GORDON BENNETTDaddy’s Little Girl II, 1994, acrylic on wood, 40 × 30 cm. Courtesy the estate of the artist. 

Tony Albert on Gordon Bennett

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1999 was my last year at high school and the year I went to see “History and Memory in the Art of Gordon Bennett” at Brisbane City Gallery. It was the first exhibition I had ever attended and it changed my life forever. My sister and I were the only Aboriginal kids at our school and, beyond my family, there were very few “black” role models that I was aware of at the time. Seeing Gordon’s paintings opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me. I realized for the first time that there was a way to articulate the feelings I had about myself and to understand my life story. I no longer felt alone. I left the exhibition overwhelmed with joy. 

After high school I enrolled at the Queensland College of Art, where Gordon had gained his degree over ten years earlier. I was not the only artist inspired by Gordon to go to art school, and I know that many other black and white Australians are continuing to venture into careers in art and art history because of his powerful work. Through the Brisbane art community, I had the pleasure of meeting Gordon on several occasions, although I did not know him well. He was a quiet man, and preferred to stay away from the public eye. He rarely went to openings or engaged in the social aspects of the industry. Rather, he communicated to us through his art, and it was his art that spoke volumes. 

Gordon was a real pioneer and set a precedent for political art in Australia. He spoke with an Aboriginal voice that could be universally understood—something that became more and more evident as his career grew and he started to be featured in increasing numbers of international biennials and exhibitions.

One of the things I most admired about Gordon was his incredible skill as a painter. He had the innate ability to work the canvas with great confidence. Every time I encounter one of his paintings in the flesh, my eyes dart across the surface, absorbing all the imagery, color and texture before me. His works always appear uninhibited and bold, like those of an old master. 

Gordon unexpectedly and very sadly passed away on June 3 this year. A mutual friend, the curator Simon Wright, called me a few days later to let me know. It was an emotional call. Simon also wanted me to know that he and Gordon had been at lunch just the week before and had discussed my most recent letter. In 2010, I began writing letters to Gordon, inspired in part by his own letters written to Jean-Michel Basquiat. I was jolted one morning after opening the local newspaper to find an article about a prominent football coach who had used the term “black cunt” in reference to an Aboriginal player. As I read the article, Gordon’s early painting Daddy’s Little Girl II (1994) came vividly to mind. I thought of how the father in this artwork sits on his lounge chair in the corner of the living room relaxing with a smoker’s pipe in hand. Wearing a pretty Sunday dress, his blonde daughter plays with toy blocks spelling out the words “ABO,” “BOONG,” “COON” and “DARKIE,” all derogatory names regularly used against Aboriginal people. The girl points the blocks toward her father to gain his approval, love and attention. It is a small but incredibly powerful work in which Gordon brilliantly illustrates the cycle of racism, handed down and taught from one generation to the next. 

In my last letter to Gordon, which is also included in my artwork for the 2014 Basil Sellers Art Prize, I said:

I wanted to write to you today to thank you for instilling in me a strong sense of pride. Despite the challenges I face as a Blak [sic] man, I will never give up on the fight against racism. There are so many heroes who stand up for our people, and it is those heroes—people like you—who inspire me to carry on. 

I am so happy that Gordon received my letter. I really hope that he understood what an incredible man and mentor he was. I am incredibly indebted to his work, as are so many others. He is my hero. His vision, courage and talent will never be forgotten. Lest We Forget.