An aboriginal painter called Eddie Burrup had the first British exhibition of his work unveiled last night in Cork Street, arty London's most hallowed thoroughfare. In his mid-80s, Burrup was a stockman, jailbird, cartographer and maban - a tribal honorific meaning "Man of High Degree" with tribal access rights to huge acres of Western Australian bush territory.
Though he drew animals and primitive figures from an early age, his work found recognition late in life, in a touring exhibition at the Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute during the Adelaide Festival in 1996. Critics found much to praise in Burrup's earthy clay-and-cochineal palette and his delicate, webby landscapes - somewhere between the design of a butterfly's wings and an aerial view of the Yule river. His work was considered at the forefront of aboriginal painting and entered for the national Art Awards.
It was a shame Eddie couldn't be in Cork Street to see his work praised by the Australian High Commissioner, David Ritchie. Some Australian visitors might have been surprised to see, on the Gallery window, the words "Elizabeth Durack: The Art of Eddie Burrup". Ms Durack OBE, CMG was a distinguished, elderly, Australian painter and illustrator of charming children's books written by her sister, Dame Mary Durack. She died in May. What could be the connection between the fragrant, white colonial milady and the white- bearded, aboriginal roughneck pictured in the catalogue in straw hat and overalls?
Then came the biggest revelation: Eddie wasn't at the gallery because he was in the grave with Elizabeth. They were the same person. She had invented him in 1994, painted his paintings, given him a back-history and apologised to art dealers for her protege's reclusive ways. Even in the catalogue photo, that's the lady herself behind the white whiskers...
It is the most extraordinary Australian arts scandal since the Ern Malley Hoax. You can see the Eddie Burrup case as fraud or cultural appropriation; as an hommage from a white artist to an indigenous black one, or a sneaky way of embarrassing the politically correct. But the same question persists: why should an 80-year-old woman wish to create a bushman alter ego?
When the artist's identity was revealed in Australian Art Monthly in 1997, a whole can of ethno-cultural worms was wrenched open. "It's a massive fraud," complained Doreen Mellor, who had exhibited three Eddie paintings in her Tandanya gallery. "How dare anyone appropriate a culture like that?" The boss of the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Cultural Centre called it "The ultimate act of colonisation".
At Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art, the Aboriginal art curator Djon Mundine went ballistic. "It's the last thing left that you could possibly take away [from us], other than the rest of our lives or shoot us all," he declared melodramatically. Ms Durack's assumption of the Burrup persona was, he thought, "a total obscenity". "Saying that because your family has lived on the land for years, you feel about it as deeply as Aboriginal people and can pick up the culture, is absurd".
But that, in an innocent sense, is just what Elizabeth Durack has claimed. Her family were Irish emigrants; her grandfather, Patrick, was a pioneer who helped open up the vast Kimberley region to settlers in north Western Australia. …