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Artist Ian Abdulla.

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Friday 1 March 2002

Dr Christine Nicholls, Curator, Flinders University Art Museum, SA


One of my earliest and most vivid childhood memories is sitting up in a din ghy that my father was rowing down the main street of Mannum. Mannum is a small country town on the banks of the River Murray in South Australia.  


It was 1956 and the Murray had burst its banks in the great floods of that year, inundating the main street and its surrounds, devastating buildings and cutting people off from facilities like electricity.  


I was four years old and the reason that Dad, the local GP, was rowing down the main street of Mannum was to see one of his patients who had become stranded because of the floods. 


At that time, a few miles down river at Swan Reach there lived a sizeable Aboriginal community, comprising Ngarrindjeri people. 


Some of these Ngarrindjeri people had married members of South Australia's small but significant Afghan community, descendants of the cameleers who had 'opened up' the northern trade routes in the colonial days. 


While I didn't know it then, Ian Abdulla, his parents and his many siblings were living at that Swan Reach settlement. Ian's mother was a Ngarrindjeri woman and his father was of Afghan heritage. Like other Aboriginal families at the time, members of the Abdulla family were subject to the 'One Mile Law' and the 'Seven Mile Law'.  


The 'Seven Mile Law' meant that Aboriginal families were only permitted to go away from where they lived during the daylight hours to do things like shopping in town. After dark they weren't allowed off the land or place allocated to them, or to be in town where the white people lived - their interactions with white people were extremely regulated, and supposed to be minimal.  


So, Indigenous communities who lived beside the great Murray River relied almost entirely on the river and the surrounding land for their food and income, in other words for their survival.  


Ian himself says today, "It's because of the river that we survived.” 


At that time - unlike today - the river was teeming with life - crayfish, yabbies, Murray Cod called Ponde in the Ngarrindjeri language, pelicans, black swans, which the Abdulla family would hunt, cook and eat, and water rats that they would trap, then sell their fur. 


Today, Ian Abdulla is recognized as one of Australia's greatest living artists.  


At first glance, Ian Abdulla's brightly coloured paintings of the Murray River, inspired by his childhood memories, are interpreted by some art lovers as conveying little more than nostalgia for the irretrievable past.  


But I think that it is quite easy to miss the strong, pertinent political messages evident in his work. There's a kind of hidden history encoded in many of Ian Abdulla's paintings. 


His work is worth reflecting on, given the current political significance of the Murray River - thanks to on-going tussles over state rights, salinity and environmental degradation. 


We are beginning to realise that the triumphalist narratives of "progress" always come with considerable ecological and cultural costs. 


In fact many of Ian Abdulla's paintings tap into such timely themes and some convey quite unambiguous political commentary.  


Just one example of this is Ian Abdulla's painting entitled Camping before the white man stole our land.  


Camping before the white man stole our land
is a pretty strong statement, challenging the historical fiction or myth of terra nullius. 


This painting is in fact an assertion of Ngarrindjeri land and water rights - and these are fighting words, the words of a warrior, a person who is more than 'simply' a landscape artist. 


When, a couple of months ago, Ian and I attempted to visit one of the places where he remembered fishing as a child, so we could take photographs for this exhibition, we came up against barbed-wire fences, heavy 'no trespassing' signs and savage dogs. 


The fishing itself is no good any longer. European carp now compete with the original Murray waterlife, to the detriment of the river system as a whole. 


Ian has now stopped going fishing on his beloved River Murray.  


But nevertheless Ian Abdulla’s paintings continue to speak powerfully to his childhood memories, telling of a river and its people, which over the last half century have been subject to profound change.  


Guests on this program:


Dr Christine Nicholls  


River, Land and Memory: the work of Ian Abdulla 

Flinders University Art Museum