The Stranger Artist: Life at the edge of Kimberley painting

The Stranger Artist: Life at the edge of Kimberley painting
Quentin Sprague
Hardi Grant Books

‘The Stranger Artist’ captures a pivotal time in the East Kimberleys where art advisor, Tony Oliver begins an extraordinary collaboration with senior Gija artists, for some ten years in the late-nineties. Set in the striking red earth and spinifex landscape around Warrum (Turkey Creek) extending to Wyndham and Kununurra the story unfolds with sensitivity and poignancy.

Sprague draws upon the experiences of Tony Oliver, an ex-Melbourne gallery director who worked and lived in the region of the Kimberleys. Over time Oliver developed deep bonds with painters including Paddy Bedford and Freddie Timms leading to the establishment of Jirrawun Arts, a successful Aboriginal Art Centre which thrived for a period as the Giji artists developed their uniquely spacious compositions using ochres, acrylics and gouache. The Centre was later sold, to the chagrin of some community members.

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The anecdotal narrative begins with Tony Oliver and Freddy Timms racing across the open highway in Freddy’s red Toyota Land Cruiser. They are driving from Kununurra to one of the smaller centres in the district, which they will do many times during the course of their years together. Freddy is a stockman, turned painter first arriving at Lissadell Station at the age of 10, but stayed until adulthood after his father died soon after their arrival. His tales of life in the district are entwined with stories of Country, and the cloud of colonialism.

During this collaborative period, Tony and Freddy travelled and worked in Wollongong and from there were introduced to Frank Watters – who organised Freddy’s first Sydney exhibition and paved the way for fairer and more reputable financial agreements for Gija artists. Back in Warrum, Tony also spent considerable time with Hector Jandany and formed a strong friendship with Paddy Bedford. Both, along with Freddy Timms are foundation members of the Jirrawun Aboriginal Art Corporation that began at Rugun (Crocodile Hole) and after successive moves, found home at Wyndham.

Sprague draws parallels with life and nature in the Kimberleys where decay and destruction go hand in hand with hope and fortitude. This book could also be viewed as a memoir of Tony Oliver, but that would not be the whole story – it’s the bond formed between himself and the Gija artists that is central to Sprague’s account of this compelling narrative.