Important Australian Aboriginal Art
30 March 2022


(1948 - 1996)

synthetic polymer paint on linen (triptych)

20.0 x 60.0 cm (each)

signed lower right on bottom panel: Lin Onus

$25,000 – $35,000 (3)
Sold for $61,364 (inc. BP) in Auction 68 - 30 March 2022, Melbourne

Masterpiece Fine Art Gallery, Hobart
Private collection, Sydney, acquired from the above in 1989

Catalogue text

Of Yorta Yorta and Scottish descent, Lin Onus was a ‘self-confessed cultural mechanic’1 whose vision, genius and generosity of spirit changed forever perceptions of Aboriginal culture through his manifold roles as artist, educator, activist and administrator. Straddling such dualistic perspectives – one Western and representational, the other Aboriginal and spiritual – Onus was thus able to explore fresh ideas from a diverse range of influences, cleverly subverting Western perceptions of Indigenous art through a deceptively light-hearted dialogue punctuated with irony and wit. Indeed, akin to other urban-based Australian artists of Aboriginal and Torres Strait ancestry such as Gordon Bennett, Tracey Moffatt and Trevor Nickolls, Onus occupied what anthropologist Levi Strauss defines as that ‘in-between’ space between multiple worlds – afforded that rare opportunity ‘to glimpse through many slightly ajar doors’, yet paradoxically belonging everywhere, and nowhere. As Margo Neale elaborates in the catalogue accompanying the artist’s retrospective at Queensland Art Gallery in 2000, ‘…his works are like the tales of a roving storyteller or mythmaker.’2

Animating this mixed cultural perspective and expanding his consciousness to accommodate both Indigenous and non-Indigenous ‘ways of seeing’ was Onus’ reconnection to his father’s ancestral country and spiritual home – the Barmah Forest and its environs located on the Victorian banks of the Murray River, near Echuca – where his uncle Aaron Briggs, ‘the old man of the forest’ would illuminate the young artist about his Koori heritage and stories of the river.3 Such experience, together with the sixteen pilgrimages Onus undertook to Arnhem Land over the decade preceding his untimely death in 1996, served as an important ‘form of spiritual awakening’4 for Onus, liberating him from the struggle of working in a Western manner while trying to engage with his Indigenous background. Accordingly, he began to embrace a new visual language in which elements of his immaculately painted photorealist landscapes – typically the fauna such as frogs, lizards, stingrays or fish (as exemplified here) – were realistically rendered yet ‘indigenised’ by the over-layering of rarrk designs in aboriginal colours of ochre, black and gold. Symbolically, the inclusion of indigenised fauna within the landscape no doubt suggest a personal claim of custodianship or sense of belonging; as Onus, an initiated man, observed of the creatures that populate his paintings: ‘They’re part of me and I am part of them now.’5 More universally however, such hybrid images make powerful and resonant comment on the sense of displacement, dispossession, inequity and disorientation that has been the experience and history of Australian Indigenous people since colonialisation – thus inviting the viewer to not only consider the beauty and fragility of the natural world he celebrates, but the complexity of relationships to both country and one another.

1. Neale, M., Lin Onus, exhibition catalogue, Savill Galleries, Melbourne, 2003, p. 1
2. Neale, M., Urban Dingo: The Art of Lin Onus 1948 – 1996, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 2000, p. 18
3. ibid., p. 13 – 14
4. Lin Onus, quoted in Leslie, D., ‘Earth, spirit and belonging in Australian art’ in Spirit in the Land, McClelland Gallery + Sculpture Park, Langwarrin, 2010 – 2011, p. 19
5. Neale, 2000, op. cit., p. 14