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‘Your words, my pictures’: Brenda Niall’s True North

This review is cross-posted from the Wheeler Centre‘s Victorian Premier’s Literary Award series. 

The most fascinating section of Brenda Niall’s biography of the Durack sisters is the penultimate chapter, ‘The Making of Eddie Burrup.’ As with most artistic controversies involving a nom de plume (or, in this case, de brush), with time, the pseudonym tends to resonate more than the names of those responsible for it. For this reason, ‘Eddie Burrup’ may conjure more than ‘Elizabeth Durack’. But Burrup was, amid much controversy, Durack’s fictitious identity in the later part of her artistic life.

Elizabeth Durack, a white woman from a privileged Irish-Catholic pastoralist family, displayed and sold art works under an assumed Aboriginal identity – even entering her works in a competition specifically for Aboriginal artists. Aside from the obviously offensive aspects of this facade, the art world was puzzled: Elizabeth Durack was an established painter in her own right, why would she choose to adopt a pseudonym for work that she could rightly claim as her own? As Niall writes, ‘There were other words for what she had done – fraud, hoax, imposture – and these were freely used. Yet none seems quite right. Perhaps the way to start is to ask why, at 79, Elizabeth wanted a new identity.’

True North tracks the lives of the two Durack sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, and their inextricable connection to the Kimberley region. These were important figures in the history of Australia, not simply in their artistic achievements – Mary Durack was an acclaimed author, most known for her work Kings in Grass Castles, and Elizabeth a successful painter – but also for the preoccupation in their works with indigenous Australians. The sisters were voices of conscience on their treatment, presenting them throughout their artistic works, Niall writes, ‘as individuals, not as social problems’.

The Durack sisters were the daughters of Michael Patrick (or MPD), a pioneer and owner of a cattle empire in the Kimberley. Though they grew up in the 1930s in their family home in Perth, the Kimberly had an imaginative hold over the girls from early childhood, when their father would return bearing exotic gifts and tales from the north. ‘We all lived with the north as a kind of legend and a kind of dream,’ Mary wrote, and from their earliest years the Kimberly exerted a magnetic pull on the sisters. It was the place to which they habitually returned, and is the recurring theme and inspiration for all their artistic endeavours.

Most importantly, it was there that they developed strong relationships with the Miriwoong people who worked on their father’s estate. They felt deeply the injustice of the Aborigines’ treatment by police, and the political policies of the time. This was not an enlightened period for attitudes to indigenous Australians – Mary’s book on life at Argyle station, All About, was provided with a forward by the lieutenant-governor of Western Australia which contained the line: ‘All interested in natives as human beings should read this book.’

Though the Burrup controversy might be seen as a spectacular undoing of much of the sisters’ good work, the early parts of True North preemptively give sympathetic context to the decision by Elizabeth to adopt this identity. As Niall notes, ‘The public image of the sons and daughters of a “cattle king” was one of effortless privilege. None of the Duracks matched that expectation.’ The Durack name connoted wealth and privilege that they never truly possessed, yet it became a handicap for any artistic credibility for the sorts of subject matters the sisters wished to tackle. As Niall points out, Mary wanted to publish her novel Keep Him My Country – which dealt with the taboo subject of sexual relations between white men and indigenous women – under a male pseudonym. Their family name, and to some extent their status as women, prevented them from being taken seriously on indigenous issues that they had first-hand knowledge of. It was these sorts of assumptions, Niall argues, that Elizabeth was attempting to elude with her creation of Eddie Burrup.

True North is told with empathy and a clear affection for the protagonists. This is, however, a very traditional biography – there are no innovations in form or style. The text is largely summary and description, and the liveliest prose is to be found in the quotes from the Durack sisters themselves. Though Niall loosely themes her chapters, this is a straight chronological biography, working dutifully from birth to death, and I couldn’t help but feel it might have been more interesting to begin with the Burrup controversy and work backwards, rather than slavishly adhere to chronology.

In a ‘letter to the future,’ Mary wrote of the diaries, letters and papers she inherited after her father’s death: ‘Should I never have the opportunity of getting down to it I am writing this to give some idea of what is to be found in the files and documents kept … so that the whole remarkable and in a sense tragic story might be translated into some meaning and significance to ourselves and our country.’

Mary Durack did eventually publish works from these documents, but in True North Niall has published a biographical work of meaning and significance too.

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