The landscape of Broken Hill has inspired artists – contemporary and historical – for tens of thousands of years.
The huge contrast between the openness, intense light and contrasting colours above ground and the dark, enclosed underworld of hard-rock mining may also underpin Broken Hill’s extraordinary art heritage. Remarkably for an Australian country town, Broken Hill has more private art galleries (30) than pubs (24).
“The art has been as much about documenting the industrial mining landscape as it has been about the natural environment,” says Bruce Tindale, manager of the public Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery. “It’s very important in terms of our cultural and historic heritage.”
He says artists are now also attracted to the town’s comparatively cheap housing and multicultural population: people of Maltese, Chinese, Italian, Greek and Yugoslav heritage, plus descendants of Afghan cameleers and Cornish miners who arrived in the late 19th century.
The gallery’s permanent collection began in 1904 with a bequest from George McCulloch, the founding chairman of BHP Pty Ltd and one of the original Syndicate of Seven; it has since grown to about 1800 works and includes an unexpected showcase of Australian art from the 19th century to the modern day.
To display as many pieces as possible, a large selection of paintings is hung floor to ceiling in the gallery, among which can be found works by Rupert Bunny, Arthur Streeton, Frederick McCubbin, John Olsen, Lloyd Rees and Margaret Preston.
Of course, the gallery has a significant Pro Hart collection. A local boy who began his working life as a miner, Pro turned to painting and is celebrated internationally for his outback scenes. He was one of the legendary Brushmen of the Bush artists’ group of the 1970s and ’80s that included the famed Jack Absalom.
“We kickstarted a movement…everybody here said if we can do it they can bloody do it!” recalls Jack. “We had exhibitions all around the world; caused such a stir in New York that we blocked traffic, had royal openings in London and donated three and a half million [dollars] to charities.”
The region also has a strong indigenous-art movement, particularly around Wilcannia, 185 km to the east, and the gallery exhibits work by local Aboriginal artists. Up to 5 per cent of Broken Hill’s population identifies as Aboriginal. But the town doesn’t suffer the sort of racial disharmony often highlighted by city media in remote country towns.
“It is here,” comments Dr Sarah Martin, of Oasys Outback Archaeological Systems. “But it’s under the surface, not quite as overt as it is in some other places.” Art, she agrees, has helped erode barriers that can be created by skin colour. “The artists get together and don’t separate into black artists or white artists in Broken Hill,” she says.
“They exhibit together and do [projects] together. There’s more division between those [artists]…with a professional qualification and those that are self-taught.”
Sarah moved to Broken Hill 25 years ago as a NPWS regional archaeologist and stayed after falling in love with her partner, ‘Badger’ Bates, a local artist. Badger grew up on the Darling River in Wilcannia and narrowly avoided becoming part of the Stolen Generations of mixed-race children taken from their parents due to misguided government policies of past eras.
The black-and-white lino prints hanging in galleries around the country proudly represent his heritage. “Dad was white and Mum was black and they weren’t allowed to marry,” Badger explains. “I could have been part of the Stolen Generation but Granny kept me moving so they [government welfare authorities] could never catch us.”
Badger sees his art as a legacy from his grandmother, who works through him to pass an ancient culture to future generations of the Paakantji (Barkindji) people.
*Originally published in Australian Geographic magazine.