A life recorded on bark – Senator Neville Bonner
For those teachers and students who have done our Who’s the Boss program, you may have come across the trailblazing Senator Neville Bonner. In this program we celebrate Neville who, as Australia’s first Indigenous Senator, entered federal parliament in 1971; just 9 years after Indigenous Australians got the right to vote. Early this year, our knowledge of and connection with Neville was made even richer by his son Alfred’s donation of a bark painting depicting Neville’s life.
The bark painting was made by Neville’s nephew Bill Congoo and shows Neville’s life in four scenes. The first scene shows Neville’s birthplace at Ukerebagh Island, Tweed Heads, NSW. Baby Neville is sitting on his father’s lap, near a humpy. Stories told about Neville’s early life say that he was born into poverty, under a palm tree; that he only had only one year at school, and learnt to speak English from his grandmother. The second scene depicts the time when Neville lived on Palm Island with his wife Mona and five sons, and hunted dugongs and turtles. Apparently, Neville and his father-in-law made the boat he is shown fishing in. The third section of the painting tells of Neville’s move to Ipswich where he began to mix more with Europeans and became involved in politics. The final panel in the artwork is of Neville as a Senator and shows him sitting in a circle with three other politicians.
Linking all the parts of the painting are footsteps which trace a journey through Neville’s life. Over time, as Neville’s life and career changed, and he intermingled more with European Australians, his dark footprints became intertwined with white footprints.
We are very pleased that this bark painting is ending its journey in the collection of the Museum of Australian Democracy. It was here at Old Parliament House that Neville began his 12-year career in federal politics, and where he made his final mark on Australian politics as a representative to the 1998 Constitutional Convention. Not long before his death in February 1999, Neville gave this bark painting to his son.
In the Learning area of the museum, we always look for opportunities to extend understanding of people, places, events and topics. The following activities have been designed with students in mind but can be undertaken by anyone who would like to extend their understanding of this trailblazing Australian.
- Research some of Neville Bonner’s achievements, including some of the awards he received and places named after him.
- Search MoAD’s collection to find some of the other objects belonging to Neville Bonner. What insights do these give into his life and work?
- Imagine you were Australia’s first Indigenous Senator. Discuss some of the issues and conflicts you might have faced.
- Make an artwork to tell the journey of your life so far. You could use different sections and symbols, like Bill Congoo has done in this bark painting.