Paddy Bedford: Ancestral Present

5 May - 18 June 2022
Press release

Ricco/Maresca is excited to present the U.S. debut exhibition of the work of the Australian Indigenous master Paddy Bedford.

 

In Association with D’Lan Contemporary 

With the cooperation of the Australian Consulate-General New York 

 

Paddy Bedford (ca. 1922 - 2007) was born in the East Kimberley region of Western Australia, in a property that gave him his surname–Bedford Downs Station.

Like many of the indigenous men in the Kimberley, Bedford worked as a stockman, but was paid in rations. In 1969, when the law required equal pay for blacks and whites alike, station owners responded by laying off their indigenous workforce, including Bedford. He worked for a while on road building, but ended up forced on to welfare by injury.

Bedford was involved in painting as part of ceremony throughout his life, but he only began painting on canvas for exhibition after the establishment of the Jirrawun Aboriginal Art Corporation in 1997 (formed to assist the development and sale of works by Indigenous artists from parts of the Kimberley). In a remarkable career as a painter that spanned less than ten years, Bedford achieved great critical acclaim in Australia and abroad and has been recognized as one of Australia’s most important artists.

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The Legacy of Paddy Bedford

 

In the Victorian Registry at the Federal Court of Australia, Goowoomji Nyunkuny Paddy Bedford addressed the present senior judges with an introduction as poignant as it was formidable.

 

Hello ladies and gentlemen. My name is Paddy Bedford. I know black fella law. I know white fella law. I am the Law.

 

With this compelling assertion of his personification of Law in the presence of representatives of white law,[i] the artist and lawman Paddy Bedford, unintimidated but not irreverent, extended his hand to those he saw as equals in their obligation to the legal systems and practices that steer the destinies of people. Paddy Bedford, like the men and women before him, was an embodiment of Law—traditional, cultural, and spiritual—which was lived rather than written. His mandate, however, set him apart from the senior judges: his life, like his paintings, sought to rebalance cultural obligation with horrific truths.

 

Paddy Bedford—known to family and kin as Nyunkuny, or by his nickname Goowoomji, in his own Gija language—was born around 1922 at Old Bedford Downs Station, southeast of Warmun (Turkey Creek) in the East Kimberley region of Western Australia. In the late 19th century the colonizing pastoralists who came to this area of Gija country named it Bedford. Some years before Nyunkunys birth, a massacre of Gija people had occurred at Bedford Downs. A number of the artists relatives were poisoned with strychnine in retaliation for killing a cow, and their bodies were subsequently burned.

 

It was the infamous station manager at the time of the massacre, Paddy Quilty, who gave Nyunkuny his western name, Paddy, at his time of birth. Such were the alienating conditions in which Bedfords family lived and indeed most First Nations Australian people experienced in the region known to white settlers at the time as the “last frontier.”

 

Although it was certainly not the only massacre to have occurred in the region, the memory of this particular event was kept alive by the Gija people and it became a subject in Paddy Bedfords art. Bedfords perfectly balanced paintings are rich with multifaceted and intricate layers that address and transcend the brutalities of colonial history. He painted places of great significance in Gija Country from his mother and father’s traditional lands and their connected ngarranggarni—Dreaming narratives. Representation of landscape features, the deeds of the ancestral beings during the ngarranggarni, the ever-present dimension of the Dreaming, and the superimposed and overlapping histories belonging to all, ancestral and recent history, all suffuse the work.

 

Paddy Bedford was concerned not only with the eternal presence of the ngarranggarni or Dreaming of the East Kimberley, but also the changes and developments necessary to help his people live alongside white man’s law. His faith and hope in “two way,” the Gija expression for reconciliation, was a magnetic force that engaged those around him, creating the support structures that would protect and preserve his legacy. He imbued his exquisite abstract paintings with everything he stood for: his people, history, and culture. The impeccably balanced compositions of his mother’s and father’s country, felt far beyond his homeland, became the most potent vehicle for advocacy of reconciliation.

 

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By considering the facets of meaning behind his proclamation “I am the Law,” one can better understand Paddy Bedford’s life and work.

 

In one sense, the Law directly references the embodiment of traditional Gija order. Young Goowoomji started painting for traditional ceremony at an early age and gained a deep respect for customary law, which he conservatively observed throughout his painting career. In his later years, like many senior First Nations culture keepers who turn to painting, Paddy Bedford possessed a deep cultural knowledge that informed and impelled his late-life painting practice. Although his work indeed draws on the ancestral past and renews its present, his paintings were not direct invocations of the ngarranggarni. Instead, it was the living narrative that guided his hand without hesitation, powering his abstract forms as an invitation for outsider engagement.

 

In another sense, Paddy Bedford was also a creator and instigator of laws across his life. Applying his laws, he bestrode the gulf between black and white nations. Goowoomji asserted Gija terrain with dignity and authority, set a precedent for financial liberation, and was an arbiter for brutal truths. In the 1970s, he took part in new forms of cultural assertion playing an active role in ceremony during a period of creative and cultural turbulence in the Kimberley. Joining Jirrawun Arts in 1998, he was a catalyst in the vision for a small group of Gija elders to control their identity and create unique visual art forms without compromising cultural law and tradition. In 2000, Paddy Bedford, together with fellow artist Timmy Timms revealed for the first time to outsiders the existence of a Joonba, a song and dance cycle that told the story of the Bedford Downs massacre. More explicit than his paintings, though equally commanding, its public performance was a demand for reconciliation on occupied lands—a demand that still resonates from the painted canvas.

 

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Paddy Bedford made his very first paintings on discarded scraps of plywood and other materials. Encouraged by artistic director of the artists’ cooperative Jirrawun Arts, Tony Oliver, Paddy started to produce work on paper and on canvas. On a 1998 trip to Melbourne, at the studio of a local artist, Paddy, along with two of his fellow Gija artists, was introduced to new materials: thick paper, tubes of gouache, and pastel art crayons. Before then, Paddy and his fellow artists had painted only on board or canvas. Paddy quickly took to the new gouache medium. The combination of drawing and painting, and the mixture of gouache, crayon, pencil, and pastel applied on white or black cardboard, allowed him to play freely with form, composition, and color.

 

Although the energy of his gouaches was reminiscent of his paintings on canvas, the smaller scale of the paper determined a dramatic scaling down of his approach. However, these were by no means simply minor versions of larger paintings, but something altogether different. By the early 2000s gouache work became a daily part of his painting practice, endlessly variable experiments in form, composition, and color. In these works, neither the white dotting that finished his lines on canvas, nor the bestowing of titles by country that determined the flight to his play of form.

 

The large sheets of paper composition board executed in brightly colored water-based gouache – black for the linework, cool red, turquoise blue, lemon yellow and chalky white, became an exercise in the conception and realization of symbols.

 

Although seeming like preliminary sketches, Paddy's gouaches were never scaled up to more extensive works. His great joy in the act of painting can be fully recognized in these works, for they are free of the constraints that attended the specific somber gravity of representation.

 

Paddy Bedford’s works are complex in the stories they tell. Their compositions, which may seem simple, are never what they seem. A learned and intrinsic knowledge of the land and its creation stories underlies their subtle harmony; physical yet sensitive forms prevail in the paintings. This congruity of powerful physicality and great sensitivity embodies the key to a greater understanding of his work.

 

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Paddy Bedford’s works speak a clear, not time-bound visual language that is uniquely Gija and Australian, and that resists comparison with modern Western art canons. The appeal of his work worldwide rests in part on a sense of continuous innovation that resulted in a new exciting visual vocabulary that does not compromise Gija law and tradition.

 

Furthermore, Bedford’s preservation of Law has been carried forward in the meticulous orchestration of his legacy through his estate. That we can appreciate and access some of his best, most confronting and accomplished paintings from across his whole career for the first time is the result of trust, self-discipline, and strategic foresight. Careful planning allowed him to gain control of the future that extends beyond his earthly life. His descendants will be assisted in their European-based schooling thanks to the established education trust that is funded from some of the proceeds of sales from exhibitions of works from his estate.

 

As the Estate of Paddy Bedford comes to the close, almost fifteen years after his passing, the final release of his paintings and gouaches offers the opportunity to reflect on his work today and how it may stand the test of time. It is unlikely that we will ever see another person or artist like Goowoomji Nyunkuny Paddy Bedford.

 

Vanessa Merlino and Georges Petitjean

 



[i] As witnessed and related by Peter Seidel, co-executor, Estate of Paddy Bedford and Partner, Public Interest Law, Arnold Bloch Leibler.

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