Lin Onus played a pivotal role in the recognition of Aboriginal art as an expression of a contemporary and dynamic living culture. Prior to his premature death at just 47, he was a prominent, strident, yet non-confrontational agent in renegotiating the history of colonial and Aboriginal Australia. His father, Bill Onus, was the founder of the Aboriginal Advancement League in Victoria and a prominent maker of artefacts in Melbourne. Growing up as a young Koori man, Lin lived in a cultural environment that encouraged and facilitated exposure to visiting Aboriginal artists, including Albert Namatjira. Onus began his artistic life assisting his father in decorating artefacts, going on to develop skills working on metal and painting with airbrush as a panel beater; by 1974 he was painting watercolours and photorealist landscapes. In the 1970s he completed a set of paintings on the first Aboriginal guerilla fighter Mosquito, which holds pride of place on the walls of the Advancement League in Melbourne, to this day.
Onus, an eloquent speaker, rose to prominence from the early 1980s as an advocate for the Aboriginal arts movement and an important player in the development of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council. Although represented by Gabrielle Pizzi in Melbourne and Painter’s Gallery in Sydney, his career as an artist languished until in 1986, when he visited Maningrida in Arnhem Land. His outlook on both life and painting substantially shifted. During his stay at Gamerdi, an outstation from Maningrida, he was accepted as a son to renowned cultural custodians Jack Wunuwun and John Bullun Bulun who gave him permission to depict stories and use clan designs in his work that would enable him to develop the distinctive visual language that characterized much of his future work. His art practice from this period on has been described as a 'kind of post-modern Bowerbird Dreaming' (Nicholls 2001: 536) – unique synthesis of Western and Aboriginal systems of organizing space, vision and design. In many of these works, figurative elements are depicted in traditional form as they appear, often with deft subtlety, within a photorealist landscape. This led one critic to comment that in Onus’s work 'landscape art is no longer an unconscious carrier of myths of domination … (but) demands the artist deconstruct in some manner these approaches and display an awareness of history and ideology' (Radon 1997: 16). In these works Onus was imparting his knowledge that beyond the immediately apparent there is another dimension, a Dreaming reality that anyone can become aware of if only they open their eyes and their minds to its presence.
Onus’s installation Fruit Bats was exhibited in the Australian Perspecta 1991, consisting of a hills hoist carrying a multitude of fiberglass bats, painted with rarrk, a ceremonial Arhnem Land crosshatch design. In his many depictions Barmah Forrest, the flooded Eucalypts near his Yorta Yorta homeland at Cumerangunja, there are often cross hatched-fish beneath the water’s surface or in one work a jigsaw puzzle piece of the panoramic landscape misshapen, unable to fit, a comment on the irreperable damage to the Murray river ecosystem. Onus, a great communicator, was acutely aware of the desire amongst non-Aboriginal viewers to understand the meaning of the concept of the Dreaming.
He went beyond a post-colonial or postmodern self-awareness and in many works he challenged the Eurocentric view of history and in its place provided an alternative vision, an alternative history, stating 'some people write history, I can’t write so I paint' (cited in Isaacs 1989: 26). In Kapt’n Koori 1985 Onus created an Indigenous role model to rival Superman, for his son, Tiriki and in 1988 he painted discarded beer cans littering the cracked dry surface of an Aboriginal homeland. Distinguished academic and writer Christine Nicholls once described Onus’s humor as ‘a postmodernism without tears', referring to his unapologetic appropriation of both Western and Aboriginal iconography. Onus was acutely aware of the preoccupation of so-called ‘experts’ with legitimacy and played an important role in the unfolding public debate over authenticity in Aboriginal art. Having been criticised for mixing traditional and urban iconography inappropriately, he wrote in Language and Lasers a response noting that the issue of ‘appropriation’ rested on the premise that Aboriginal art is a traditional form that should remain static and fixed in time in order to remain pure. He pointed out how this notion was a double standard being imposed on Aboriginal artists, given that the development of Western art has been 'attended by an equal mixture of existing practices and influence' (1990: 14). It appears those least concerned about Onus’s appropriation were the Aboriginal community into which he was introduced who “were anxious to help me find my way. In time this led to my adoption within the Wunuwun family' (1990: 15).
Lin Onus’s manual skills and experimental zeal coupled with an intense desire to embrace different cultures manifested itself in his avid adoption of new materials and technology, such as fibre-glass, plastics, silicon, and humorously time saving devices such as rarrk making stamps and dotting machines. He was driven in his efforts to take Aboriginal art into the new century. Onus wanted to challenge the myth that in embracing new technologies Indigenous peoples would lose their culture pointing out, as just one example, that the four wheel drive has allowed more ceremonial activity to be conducted than ever before. Onus was vocal not only across the diverse mediums he employed in his art, but also in his role as the chairman of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council, a founding member of the artist’s copyright agency Viscopy, and an eloquent speaker enlisted by peak arts bodies to act as a spokesman at the National Press Club and other prestigious gatherings. Above all, he was an artist whose work made 'no distinction between the political and the beautiful’. His contribution changed forever the perceptions about the nature of Aboriginal Art. In the inadequate terminology of our times it 'put urban Aboriginal art, as it is popularly known, onto the cultural map in Australia' (Nicholls 2001: 536). His passing was commemorated with a retrospective exhibition Urban Dingo, which toured nationally.
At the time of his untimely death, at only 47, Lin Onus was preparing for his first exhibition with Australian Galleries after having severed his ties with Gabrielle Pizzi, who had previously represented him. Despite his prominence as an Aboriginal arts advocate, his career had languished during the early 1980s, until his inclusion in the landmark exhibition Aboriginal Art: The Continuing Tradition at the National Gallery of Australia in 1989, and A Myriad of Dreaming: Twentieth Century Aboriginal Art, in 1990. These were followed by important survey exhibitions at the Third Eye Centre, Glasgow in 1991; the Kunstammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Dusseldorf, the Hayward Gallery, London; and shortly thereafter the Louisiana Museum, in Denmark in 1994.
Very few of Lin Onus’s works had been offered for sale at auction at the time of his death 1996, when two lucky collectors purchased major paintings for just under $10,000. Fish at Malwyn 1994, measuring 200 x 200 cm and estimated at just $5,000-8,000 sold at Philips Auctions in Melbourne for $9,240 and in the same sale River Gum 1994 with the identical estimate and size sold for a paltry $7,700. It did not take long, however, for collectors to realise how hard it would be to obtain a large work by an artist whose reputation continued to grow as his paintings received exposure through high profile exhibitions and publications.
Since that time, a large number of his offerings have been serigraphs or small works on board or paper and these have adversely depressed his average price and therefore his overall market rating. Onus painted relatively few major canvases and a number of these are early photorealistic landscapes without the indigenised elements that characterise his mature paintings.
In what is a cautionary note to potential investors, until the sale of a spectacular nude, Robyn 1995, in 2013, all of his ten top prices had been for large works that consisted of cross-hatched fish or animals depicted in landscapes seen as reflections on the surface of floodwaters. Onus began painting these works in the late 1980s and refined them during the early 1990s. He produced a relatively small number of fully realised major works in this style before his death, many of which are in prominent public collections. These had originally been purchased from the galleries that represented him for around $15,000.
It is worth considering the trajectory of the increase in prices for these paintings since 1999, just three years after his death. In that year Barmah Forest measuring 182.5 x 182.5 cm and estimated at $24,000-28,000 sold at Christies Melbourne for $57,500 (Lot 180). This was surpassed a year later when Wanganella Wallung Goonyah 1993, a similarly sized work estimated at $55,000-65,000 achieved $58,125 at Deutscher~Menzies (Lot 82). After a relatively early small work, Frogs on Waterlillies 1985, sold for $71,000 at Sotheby’s in July 2003 (against an estimate of $35,000-50,000), it was inevitable that the two major works offered by Deutscher~Menzies just four months later would once more eclipse the artist’s record. Both measured 182.5 x 182.5 cm and both works Reflections, Barmah Forest 1996 (Lot 26) and Dawn at Barmah Forest 1996 (Lot 27) sold for $164,500 each.
The sale of Robyn 1995 for $414,800 in November 2013 displaced his previous record set in March 2006 when Water Lillies and Evening Reflections, Dingo Springs sold at Deutscher~Menzies for $396,000 (against an estimate of $200,000-250,000 (Lot 20)). In 2007 three more paintings entered the list of his ten highest results. These included Fish and Storm Clouds 1994 which featured on the cover of the Lawson~Menzies Sydney May Aboriginal Fine Art catalogue and exceeded its pre-sale estimate of $120,000-150,000 when sold for $288,000 (Lot 57); and an almost identical but smaller work created in the same year called24 Hours by the Billabong Late Afternoon 1994 that was flushed out by the success of the previous sale and achieved $192,000 at Lawson~Menzies in November (Lot 22).
Lin Onus painted a large body of work on illustration boards and produced a number of limited edition prints, principally serigraphs and linocuts while working with Shaike Snir and Jeff Makin at Port Jackson Press. The highest recorded painting on board is Gumbirri Garginingi,1996. Measuring 49.5 x 78 cm and carrying a presale estimate of $50,000-70,000, it sold in November 2013 at Lawson~Menzies for $67,500 (Lot No. 58). This replaced Michael and I are Just Slipping Down to the Pub for a Minute 1992 which sold for $42,650 at Sotheby's in July 2001 (Lot 141). The highest price paid for an original work on paper was established by Deutscher & Hackett in 2013 when Kiup Bulla Gookoop (Three Frogs) sold for $54,000. Onus created many limited edition prints and his record for one of these was established at Joel Fine At in October 2006 for Goonya Na Bilda 1994, which sold for $10,472. (Lot 139).
Overall Lin Onus’s large works increased in value from an average of just $8,470 in 1997, to $57,813 in the years between 1998 and 2000. They have subsequently risen to an average well above $300,000. Due to the large disparity between the value of his major works and smaller works on paper for which he was renowned, his averages each year fluctuate wildly. In years when major works have been offered and sold such as 2010, 2013, 2018 and 2019 he has been the 3rd, 3rd, 2nd and 3rd most successful artist of the years respectively. In 2009, only 28 minor works were offered. Just 10 sold for a clearance rate of 36% with an average price of $16,516. Yet in 2018, when Sotheby's sold two major airport commissions measuring 200 x 550 cm each for $793,000 amd $671,000 respectively he experienced his best year ever at public auction. Other highly successful years have been 2013 and 2015. In 2013, 14 of 15 works on offer sold with two works entering his top 10 results. 2015 eclipsed this result with fourteen works offered of which 11 sold for a total of $1,307,617. No less than four works entered his top ten including Frogs and Waterlillies which sold for $512,400. This was a truely amazing result: a game changer given the fact that the work measured only 91.2 x 121.5 cm. Sotheby's, and its vendor, would have been absolutely delighted. In 2017 this record was broken once again, with the 200 x 400 cm dyptych, Riddle of the Koi 1994, selling for $561,200 at Deutscher & Hackett (Lot 10). That year he was the third most successful artist of the movement, surpassed only by Emily Kngwarreye (whose record breaking work sold for over 2 million dollars) and Albert Namatjira. His success in 2018 however exceeded all before it with 13 of 16 works selling for a total just shy of $2 million. In 2019, Fish and Storm Clouds 1994 which had featured on the cover of the Lawson~Menzies Sydney May Aboriginal Fine Art catalogue in 2007 and sold for $288,000 (Lot 57) was offered once more at Menzies and sold for $515,454 representing a very tidy profit indeed.
Onus produced a large body of paintings that explored his interest in political portraiture and social commentary. Often tongue in cheek, but always with a biting edge, these works are yet to be tested on the market. Their appearance should be attended with a great deal of interest and continue to attract wealthy buyers. The appearance of a large nude in 2013 was a rare event though there are known to be others in the estate of the artist. Lin Onus lived a brief but eventful life, during which he forged his way into the forefront of Aboriginal art politics. His unique status as a ‘boundary rider’ was seen in both his ability as a spokesperson for his people and as a practicing artist. In both arenas he was able to bridge worlds in an approachable and alluring manner. His paintings and prints have an enduring appeal and represent an opportunity for art lovers to own works of great beauty. It would seem that the sky is the limit when it comes to his prices. Given the rarity of his major works it is only a matter of time before one sells for more than $1 million. They are that hot.