Abo history (facts) 1988 is characteristic of Campbell Jnr’s narrative style using cartoon-like frames to depict an Aboriginal version of Australian history. Poignantly, this history of Australia was painted in 1988, the 200th anniversary of European settlement in the country. The frames, read from top left to right, tell the story of the arrival of the first ‘tall ships’ into pristine Indigenous environs: the coming of the white men on horses, the battle over Indigenous lands and the clearing of forests for farming and raising cattle. The central row features the era of government-run missions and reserves, representing a time in the artist’s own youth, growing up at the Burnt Bridge Aboriginal Mission outside Kempsey in rural northern New South Wales. Next is the account of Aboriginal people being moved from traditional life, from their seasonal humpies, to permanent dormitories; the rationing of food and basic supplies; tilling the land under the overseer; and mixing with whites fishing and hunting in the Macleay River. In the lower four frames the artist shows compelling scenes of the effect of colonisation: the denial of blacks from entering the local swimming pool; having to show a ‘dog tag’ to be served alcohol at a bar;[1] segregated at the cinema; the burning of the mission houses in protest over substandard conditions; the high incidence of incarceration; and deaths in custody of Aboriginal youth.

The painting’s background patterning, figurative elements, colours and stylistic conventions are based on traditional Ngaku clan designs found on boomerangs and shields, while the ‘red ‘tie’, or oesophagus, on all human and animal figures is a symbol of life.

Avril Quaill

[1] A ‘dog tag’ was an official certificate of exemption that allowed some Aboriginal people access to certain rights enjoyed by white Australians.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010

From: Franchesca Cubillo and Wally Caruana (eds) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art: collection highlights National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010


  • Title: Abo history (facts)
  • Creator: Robert CAMPBELL JNR | Ngaku people
  • Date Created: 1988
  • Location: Kempsey, New South Wales, Australia
  • Physical Dimensions: w2000 x h1300 cm
  • Type: Painting,synthetic polymer paint on canvas
  • Rights: Purchased 1988Courtesy of Rolsyn Oxley9 Gallery
  • External Link: National Gallery of Australia

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