Paul Bong: Fragments

In this blog North Queensland Aboriginal artist Paul Bong discusses his printmaking practice. In a discussion with Peter Hylands, Paul talks about the meanings in his work and we visit Babinda Boulders and Paul creates a print at Canopy Art Centre in Cairns.

"As the shield fell to the ground all those years ago its impact was to reverberate across the Australian continent, its shock waves still washing on to the shores of Aboriginal culture today"

Paul Bong: My work is about how our culture has been dispersed and fragmented. What this series of work is based around is the shield as our people always had shields. Their shield designs were really strong, it was a warriors’ thing and the shield was always carried around and in my work I add stories to the surface of the shield. There can be figures in the work, perhaps a man going hunting. When you get up close to the work you can see all these stories.

Jambun Bigun (Grub design shield)

Because our culture is so old, probably 50,000 years or so, that is why I draw the shield to look old and tell the stories from back in the Dreamtime.

My flag: Murrifactive shield studies

Then the white man came along and he used guns and shot the warriors and that is why I show the shields all broken up. They also brought their religion with them and that is why I have used the cross, I call it the crossroad.

Peter Hylands: So there is a bullet hole in the shield?

The crossroad shield

Paul: What I am doing there is making an etching by using acid baths, creating the layers for the work. I keep the plates in the acid bath for a few minutes depending on what I want to achieve as the acid keeps biting into different areas. I cover up one part of the plate and so on so the acid cannot reach it. What this achieves is to get all sorts of shades of colour because of the ink is in different thicknesses. Once I have printed the work I usually work on it with acrylic paint and this adds to the depth.

This work, First contact, is about a story I read which tells of Captain Cook arriving in Botany Bay. He was spotted by two Aboriginal men who ran towards him with their spears and shields. Cook’s party fired warning shots but the Aboriginal men still came towards them. That same shield they took back to England and it remains in the British Museum.

Peter: Neil Macgregor, the director of the British Museum, wrote a book called the A history of the earth in 100 objects (Allen Lane 2010 / Penguin 2012) which was also a popular radio programme on BBC Radio 4 in the UK, in his book Neil writes in a section near the beginning of the book (and in chapter 89) about the encounter you have just described.

In the ships log 29 April 1770 Cook writes …. as we approached the shore they all made off except for two men who seemed resolved to oppose our landing – as soon as I saw this I ordered the boats to lay upon their oars in order to speak to them but this was to little purpose for neither us or Tupia could understand a word they said …. I thought they beckoned for us to come ashore, but in this we were mistaken for as soon as we put the boat in they came again to oppose us, upon which I fired a musket between the two which had no effect than to make them retire back where bundles of their darts lay and one of them took up a stone and threw it at us, which caused me firing a second musket load with small shot and although some of the shot struck the man, yet it had no other effect than to make him lay hold of a shield or target to defend himself.

Joseph Banks goes on to describe how they collected the man’s shield after he had dropped it before retreating back into the bush. We found after taking it up that it plainly had been pierced through with a single pointed lance near the centre.

As the shield fell to the ground all those years ago its impact was to reverberate across the Australian continent, its shock waves still washing onto the shores of Aboriginal culture.

It is wonderful that you have taken up this idea in your work. This shield is a powerful object, a direct link to the people of pre-colonial Australia.

Paul: This shield here is my design and is my translation of it, what is in the middle of this shield is a grub design. Young warriors when they painted their shields it was after initiation and what ever animal they took on as their totem they painted on the shield. Some shields had more decoration, some had less. This work shows the old shield in fragments in the form of a shield. You can see animals and other images.

This one here is a spider web design and I made it really old looking.

Malar Bigun (Spider web shield)

Peter: As the idea develops you just get better at making these works.

Paul: Well you gotta and it is just a moving process and you have to think out of the box. I will be putting stories on, Babinda Boulders I will be making a story of that. This one here is my flag, the woman here has got a basket in her hand and has a digging stick. They pass on their knowledge to the younger generations, the old men to the young warriors and the old women to the young girls. Then the white man came along and he shot, bang, bang, bang. And he put in all these bullet holes in these objects and what happened next is he tried to pull the culture to pieces. What I am doing now is to put the pieces back together again.

If you stand back and look at the work you might ask were did all these stories happen. Well it happened under the Southern Cross.

Babinda Boulders

Peter: Do you get a sense that the culture is coming together again, the fragments?

Paul: Yea, yea, and that is what I am trying to do, bring the fragments back together again. I think this project is going to go for a fair while yet. All my prints are done individually so each one is a bit different.

Here is Paul's statement accompanying the works in the Murrifactive shield series

My people, the Yidinyji - Gimuy, have lived in the region south of Cairns since pre-contact times.  Our families fought vigorously against intruding pastoralists and government-sanctioned pioneers with little more than spears and wooden shields. Some of these artefacts are now in museums.  Still, others have been handed down from one generation to the next, stored under houses and in sheds.  So many memories - silent testimonials - so many hands these objects have passed through! 

The title Murrifactive is a fictional title, implying northern Queensland Aboriginal or Murri people as fact-finding and pro-active.  The current generation of young Murri people is distanced from the lives of our forebears, but that doesn’t stop us from being curious and respectful.  So, we look at our culture in museums and books. I am trying to see the truth in our situation and be honest about our future direction. 

Many of our people are resigned to a fate of compliance and have adopted the British/ European ways - and similar means of survival.   Christianity has replaced many of our customs.  English is now our dominant language.  Consumerism has replaced bush life. Today our families are fragmenting from internal fighting.  We treasure the objects of our ancestors, often found in paddocks and jungle caves, and keep on looking.  Even the smallest fragments carry deep meaningful stories. I am currently in discussion with the Cairns Historical Society to share information about the retrieval of a number of cultural objects, including the whereabouts of a long-discarded ‘king plate’.

Paul Bong (Bindur Bullin, Yidinyji language group) graduated from Cairns TAFE in 1994, since that time and when circumstances allow Paul has worked as an artists / designer, dancer and musician. Today Paul works with Theo Tremblay at Canopy Art Centre where he produces his prints. Paul also makes traditional shields and other sculptural objects.

Our thanks to Canopy Art Centre, Theo Tremblay and Paloma Ramos. Paul's prints and other works are available from Canopy Art Centre, Cairns

SUBJECT: Aboriginal culture / Colonisation / Yidinyji / Aboriginal art / Printmaking / Shields / Canopy Art Centre / Rainforest people / North Queensland / Australia