GEOFFREY BARDON was a key figure in the genesis of the Australian Aboriginal Art Movement. Through his patience, empathy and enthusiasm, a generation of Aboriginal artists was encouraged to set down the ancient images - previously recorded in rock paintings, or in more fugitive forms such as body painting and sand painting - in the portable, permanent and sellable medium of paint on canvas.
Born in Sydney in 1940, Bardon studied law at Sydney University, before an interest in art encouraged him to abandon his legal studies and take a course in art education at the National Art School. Graduating in 1966, he worked as an art teacher at various elementary schools in New South Wales and the Northern Territory, where he was much struck by the sense of alienation and dispossession amongst the urban Aboriginal students he encountered. In an effort to understand more of their background - and their predicament - he applied for a posting at the remote Aboriginal community of Papunya, 150 miles west of Alice Springs. It was a job that no one else wanted.
Papunya was, in Bardon's words, "a problem place": a government "assimilation" centre where some 1,400 Aboriginals, from several different tribal groups, were gathered, having been forced from their traditional lands - and traditional ways of life. Morale, along with everything else, was low. Bardon worked hard to learn the principal language of the settlement, and to gain the trust both of his pupils and their parents. He shocked many of his white co- workers by engaging closely with the Aboriginal community. He went hunting with them, invited them to his flat and ate his meals in the settlement canteen. He showed an interest in Aboriginal culture and beliefs, in the creation stories of the Dreamtime, and the motifs used to record these during ceremonies.
When he initiated an art project to paint a mural of "the honey- ant dreaming" story on the side of the schoolhouse (providing the paints and brushes himself), the task proved too much for the children. …