Robert Campbell Jnr (1944-1993) was an extremely important creative painter from the Ngakku clan of the Dhungatti people of the east coast of the Australian continent. Robert was born at the end of the Second World War in Kempsey on the Macleay River, on the mid-north coast of NSW. Aboriginal people had by then recovered somewhat from the effects of colonisation wrought on them since 1788, and were living in a life of poverty on the fringe of white settler society.
Some Aboriginal people like Robert believed that this history of dispossession, disempowerment and displacement; the theft of everything in this colonisation needed to be remembered and told. These stories were about the ongoing waves in this theft; mass extinctions, the timber cutters enacting a deforestation, a raping of the land. The tree trunks for Aboriginal people were the embodiment of a spirit - the spirit of people, and so this mass cutting was a sacrilegious act. After this, came the cattle and sheep farmers who drove away the game that Aboriginal people lived off and then drove-off or murdered Aboriginal people who hunted and killed this new 'game'. These unjust crimes were covered up and ignored in a great historical silence by settler society.
Robert lived his early life deprived of his Aboriginal language and spiritual belief social system, wearing a thin Christian mask, but deeply troubled by this loss of his Aboriginal soul. It was this reconstructing of his positive Aboriginal consciousness that led him to paint. Through this practice he recreated a form of visual language, and optical devices in his 'history' compositions; of colonial crimes from the past and racism in the present; and current Aboriginal political action in response; the general social life as an outsider on the fringe of society, and an amazing resurgent spiritual bond with the natural world and heavens above.
A largely self-taught painter, as a child he helped his father cut and engrave wooden boomerangs for tourists, his first paintings were created from sheets of discarded cardboard and timber, and tins of 'house paint' at the towns rubbish tip. The raw, honest images, caught the eye of Australian painter Tony Coleing, who introduced Robert to better paints and canvas, and subsequently, to the prestigious Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery and success in the Sydney fine art scene where his colours, movement and political power created a special meaningful place.
– Djon Mundine OAM, FAHA, 2022
Press release courtesy Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery.