ABORIGINAL ART AND CULTURE

Pastor Doug Nicholls, through his work at Camp Jungai, in Victoria, had awakened the young Neil McLeod's interest in Aboriginal art and culture. This was further advanced by Neil's friendship with David Gulpilil, who he had met at Camp Jungai, and with whom he maintained contact for many years. By 1976 he had already visited Arnhem Land, at David's invitation, and had made his first exploratory trip to the Kimberley.

In 1977 he embarked on the first venture of what became the passion of a lifetime. Travelling to Derby, in the Kimberley, he contacted elders and asked if they would re-enact old ceremonies and give him permission to photograph and record them. He was told to sit in front of a boab tree, and over some four hours elders came, one by one, to sit silently in front of him and stare hard into his eyes. At the end of this silent interrogation they agreed to his request.

The re-enactments, the demonstrations of old ways and ceremonies, the photographic records are now valuable historical documents since elders have passed away.  "Ochres of Mungo", by Marji Hill and Neil McLeod (1984), a book still regularly borrowed from public libraries, was produced from the material collected at this time.

Already active in production of wildlife books, Neil McLeod became immersed in publication of books on Aboriginal culture, and in 1982 "First of the Australians or Kardu Thipmam", which combined a book and Educational Kit, by Alex Barlow and Marji Hill,  with photographs by Neil McLeod, made its appearance.

 

Continued contact in Arnhem Land led to recording of a wealth of material, and the impetus to organize publication produced a number of books, notably "Little Bit Long Way", story by Bobby Nganjmirra and Jim Howes, with photographs by Neil McLeod ( 1986), and "The Birrirrk. Our Ancestors of the Dreaming", told by David Gulpilil with photographs by Neil McLeod.

Over years Neil became intensely involved with the people he was visiting. His deep respect, his willingness to listen, his regard for the culture and love of the art work, ancient stories and ceremonies, made him a valued friend and mentor within communities.

The trials, tribulations, joy and passion of trips to remote areas in order to inspire artists to paint, and to collect and promote their artworks, are amply demonstrated  in the published sample Field Notes, "To the Kimberley" (Neil McLeod, 2008). This was no sinecure! The realities of taking materials to the artists, of days of driving on the Tanami Track, of physical stress in heat and dust, of prodigious hard work in preparing paint, canvas, brushes, glue, photographing artists both at work and with their completed canvasses and recording stories as they were told amidst flies, mosquitoes and sandflies, while generally keeping everyone happy is an eye-opener for City dwellers viewing Aboriginal art in well-modulated City galleries.

Over a period of thirty-three years, records show Neil made thirty-eight such visits to the Kimberley, and there are fourteen occasions when Kimberley artists came to Melbourne to  stay with him at his home. Similarly, he made at least twenty-four visits to Arnhem Land, and there are thirty-one extended visits, quite often of many months duration, of Arnhem Land, Tasmanian and  Yalata (SA)  people to live with him in Melbourne. Nor were these visits always peaceful; drink, arguments and violence could at times make life most uncomfortable.

The noted artist Jonathon Kumintjara Brown lived with Neil McLeod for extended periods,  liking to be his travelling companion wherever he went. When he became very ill with cancer, he returned to Neil, who nursed him at home, and was at his side when he died in hospital. He was at the height of his powers, with a major exhibition about to open in Sydney  -   a very sad day for all.     

Neil has been meticulous in learning as much as he could, as well as sharing his in-depth knowledge with others. Records show thirty-five visits to official institutions (such as the Institute of Aboriginal
Studies in Canberra, and to CSIRO) or to experts such as  Professor George Chaloopka and Dr. Peter Carroll, for consultation. He has also donated large  quantities of research material to bodies such as AIAS and Information Australia (ACT).

A vast Library of photographs, videos, DVDs, and slides recording Aboriginal artists at work, in addition to published books, copious field notes, statements and letters from Aboriginal people is held by Neil McLeod Fine Arts Studio. Several  new books and documentaries are currently in preparation.

Neil's involvement with Aboriginal people goes far deeper than being an external observer and art collector. His care, concern and empathy have made him a person to rely on, a friend to call on, and in the case of the Arnhem Land Nganjmirra family, a son and brother, with all the obligations that  that relationship entails in Aboriginal society.

The production of Kunwinjku Spirit, by Nawakadj Nganjmirra, Artist and Storykeeper (1997) is Neil's tribute to his adopted father, who died in 1992. Published by the Miegunyah Press at Melbourne University Press, edited and photographed by Neil McLeod, it is a superb  memorial to a man of outstanding qualities, to an ancient culture of spiritual depth and beauty, and to the deep love, care and respect which may exist between blackfeller and whitefeller.