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 years of age 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 artifacts in Melbourne. As a young Koori growing up, Lin lived in a cultural environment that included exposure to visiting Aboriginal artists, including Albert Namatjira. He began his artistic life assisting his father in decorating artifacts, went on to develop skills working with metal and painting with air brush as a panel beater; and by 1974 he was painting watercolors and photorealist landscapes. In the 1970’s 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 1980’s 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 Arhnem Land and 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 and given 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). A 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.
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