Artists and activists: The Ongoing Adventures of X and Ray
For NAIDOC week this year we have decided to shine a spotlight on the Indigenous artist Lin Onus. He, together with his non-Indigenous collaborator Michael Eather, and his son Tiriki, have produced a series of remarkable artworks, The Ongoing Adventures of X and Ray. The museum recently acquired a full set of high quality prints of this work and is proud to showcase them here.
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Lin Onus was an artist whose two and three dimensional works feature in galleries around Australia and overseas. He was the son of William (Bill) Onus, an artist and activist who was prominent in the Aborigines Progressive Association in the 1930s and 1940s. Bill Onus became disillusioned with formal politics and turned to art in the 1950s, establishing the business Aboriginal Enterprise Novelties and producing hand decorated boomerangs, pottery and other items. Lin grew up surrounded by his father’s work, becoming an artist himself but imbued with his father’s strong social conscience and political values. Lin’s friend, Aboriginal activist Gary Foley, remembers that Onus
was an artist first and a politician second … he expressed himself through his art, and in doing so created some of the most powerful political statements of his era.
Lin Onus met fellow artist and collaborator, Michael Eather, in 1987 in Maningrida (Arnhem Land). Their series of artworks, The Adventures of X & Ray, grew out of their friendship and shared assumptions. Described by Eather, these were:
… a general spirit of open handed collaboration, regularly sharing ideas, studio techniques, whacky humour, as well as having a mutual commitment for the wider awareness of Indigenous sensibilities, and the role artists might play in this.
In the late 1980s Lin Onus was inspired by fibreglass and latex stingrays being produced by Eather, creating his own three dimensional fibreglass dingoes. His Dingo series was acquired by the National Gallery of Australia in 1989. In 1992 the stingray and dingo characters were united in the illustrative concept The Adventures of X & Ray. They became an unlikely pair of travel companions — ‘X’ the stingray and ‘Ray’ the Dingo — with the two animals performing social, moral and political roles as they travel to places where Lin and Michael had been, or inhabiting fictionalised landscapes.
The first work in the series, titled Michael and I are just slipping down to the pub for a minute, features an ochre-striped dingo surfing on a cross-hatched stingray, both atop a wave inspired by a famous wave created as a woodblock print by Japanese artist Hokusai. It reveals the sense of kinship between the two travellers and the importance of narrative and humour. Lin created five more works in the series in 1993, and after his death in 1996 his son Tiriki worked with Michael to extend the series to eight works, renaming it The Ongoing Adventures of X and Ray. They also produced life sized Dingo and stingray fibreglass sculptures.
The friendship between Lin Onus and Michael Eather is clearly evident in this series; the works are subtly political but gently whimsical and humorous as well. The last word on Lin comes from Michael himself:
The brilliance of Lin Onus was that marvellous anecdotal humour that crosses cultural boundaries — retelling a story with a wry Koori twist! This wit continues with Tiriki … who has in effect taken up where his father left off, proving that these stories and obligations are never ending, never belonging to one person, always rotating.