Foreword, Reflection and Bidyadanga


The Laverty Collection
exhibition, Museum
of Contemporary
Art Australia (MCA),
Sydney 1998

There is a mystique about the big-time art collector. It’s similar to being a successful punter or a wizard on the stock market. The collector is seen as someone who can pick a winner, perhaps by taking risks that others would never consider. There will be works bought for a small sum that are now worth a fortune, pieces acquired from unknown artists who go on to be superstars.

This is the rather glamorous image that many have entertained of Liz and Colin Laverty. The truth is more mundane, and much better. Over the years I’ve been in the habit of referring to the Lavertys when anyone asked me questions about ‘investing in art’, if only to show that art cannot be treated in same business-like manner as stocks or real estate. The Lavertys may have put together a valuable collection but they never thought of it as an ‘investment’ or allowed their taste to be influenced by financial considerations other than simple affordability. When the urge was strong there would be ways to overcome that obstacle, such as payment by installments.

The Lavertys only ever bought a work of art if they truly loved it, although there were various degrees of attraction. Some pieces represent grand passions, others mild flirtations. A secondary consideration was to help out an artist or group of artists, either through direct payment or by bringing their work to wider attention. The Lavertys were always among the first to take an interest in new developments and emerging areas. With more than one region they were pioneers.

Col’s first interest was in colonial art, chiefly paintings of racehorses and livestock. He accumulated an important collection of these works, researched the topic and published two books. When he became interested in contemporary art he took up the subject with the same passion. When I met the Lavertys in the mid-1980s their house was packed with paintings by artists such as Peter Booth, Ildiko Kovacs, Richard Larter, Allen Mitelman, William Robinson, Aida Tomescu, Tony Tuckson, and Ken Whisson. When Col and Liz committed to an artist they would follow them from show to show, buying multiple works. Their tastes were slightly different, so every purchase involved discussion and debate. While their acquisitions may have seemed compulsive, they were never arbitrary or ill-considered.

There were many collectors with greater resources than the Lavertys but with none of their hunger for discovery. From the moment Liz and Col became aware of indigenous art at the Brisbane Expo of 1988, they pursued it with extraordinary energy and initiative. In typical fashion Col researched the subject exhaustively and sought to build an understanding of contemporary Aboriginal art and life. He came to the conclusion that indigenous art should not be treated as a separate category within Australian art, but as a natural part of the contemporary scene. This was necessary to break down barriers of prejudice, and to ensure that the artists got a fair deal for their work. He also devoted much thought to the perennial problems of an industry riven by competition, cronyism and forms of petty profiteering.

Col brought the same attitude to bear in his collecting as in his activities as a doctor and scientist. He wanted to find out how things worked, and how to make them work better. He built up an impressive database, and laid plans for donating artworks to public institutions. This auction is a way for Liz to scale down a collection that has grown to mammoth proportions, and to put money into family matters.

The lesson of the Laverty collection is that the secret of successful investing in art is to invest in one’s own taste, and to love what you’re doing. No great collection has ever been acquired by means of a strategy. The planning comes along when a critical mass has been reached and it’s time to think of the future. When collecting has been such a pleasure, letting go is hard. The consoling thought is that all collectors are only custodians who take temporary charge of a cultural heritage that belongs to the artists and the world.



Liz and Colin
at home

Even before Colin and I met in 1981, art permeated both of our lives. I had grown up in a home that housed traditional paintings and my love of Melbourne artists, particularly of the 1940s and 50s, stemmed from weekends visiting local galleries and Museums. Colin’s love of early sporting painters had culminated in the publishing of two books including Australian Colonial sporting painters: Frederick Woodhouse and sons, in the year before we met. His passion for Australian abstraction had seen him acquiring works by Tony Tuckson, Michael Taylor and Peter Booth from his time as a University student onwards. Following our marriage in 1982, our weekends were filled with the regular and exciting trek through Sydney Galleries, haunting Watters, Coventry and Yuill / Crowley galleries amongst others, while Saturday lunches at the Ray Hughes Gallery became a regular occurrence from the late 1980s. On our frequent Melbourne visits, we were to be found at Niagara, Christine Abrahams, Pinacotheca and Charles Nodrum Galleries. By the late 1980s we were fortunate to have become good friends of many artists and patrons of Ildiko Kovacs, Richard Larter, Allen Mitelman, William Robinson, Aida Tomescu, and Ken Whisson. It was the World Expo in Brisbane in 1988 that turned our collecting on its head. It was there that we were immediately captivated by a group of large Papunya Tula paintings on display. Upon returning to Sydney, Colin set about gaining knowledge on this exciting new discovery by extensively researching catalogues and books on Aboriginal art.

Soon after, we met Christopher Hodges and Helen Eager of Utopia Art Sydney. Visiting them most weekends, our knowledge began to grow. We made our first trip to Alice Springs in autumn 1991 where Christopher and Helen introduced us to the Araluen Centre, Papunya Tula artists, Gallery Gondwana. It was also on this trip that we and we first met Rodney Gooch at the CAAMA shop, Chris and Helen also arranged for us to visit rock art and other sites rarely seen by most visitors. Around this time we also met Gabrielle Pizzi in Melbourne for the first time and we became frequent visitors to her gallery over the following decade.

Whilst holidaying in Broome in 1995, we met Helen Read, a remote area nurse and pilot. We accompanied Helen on a flight to Fitzroy Crossing where we cruised on the Fitzroy River with Aboriginal guides, followed by a visit to Mangkaja Arts. It was here that we met Butcher Cherel for the first time. Later, in Broome, we viewed Helen’s small but beautiful collection of paintings by Aboriginal artists and I remember being particularly entranced by a Eubena Nampitjin painting.

Helen ran a business flying collectors, academics and anyone with an interest in Aboriginal art to isolated and far flung communities where they could visit the art centres and meet with artists. We joined many of these trips and whilst flying between communities in small planes we were able to look down at the extraordinary geological formations and see the ever changing colours of the land that is so important to the woks of local indigenous artists. These trips were wonderful, sometimes we spent several nights in one community. Balgo was of particular interest and on many occasions we stayed for days at a time. This allowed us to establish friendships with many of the senior artists in Balgo, with a particular affinity with Eubena Nampitjin and Tjumpo Tjapanangka. The people at Balgo were so generous and although we didn’t understand their language, we were able to communicate and learn about the culture by listening to the artists singing their stories and describing their paintings. We were very fortunate to have had the same wonderful experiences at Maningrida with John Mawurndjul, at Kununurra with Paddy Bedford and with Daniel Walbidi and Alma Webou at Bidyadanga.

More recently, our explorations in non-indigenous art have seen us develop long-lasting relationships with contemporary galleries – in particular the Darren Knight and the artists he represents. As regular visitors to Darren’s gallery over many years we have been fortunate to nurture strong friendships with artists such as Noel McKenna, James Morrison, Ricky Swallow and Louise Weaver.

When we started collecting art over thirty years ago, little did we realise what a profound effect it was to have on our lives. The adventures we shared, the places we visited, the insights we were granted into indigenous culture together with the generosity and friendship of the people we met has been breathtaking. The enduring legacy of our collecting has been the friendships we forged with artists, curators and gallerists. These friendships, some lasting over three decades, have made the entire experience one of great enjoyment and enlightenment.


The small coastal Aboriginal community of Bidyadanga, 180 kilometres south of Broome surfaced as a hive of artistic innovation and production in the early years of the new millennium. It is home to the Karrajarri, the traditional owners of this saltwater country and Yulparija people, who arrived in the decade between 1964 and 1974, exiled from their traditional country in The Great Sandy Desert, hundreds of kilometers to the south east.

The inhabitants of this country, the Yulparija and the Martu were forced from their desert homelands, where they had lived essentially as their ancestors had done for the past 20,000 years, by a persistent drought that began in the early 1960s and changed the landscape of their country. The Percival Lakes began to dry up and the water system that fed the jila (springs), rock pools and soaks disappeared. The land had been robbed of its natural resources and most importantly water, caused not only by genuine drought, but also as a result of colonial activities such as mining explorations and the expansion of grazing enterprises that had spread across Western Australia.

The children of the newly arrived Yulparija would be raised according to saltwater life, fishing and hunting turtle and dugong. Furthermore, they would attend schools established by the Catholic mission and would learn the ways of the white man. Daniel Walbidi was one such child. Well educated, he realised as he progressed through school that his interest in art was very strong. Painting became a way for him to return to his desert heritage and learn the stories of his people. With a great respect for his culture, he saw that song, dance and painting were the means by which he would be able to keep the culture of his people alive.

In 1999, Walbidi, then a young man, entered the Short Street Gallery in Broome and shyly declared that he would like to become an artist. He then placed four small paintings on the desk, works that showed extraordinary potential. With the encouragement of Sister Pat Sealey, a Josephite nun at Bidyadanga, Short Street Gallery in Broome presented a generation of elders with an opportunity to work with modern art materials for the first time. Using acrylics on paper and canvas, the Yulparija produced work of an extraordinary style, thus beginning the Bidyadanga art movement.

Their work combines their desert heritage with their saltwater experience: desert iconography is portrayed in the rich blues, greens and reds of the coastal landscape. However, their work is not restricted to landscape. They have also painted stories of their first encounters with ‘whitefellas’ and of the helicopters that they saw fly overhead during their years in the desert.

The work of the Yulparija people is truly contemporary art but based on the people’s experience of traditional existence as native Australians. Critical to their work are their memories of journeys taken throughout their country, travelling on foot from jila to jila; their story is one of survival in a harsh desert landscape. It is a story of unity and the importance of working together for the collective good of the community. Additionally, it is a story of time and of creation as the artists focus on sites specific to significant mythological stories. Through their work, they are able to transgress the boundaries of the ‘real’ and take their work to a philosophical and a metaphysical level.

Like Weaver Jack and Jan Billycan, fellow Bidyadanga artist Alma Webou (1928 – 2009) was forced to migrate to the coastal town of Bidyadanga. However, despite their similar lifetime experiences and circumstances, her densely dotted work is the antithesis of Jan Billycan’s gestural strokes. Webou’s subject matter was always Pinkalakara, the place where she was born and where she spent her early life. Located close to Joanna Spring near the Canning Stock Route, Alma refused to reveal much about this place and consequently her work, usually an aerial perspective of her country, has been viewed very much in a contemporary framework of her mark making and explorations in colour and density.

It is impossible to know any of the Bidyadanga artists and not be moved. With extraordinary simplicity, they challenge our perception of how the desert landscape looks. The land has an importance to them that has no white equivalent. Additionally, the work brings to light complex issues relating to the impact of white settlement on the lives of Indigenous Australians. Like a handful of artists before them, the Bidyadanga painters contribute to discourse on the metaphysical nature of existence.