elizabeth durack/eddie burrup

eddie burrup

what he is and what he isn't

Elizabeth Durack: "Eddie Burrup is me."

Or if you will, Eddie Burrup is a maban, a Man of High Degree, a stockman, a painter, a story teller and performer. He is the brush and pen name of the artist Elizabeth Durack and an integral part of the prodigious body of work she produced over a period of some 70 years.

First and foremost an ingenious work of art, the invention of Eddie Burrup initially was a device for Elizabeth Durack to obtain independent assessment of a breakthrough in work and ideas that had been gestating for years.

The persona himself appeared quite unexpectedly one warm summer morning when Elizabeth Durack was walking with her daughter, Perpetua, beside the Swan River in Western Australia. Soon after that Eddie Burrup asserted his individuality and before long had taken possession of his creator.

Complex and multi-layered, unlike any other in style and sensibility, The Art of Eddie Burrup is the culmination of years of perception, reflection and effort.

A short biography might run:

Eddie Burrup was born circa 1915 at Yandeyarra Station on the Yule River in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. His father and grandfather had helped establish this station in the 1880s. He learned to ride when very young and worked as a stockman on Yandeyarra and adjacent properties. Familiar with several traditional languages, he spoke mostly the century-old lingua franca of the bush (now known as kriol) that persists in some remote areas today.

From an early age Eddie Burrup made drawings of native animals and station life some of which were sold to tourists visiting north-west towns on state ships during the winter months.

He briefly attended the convent school in Broome where his drawing skills were encouraged. Later he received some art tuition when in Roebourne and Fremantle gaols.

Because of his intimate knowledge of country he was invited to join a survey team mapping one of the railway lines for the Pilbara iron ore development in the 1960s. While thus employed he had a serious accident and spent a long time in the Port Hedland hospital. The compensation payment that accrued to him as a result gave him a degree of economic independence.

With maturity and in conformity with traditional custom he attained the status of maban — a Man of High Degree — giving him right of access to a vast territory extending from the Ashburton to the Fitzroy and Ord Rivers.

Burrup’s artistic talent received recognition and encouragement when three of his paintings were selected for inclusion in the Native Titled Now Touring Exhibition at the Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute during the Adelaide Festival in March 1996. In the same year two of his paintings were selected for Telstra’s 13th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Exhibition in Darwin.

Questions concerning Burrup were raised following an interview he gave to the magazine Art Monthly Australia in March 1997 in which he professed himself to be an elderly white woman of Irish descent. Despite considerable publicity resulting from this announcement the subject of the artist’s provenance remains largely an enigma.

Detractors and gatekeepers have disparaged the Eddie Burrup phenomenon. They describe it variously as a fiction, a hoax, a fraud, even a crime. They denounce Elizabeth Durack and contend she has appropriated Aboriginal culture.

The facts and evidence refute such claims and demonstrate how specious they are.

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feature photo © courtesy Robert Garvey