Bronwyn Bancroft

Bundjalung woman Dr Bronwyn Bancroft is an artist, activist, mentor, and writer. For three decades Bancroft has exhibited nationally and internationally. She has been a key player in the development of several cultural organisations including the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative. In the 1990s she was a Council Member of the National Gallery of Australia. Her work in children’s literature received the prestigious Dromkeen Medal in 2009.

Bundjalung Country, known as the land of the three rivers, is located across northern New South Wales and southern Queensland, with the boundaries being roughly created by the Clarence River, the Great Dividing Range, and the Pacific Ocean. Perhaps non-Indigenous Australians would be more familiar with Bundjalung Country when they realised that towns such as Coffs Harbour, Tweed Heads and inland Lismore and Grafton are all located within its borders. 

Bronwyn Bancroft is a senior Bundjalung artist, activist, storyteller, and writer, and this is her Country. Born and raised in the small town of Tenterfield, Bancroft is the daughter of Bill Bancroft, a Bundjalung man of Aboriginal and English heritage, and Dorothy Moss, a European of Scottish and Polish descent.

At high school Bancroft experienced some troubled years, but with much encouragement and support from her father she graduated from Tenterfield High School. The hard work in her final years paid off as in 1976 she was presented with the enviable choice between a place at the Australian National University (ANU) or the newly established Canberra School of Art (now ironically part of the ANU). Choosing the art school over university proved to be a watershed moment in Bancroft’s life as it was there that she discovered European modernism and in particular the work of the US painter Georgia O’Keefe, the Australian painter and photographer Hal Missingham (a former director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales) and several key Indigenous artists, such as Bede Tungutalum (Tiwi Islands).

At the time there was almost no understanding or interest in the work of Indigenous artists beyond a few specialist collectors, curators and anthropologists. In fact, the only Aboriginal artist that was familiar to most non-Indigenous Australians was Albert Namatjira (1902–1959) from the Central Desert Region of the Northern Territory. Perhaps his popularity with the wider Australian public was due in part to his depiction of the Australian landscape through a European lens, which softened and romanticised the bush. Recently, because of the work of Aboriginal curators and scholars, such as Bundjalung man Djon Mundine, there has been a new appreciation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, now understood as part of the unfolding history of contemporary art rather than simply being ethnographic objects. Even in art schools, where many of the artist-lecturers had been students during the heady days of the anti-Vietnam protests and the civil rights movement, there had been little interest in Aboriginal art. Certainly, there were no Indigenous lecturers or courses about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists or the broader issues of colonisation. This goes some way to explain why Bancroft was heavily criticised by a lecturer for painting images of turtles and other representations of cultural importance to Aboriginal people. Depending on the lecturer, there was a preoccupation with exploring the freewheeling aesthetics of second-wave expressionism and of postmodernism and appropriation, which at the time were in vogue in most Australian art schools. 

After completing her degree in Canberra, Bancroft moved to Sydney, which proved to be a challenging experience both personally and financially, but it did allow her to develop connections with the Aboriginal activists Gary Foley (also an alumnus of Tenterfield High School) and Uncle Chicka Dixon and other emerging artists, such as the late Michael Riley, Tracey Moffatt and Fiona Foley. This was the beginning of the establishment of an important network for Bancroft. 

In 1985, with a baby to support, Bancroft decided to open a shop, Designer Aboriginals, in the Sydney suburb of Rozelle. The shop sold clothing that she and collaborator Joanne Chappell designed and made, under the label Magarra. International success beckoned in 1987, when Bancroft, Euphemia Bostock and Mini Heath were invited by the Aboriginal Medical Service to present their fashion designs in the Australis Down Under show at Au Printemps, one of Paris’s most elegant department stores. The fashion show included Bancroft’s The Cycle of Life, 1987, a hand-painted opera cape, and a serpent evening dress in pink lycra fabric. The show was a critical success; however, personal issues and ongoing financial debt incurred from the Paris show eventually led, three years later, to the closure of Designer Aboriginals. 

While the closure of the shop was unfortunate, after the years of hard work, in some ways it liberated Bancroft to pursue other possibilities in the art world. As is the case with many initiatives, the idea of a gallery to support and exhibit artists from various Aboriginal groups, who at the time were largely ignored by museums and commercial galleries, was hatched in people’s homes. These early meetings were organised by the filmmaker and photographer Michael Riley, whose vision and commitment was responsible for the establishment of the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative, along with the group that became known as the Boomalli Ten. The group included Bancroft, Fiona Foley, Jeffrey Samuels, Euphemia Bostock, Fernanda Martins, the late Arone Meeks, Brenda L. Croft, Avril Quaill and Tracey Moffatt. According to Bancroft, Riley’s “dream was for an autonomous and completely independent group to confront and educate people about issues that are important to individuals and more widely about Aboriginal Nations’ sovereignty.” Boomalli, which means to “make a mark” or “to strike” in Bundjalung, was established with the assistance of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council for the Arts. With help from the Board, Boomalli opened in its original location, an old factory in the Sydney suburb of Chippendale. After a minimal renovation the gallery opened to much fanfare in 1987 with an exhibition of the Boomalli Ten, called Boomalli Au Go Go. 

Bancroft decided to step aside in 1993 as she felt that Boomalli had moved away from Riley’s vision of a cooperative, which was the “closest model to a grassroots Aboriginal community.” Over the next decade or so Boomalli had its successes and failures, and even the occasional scandal, lurching from one location to another, but it continued to survive. In 2009, Bancroft was approached by Jake Soewardie, who was the chair of Boomalli, to assist with the looming financial crisis created by an outstanding debt to the Australia Taxation Office and issues over the ownership of the Flood Street building in Leichhardt, now the gallery’s permanent home. Bancroft, working with the Board, a team of volunteers, and pro bono lawyers from Allens law firm, led eventually to Boomalli being placed on a firm financial footing and the transfer of the building’s title deeds to the Co-operative. Living up to its name, Boomalli has certainly made its mark over the past thirty four years. 

“Roll up your shirtsleeves” activism runs through Bancroft’s life and work, drawing on her journey as a woman, mother, artist and custodian of her family’s stories. She often speaks of being “captivated by the bush” – its smells, lines, textures and shapes – from an early age and of the importance of being on Country, and of the Dreaming. The Dreaming is a concept that is difficult for non-Indigenous people to understand, but the Australian anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner wrote: “One cannot ‘fix’ The Dreaming in time: it was, and is, everywhen” and “has . . . an unchallengeable sacred authority.” This is all evident in her oeuvre, as is the Bundjalung creation story, whether in the earlier hand-painted and silk-screened fabrics, or the paintings, prints, books, and public commissions. 

There are many striking features about Bancroft’s paintings, from the high key palette, the luminosity of the surface, which at times appears to be almost embossed, to the shifting figure-ground relationships and the incorporation of realistic images or photomontage. One is continually struck by the candour, humour and the engagement with significant societal issues that continue to confront Indigenous Australians. The imagery in the paintings Treaty, 1988, and You Don’t Even Look Aboriginal, and Coming Home, both from 1991, explore issues of belonging and race, who is Aboriginal and who is not. Dharug artist, curator and writer Janelle Evans offers this explanation: “there was no concept of ‘black’ in Terra Australis before the arrival of Europeans. Instead, there were Indigenous clans who were bound to the land under language and kinship ties under law. It was this that created difference, not the colour of one’s skin.” 

In works such as Lionsville Livin and Falling Through Time, both from 2015, and Home, 2017, one can see a deliberate shift with the use of what appear to be dots, although Bancroft refers to these as “circles within circles,” to create overall surface patterns. While “dot painting” evolved in the Northern Territory community of Papunya in the 1970s, it would be a mistake to think of dots as mere decoration. They evolved as a strategy to screen sacred images or totems in paintings from uninitiated Aboriginal men and from non-Indigenous people. Their use has now spread well beyond Papunya and is embraced by many different Aboriginal groups and even non-Indigenous artists. Evans has remarked that “within the dot, there’s a whole world that can be created . . . you need to bring your own inquiry into what you are doing.” This inquiry can be seen in Bancroft’s most recent series of paintings, Riverstones and Ramifications, 2021, as she continues to traverse stories of Country.

Some writers have observed that there is a shared consciousness, a moral world view, between Indigenous and Jewish people, as both groups have been subjected to dispossession, violence and persecution. So, perhaps it is not a coincidence that the first book Bancroft illustrated, The Fat and Juicy Place, 1992, written by the late Diana Kidd, was a universal story of loss and hope. It was about a young Aboriginal boy from the city meeting an Aboriginal elder, known as Birdman, who reconnects him with his culture. This led to Bancroft illustrating Oodgeroo Nunukul’s (previously known as Kath Walker) collection of stories, Stradbroke Dreamtime, which was published by HarperCollins in 1999. Since these two early projects Bancroft has illustrated forty-three children’s books. Illustrating books, and more recently writing about her love of Country, at times in collaboration with her son, Jack Manning Bancroft, and lately with her eldest daughter, Ella Noah Bancroft, on the forthcoming publication the Sun and Moon, has allowed Bancroft to continue to evolve her own unique form of storytelling.

Over the past decade public commissions have provided the opportunity for Bancroft to work on a “larger canvas,” reaching audiences beyond the white cube of the gallery or museum. The largest of these works, Gift Given, 2006, made in collaboration with Ricardo Peach and installed at the Tempe Reserve, was commissioned by Marrickville Council. Other public works followed, such as a commission from the City of Sydney in 2010 to design the banners for NAIDOC Week. There have also been several important commissions at hospitals, including Auburn and Canberra, with a major project, Earth, Wind, Fire, Water, completed in 2012 for the atrium lift shaft at Royal North Shore Hospital. These public works act as a bridge, promoting understanding to a wider non-Indigenous audience that would normally not encounter such work.

In Bancroft’s long and distinguished career she has received recognition for her work on many levels through numerous awards and the inclusion of her work in national and international exhibitions. Significantly, her work has also been collected by several state galleries, including the National Gallery of Australia and the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and by international museums such as the Newark Museum of Art (New Jersey, US) and the Museum für Völkerkunde (Frankfurt, Germany). She has also achieved a high level of success in the academy, graduating in 2018 with a PhD in visual arts from the University of Sydney. 

Ultimately, Bancroft’s work is a celebration of fifty thousand years of successful specialised human occupation of Australia, in climates ranging from the harshest deserts to lush sub-tropical rainforests, often navigating complex social and political domains, such as, for the past 200 odd years, European colonialisation. Bancroft’s vision is always optimistic, looking over the horizon to a better world that she imagines.

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 57, 2021.
Images courtesy the artist, City of Sydney, Harper Collins, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, and University of New South Wales Art Collection

Riverstones and Ramifications: Bronwyn Bancroft
30 April – 3 July 2022
Grafton Regional Gallery, New South Wales 

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