Over three years, he built a reputation as one of the most promising Aboriginal artists in Australia. Only it turns out that he is a she - and she isn’t an Aborigine.
The disclosure Friday that “Aboriginal painter Eddie Burrup” is in fact Elizabeth Durack, an 82-year-old woman of Irish descent, provoked outrage among art dealers and Aboriginal artists.
Doreen Mellor, a curator who exhibited three of Burrup’s paintings in her collection, had wanted to meet the artist, but was told he spoke very little English and lived in remote Kimberley.
“How dare anyone appropriate a culture like that,” Mellor said Friday. “Nothing justifies inventing an Aboriginal person. … It’s a massive fraud.”
Wayne Bergmann, acting director of the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Cultural Center, called it “the ultimate act of colonization.” Burrup’s works, using dot-style technique and incorporating Aboriginal symbols and themes, had been considered to be at the forefront of Aboriginal painting.
One was entered in a contest for a national Aboriginal Art Award. Another is a candidate for the prestigious Sulman Prize for landscape painting. A third has been touring in the “Native Title Now” art show.
The director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, which awards the Sulman Prize, said the disclosure that Burrup isn’t an Aborigine didn’t affect the contest.
“I don’t give a hoot who painted it,” Edmund Capon said. “We’re not judging the artist. We’re judging the work of art. So really what name is appended to it I don’t think matters a great deal.”
Few Aborigines would agree with his assessment. Personal identity is crucial to many Aboriginal artists. Some have stopped painting after learning that their paintings have been counterfeited or reproduced without their permission.
Art historian Robert Smith disclosed Durack’s identity on Friday in the magazine Art Monthly Australia. The artist had told him she created Burrup as a composite of old men she had met while growing up.
Eddie Burrup is “very alive to me,” the Sydney Morning Herald quoted Durack as saying. Asked whether she invented the artist, she said: “That’s a hard one to answer. Maybe he’s a figure of my persona.”