Michael and I are just
Lin Onus was an artist with deeply held socio-political views. More unusually among such artists, he also possessed humour and a technical expertise in his art. These later elements have sometimes made him unfashionable among those lacking those qualities.
Lin Onus was the son of an Aboriginal father and a Scottish mother and grew up in Melbourne.
By the time Lin Onus came to painting in his twenties, he had already worked in a large range of jobs which had given him a number of technical skills. These skills are often evident in his sculptures. He became proficient in a western realist style of painting that was far removed from traditional aboriginal art. However, as he studied traditional art he was able to meld the two styles in a way that is uniquely his own, and which helped establish an urban aboriginal art movement. Particularly important in his development was his visits to Garmedi (Arnhem Land) starting in 1986. Jack Wunuwun, the Yolngu artist, introduced him into the Murrungun-Djinang clan and gave him permission to use some of traditional images in his paintings. Lin's father had been of the Yorta Yorta people from the Barmah Forest country, and Lin also used images from this area in his paintings.
Some of Onus' early works directly convey the anger he felt at social injustice towards Aboriginal and other groups he saw as oppressed. However, while getting "in your face" and shouting at people may be cathartic for an artist, it rarely changes opinion. Altering attitudes requires a more subtle and mature form of communication. Humour has always been a great way to lower defences and make people more amenable to different ideas. Onus uses humour and whimsy in his later works to great effect - see for instance the title of the painting above.
Lin may have learned the enduring and undermining power of humour from his his father Bill. We believe (but have not been able to confirm) that when Bill (in his capacity of President of the Australian Aborigines League) was approached by the city fathers of Melbourne for a suitable token Aboriginal name for a new large community festival he suggested "Moomba" saying it meant "let's get together and have fun". That has remained the name of Australia's largest free community festival despite its real Aboriginal meaning being, in the politest terms, "bum". Both Bill and Lin must have had many a smile over the pompous whitefellas declaring open the Moomba Festival.
Lin Onus was awarded the Member of the Order of Australia (AM) In 1993. He died at the age of 47.
Fish, a characteristic work by Lin Onus, is currently hanging in the Ian Potter Centre (NGVA) in Melbourne. Flotilla, a school of characteristic stingrays and a dingo, created by a number of artists as a tribute to Lin Onus, can be seen at the entrance to the Melbourne Museum. There is currently a number of his paintings on display at the Melbourne Museum. There is also an Onus sculpture on display in the WA National Gallery in Perth.
The major book on Lin Onus is called Urban Dingo and can be purchased via the link below.
- Lin Onus - Bridge Between Cultures. A 1998 television film from SBS produced and directed by Mika Nishimura.
Related Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander resources:
Emily Kame Kngwarreye