeragunja in Victoria, 1948, Onus was the only child of a Yorta Yorta Aboriginal man and Scottish mother. His mixed ancestry was something Onus would later acknowledge and explore in his art.

Onus spent his childhood in the Melbourne suburb of Deepdene where he lived a cultural existence, being introduced to Western art and classical music and gaining a broad education on his Aboriginal heritage through frequent visits to Cummerangunja with his father. During these visits, Onus and his father would sit on the banks of the Murray River within view of the Barmah Forest. It came to be considered a spiritual home by the artist and later became the subject of many of his paintings and the place of his burial.

With politically active parents who were closely associated with the Communist Party, Onus received a sound political education and attended boxing classes at Sharman’s boxing troupe where he learnt to fight with his fists to deal with the racism he experienced at his middle-class Balwyn High School. Onus was eventually expelled from this school at the age of fourteen, terminating his school career and prompting his career as an artist.

Although he had aspirations to be a fireman, Onus’ application was rejected by the Country Fire Authority when the conservative racist Chairman discovered that Lin’s father was a well-known Koori activist. After finding a set of student paints in his father’s workshop, Lin Onus produced his first painting and sold it for $22 at the Sherbrooke Art Society Fair. As this sale encouraged him to continue with his art, Onus held his first solo exhibition in 1975 at the Aborigines Advancement League, an organisation established by his father and uncle Eric Onus.

Following the success of his first exhibition, over the next 21 years, Onus went on to hold another 17 solo exhibitions in Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney. Together with group shows, over the course of his 30 year career, Onus totalled some 80 exhibitions in Australian and international venues.

Lin Onus used his art to directly address the political and social concerns of Indigenous rights. In avoidance of alienating his audience with confronting, angry messages, he addressed these important Indigenous issues by effectively using wit, originality and panache. Consequently, this came to characterise his work, bringing it greater depth and impact as he raised questions about the place of Aboriginal art in Australian art and colonial history.

Being self-taught proved to be beneficial for Onus as it provided him with a certain freedom to create his art without following traditional rules and conventions. Ultimately it was this freedom which allowed Onus to be recognised as one of Australia’s greatest and most individual landscape and photorealist artists. His art greatly differed to that of his contemporaries because he challenged western art traditions and definitions. As the art of Lin Onus served to highlight the history of Aboriginal affairs in Australia and its cycle of definition, re-definition, possession and disposition, he also came to be recognised as a visual historian of the Aboriginal people.

In 1986, Onus was given a unique opportunity which profoundly impacted on his art. In his position at the Victorian representative of the Aboriginal Arts Board, Onus visited the Aboriginal community of Maningrida in Arnhem Land where he met traditional elders such as Jack Wunuwun, the man who later became Onus’s adoptive father and mentor. Over the next 16 years, Onus made 14 more visits to Maningrida and Garmedi where he became accustomed to the laws and language of this tribe.

As Onus’s relationship with Wunuwun provided the artist with particular stories and designs, effectively his visual repertoire was expanded and his visual language expanded in what resulted as a paradoxical juxtaposition of traditional and contemporary Aboriginal imagery and photorealist landscapes. Such works of Onus’s as Fruit Bats (1991) demonstrates this distinctive juxtaposition. As an installation showing 100 fibreglass fruit bats suspended on a hill’s hoist clothes line with bat droppings on small discs of flower design littered below, this work acts as a good example of Onus’s skills in sculpture. This became the medium that Onus could excel, as it worked as the best medium for Onus to apply both his manual and creative skills. It also acted as the best tool to communicate political comment on critical contemporary issues facing the Australian population. Although Onus became known for his unique artistic style, his influence in the Australian art world was further enforced in the many awards he received during his career and the prominent positions he held. In 1986, he was appointed a member of the Aboriginal Arts Board of which he became Chairman from 1989 to 1992. He won the Fifth National Aboriginal Art Award in 1988, and after being awarded the Kate Challis RAKA (Ruth Adeney Koori Award) in 1993, that same year, he was made a member of the Order of Australia on the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. In 1994, Onus was the winner of the National Indigenous Heritage Award as well as the People’s Choice Award. He was co-founder of the Aboriginal Arts Management Association in 1990 and founding member and Director of Viscopy in 1995.

Today Lin Onus is represented in over 50 major, public, private and corporate collections in which his work has toured both the national and international art scenes with great success.

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