In 2006, less than a year before Paddy Bedford's death, he was given a retrospective exhibition at Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia's leading venue for cutting-edge contemporary art, where he had the opportunity to see most of his work assembled. During the same year Bedford was commissioned to provide a work for the exterior of the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. He also had a painting in a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Given his background and extraordinary life story, it is a testament to his exuberant talent that Bedford, who spent most of his years as a stockman herding cattle, ended his days as one of Australia's most accomplished and famous artists.
Bedford's life had been a difficult one, fraught with tense racial relationships, sorrow and deprivation, yet his life and art are intrinsically linked. Paddy, known as Nyunkuny or Goowoomji in his own Gija language, was born around 1922 at Old Bedford Downs station, southeast of Warmun (Turkey Creek) in the East Kimberley region of Western Australia. The name 'Bedford' was given by colonising pastoralists to this part of Gija country. A couple of years before Goowoomji's birth, there was a notorious and horrific incident at Bedford Downs station when a number of the local Gija people were poisoned with strychnine in retaliation for killing a bullock. These people were the relations of Goowoomji, who, when he came into the world, was branded by the white settlers with the name 'Paddy', after the infamous station manager at the time of the massacre, Paddy Quilty. All of this speaks volumes about the alienating conditions in which Aboriginal people lived in the region, known to the whites as the 'last frontier'.
As was the case with many Aboriginal people in remote areas across Australia, Bedford worked from a young age and for many years as a stockman on several cattle properties including Bow River and Bedford Down stations. Aboriginal labour at the time was paid for with tea, flour, tobacco and blankets. Bedford, however, did stand out from the crowd: he was renowned for his physical prowess. As a skilled spear and boomerang thrower, Bedford was often tested in fights because of his apparent ability to avoid every spear thrown at him, while his own aim was unerring.
He was also involved in traditional Gija law and ceremony, in which he became a senior practitioner. It would have meant that he practised painting for ceremonial purposes all of his adult life. In Aboriginal society, every man and woman undergoes a cycle of initiations and ceremonies. These ceremonies can best be described as total works of art, as they involve performance, dancing, singing, poetry, sculpture-making and painting on the body, the ground and objects. All these aspects, which in European society would be qualified as art, are aimed at keeping the Ngarranggarni alive.
The Ngarranggarni, or 'the Dreaming', is the parallel time-dimension in which plants, animals and landscape were created and in which the laws governing much human behaviour were instituted. This general participation in ceremonial life also entails that every man or woman, once they started their cycle of initiatory rites, carry a duty and a responsibility to make 'art'.
However, it was not until 1998, with the establishment of Jirrawun Arts, an Aboriginal arts venture, that Bedford began painting with modern materials. Bedford's first paintings were made on discarded scraps of plywood and other materials intended for disposal at the local dump. The artistic director of Jirrawun Arts, Tony Oliver, saw Bedford's potential as a painter and encouraged him to produce work on paper and on canvas. It did not take long before Bedford's work was sought after. With several solo exhibitions in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra, his work became critically acclaimed as outstanding.
The first 15 gouaches produced in 1998 are now part of the Jirrawun Suite, acquired by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney. In these works on paper, a great sense of experiment, innovation and potential to transcend the local prevails. These works are a fundamental part of Bedford's oeuvre and inform his paintings in a number of ways because they provided the artist with the possibility to experiment and push boundaries, often setting the way for his larger, physically powerful paintings on canvas. The combination of drawing and painting, and the mixture of gouache, crayon, pencil and pastel applied on white or black cardboard, allowed him to play freely with form, composition and colour. Easy anticipation is continually avoided in his refreshing compositions, in which elements constantly open and close new dimensions. The balanced compositions are the result of an instinctive search for harmony.
In these playful pictures, lines are often drawn in one extended, uninterrupted stretch. The use of the primary colours red, blue and yellow is in vivid contrast to much of his work in natural pigments, which reflects natural elements and speaks of a different kind of spirituality, one that is intrinsically connected to his homeland.
The subject matter of Bedford's paintings on canvas or board is drawn from the artist's two main and very different sources of knowledge and experience. Often stories of historical events, such as the massacre of Old Bedford Downs, intersect with the Ngarranggarni. Many paintings by Bedford refer in particular to the emu, bush turkey and cockatoo 'Dreamings' of his family and introduce visual variations on these stories.
His paintings reveal a symbiosis between bold, powerful forms and an elegance and harmony in composition. Some shapes are reminiscent of rocks and other amorphous features in the Kimberley landscape. These monumental forms generate a negative/positive effect, with this reversibility as a striking quality.
The paintings, which can be described as organic geometry, are as simple in their balanced compositions as they are complex in the stories they tell. While physical forms prevail in the paintings, a great poetic sensitivity resonates throughout the picture. This congruity of powerful physicality and great sensitivity, which in the Western world often connotes respectively the masculine and the feminine, is perhaps the essence of Bedford's imagery.
Although they are sober canvases, Bedford paints in surprisingly vivid brushstrokes, in which the roughness of the former stockman can be recognised. Pigments on the canvas emanate a shimmering quality which is accentuated by the brushstrokes. This luminosity or transparency in his application, which developed in later years, is a direct result of his use of the wet-on-wet technique, which requires a fast way of working. While this technique has been popular with many European artists throughout history, it was never widely spread amongst Indigenous Australian artists. Paddy Bedford not only experimented with this method, which was probably informed by the practise of painting with gouaches, but also put it to use to add depth of meaning and dynamism to his painted narratives. In Old Bedford Downs (2005), for instance, the wet-on-wet technique allows for several layers of interpretation. The red in the middle of the picture can be interpreted as the red sand, but also as a reference to the blood or the consuming fire of the massacre which occurred at that place.
Innovation and experimentation are fundamental to Paddy Bedford's practise as a contemporary artist. The appeal of his work to international audiences and contemporary art collectors worldwide rests in part on this sense of continuous innovation and a new exciting visual vocabulary that does not compromise Gija law and tradition and which resists comparison with modern Western art canons.
Georges Petitjean is curator at AAMU - Museum of contemporary Aboriginal art in Utrecht, Netherlands.
Sale: Works from the Estate of Paddy Bedford
Byron Kennedy Hall, Sydney
Monday 21 November at 7.30pm
Enquiries: Francesca Cavazzini or Greer Adams
+61 (0) 2 8412 2222