Paddy Bedford - Georges Petitjean

SYDNEY- 8 March 2015

Paddy Bedford (c1922 – 2007), also known as Nyunkuny in his own Gija language, is one of the most important Indigenous Australian artists. He was born around 1922 on Old Bedford Downs Station, southwest of Warmun (Turkey Creek) in the East Kimberley of Western Australia. As was the case with many Aboriginal people in remote areas across Australia, from a young age Bedford worked for many years as a stockman on several cattle properties in the area. Throughout his life he was involved in traditional Gija law and ceremony, in which he became a senior lawman. Although Paddy Bedford had painted throughout his adult life for ceremonial purposes, it was not until 1998, with the establishment of Jirrawun Arts, that he began producing contemporary artworks with modern materials.

His first paintings were made on discarded scraps of plywood and other materials. Artistic director of Jirrawun Arts, Tony Oliver, saw Bedford’s potential as a painter and encouraged him to produce work on paper and on canvas. Bedford’s untitled gouaches provided the artist with the possibility to experiment and push boundaries, often setting the way for his larger, physically powerful paintings on canvas. The combination of drawing and painting, and the mixture of gouache, crayon, pencil and pastel applied on white or black cardboard, allowed him to play freely with form, composition and colour. Easy anticipation is continually avoided in his refreshing compositions, in which elements constantly open and close new dimensions. The balanced compositions are the result of an instinctive search for harmony.

The subject matter of Bedford’s paintings on canvas or board is drawn from the artist’s two main and very different sources of knowledge and experience. Often stories of historical events, such as the massacre of Old Bedford Downs, intersect or merge with the ubiquitous Ngarranggarni, more generally known as the Dreaming, the parallel time-dimension in which plants, animals and landscape were created and in which the laws governing much human behaviour were instituted. Many paintings by Bedford refer in particular to the Emu, Bush Turkey and Cockatoo Dreamings of his family, and introduce visual variations on these stories.

His formal language, typified by a symbiosis between bold and powerful forms and an elegance and harmony in composition, evokes rock escarpments and other amorphous features of the Kimberley landscape. At the same time this daring imagery reflects the artist’s former rough life as a stockman. Behind the subtlety and harmony of the composition lurks a learned and poetical knowledge of the land and its creation stories.

Innovation and experimentation are fundamental to Paddy Bedford’s practice as a contemporary artist. The appeal of his work to international audiences and contemporary art collectors worldwide rests in part on this sense of continuous innovation that resulted in a new exciting visual vocabulary that does not compromise Gija law and tradition and which resists comparison with modern Western art canons. Bedford’s work transcends the levels of the local and culturally determined in a surprising and convincing way.

In 2006 Paddy Bedford’s oeuvre was honoured with a grand retrospective in the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Sydney. Bedford’s first international retrospective exhibition took place in 2009 at the Museum of contemporary Aboriginal art (AAMU) in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Since then his work has been on display at several exhibitions worldwide, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Musée du quai Branly in Paris and the Museum Ludwig in Cologne.