Robert White Koornung Triptych
Robert White Koornung Triptych
The Artist & Works of Art
Very little is known about the artist, Robert White other than he was born in Queensland in 1925. He briefly served in the Australian Forces during World War Two in the Pacific before going on to studying fine art in Sydney. Robert was a member of the Strath Art Group which was founded in 1949 by Robert Mitchell from students of the Strathfield Art College in Sydney. Members included John Coburn and Stan De Teliga (also featured in the University's Art Collection). Robert White went on to hold a solo exhibition in 1955 but he is best known for his illustrations for Xavier Herbert's novel, 'Poor Fellow, My Country' in 1977.
Poor Fellow, My Country was first published in 1975 and was Xavier Herbert's final novel which won the Miles Franklin Award for literature in 1975. It was one of the longest novels in Australian literature; going onto become a modern classic. It took something like 10 years to write and has been favourably compared to the works of Tolstoy. Set in the wilds of the Northern Territory in the late 1930s in the lead-up to and including the bombing of Darwin, the book traces the custody battle over a young Aboriginal boy called Prindy. His world is peopled by competing forces: some good, some bad, all determined to shape his destiny. It is the story of the stolen generation, but also it's a dissertation on beleaguered Australian nationalism and our relationship to our colonial past. It ranges widely over politics, religion, environmentalism, sexuality and love. Robert White's illustrations draw heavily on the good/bad struggles and is influenced by traditional rock paining.
'...they found Bob wandering about as a living skeleton, claiming that he had wiped out the party himself. His story was that Tchamala, the Rainbow Snake, cut him out from the party, took him away up into the sky to where he lives, in the hat hole in the Milky Way we call the Coal Sack, and there gave him the powers of Boss Snake Man, and sent him back to earth as a python to swallow the party, police, prisoners and all.'
'How one becomes a snake man I've no idea. there's always one about somewhere. you don't have to be a koornung to be one. In fact Bobwirridirridi's the first I've known who was. A snake-man, although leading an ordinary tribal life, more or less, is supposed to be in league with spirits that do Tchamala's bidding. In being so he can be dangerous. He can arrange for one's being bitten by a poisonous snake, taken by a crocodile, drowned in a flood, struck by lightning, or merely inconvenienced by being harrassed by mosquitoes, sandflies, marsh-flies, leeches, ticks, all creatures of Tchamala's ... or washed out of his humpy in the middle of a black night and have his fire put out and nothing to start another with. In a society where it is implicit that everything is controlled by magic, it's handy to have it known that you are in league with occult powers. At the same time, there is the disadvantage of being too greatly feared to lead a normal tribal life....'
'He used to go into those trances I was talking about, and claim afterwards that he'd been visiting his Country On Top, that is up with his Master, Tchamala, behind the Milky Way. I understand he used to howl for his celestial country much the same as an ordinary blackfellow does for his native haunts when away from them and feeling the deep nostalgia they often do..... Poor Fellow My Country!'.