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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

Eddie Mabo (after Mike Kelley's 'Booth's Puddle' 1985, from Plato's Cave, Rothko's Chapel, Lincoln's profile) No.3

1996
John Citizen

synthetic polymer paint on canvas (support: 168.0 cm x 152.5 cm depth 3 cm)

Koiki (Eddie) Mabo (1937-1992), Torres Strait Islander man, initiated a legal case for native title against the State of Queensland in 1982. Along with his fellow Meriam people, Mabo was convinced that he owned his family’s land on Murray Island (Mer) in Torres Strait. By contrast, Queensland Crown lawyers argued that on annexation in 1879, all the land had become the property of the Crown. In 1992, the seven Justices of the High Court found 6-1 in favour of Mabo and his co-plaintiffs, overturning the accepted view that Australia had been terra nullius (empty land) before white settlement. Mabo died before the historic decision, which was to lead to the Land Title Act of 1993, and permanently to alter the way Australians think about Aboriginal land ownership.

John Citizen is the artistic alter ego of Australian artist Gordon Bennett (1955–2014). Bennett, who worked under his own name and that of John Citizen, grew up in Nambour, Queensland and only learned of his mother’s Indigenous heritage in his early teens. He went to art school as a mature student. Stating early in his career that ‘the bottom line of my work is coming to terms with my Aboriginality,’ he continued to engage with questions of cultural and personal identity, interrogating Australia’s colonial past and postcolonial present through a succession of allusive postmodern works. He won the John McCaughey Memorial Art Prize of the National Gallery of Victoria in 1997, and the NGV mounted a touring exhibition, Gordon Bennett, in 2007–08. Bennett said that when he began to think about Eddie Mabo he ‘could not think of him as a real person … I only [knew] the Eddie Mabo of the “mainstream” news media, a very two-dimensional “copy” of the man himself.’ In making his portrait of Mabo, he used a newspaper image and headlines from newspaper articles about the Native Title furore, and combined them with an image by the American artist Mike Kelley. ‘To me the image of Eddie Mabo stood like the eye of a storm,’ Bennett said, ‘calmly asserting his rights while all around him the storm, a war of words and rhetoric, raged.’

Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Purchased with funds provided by L Gordon Darling AC CMG 1999
© Gordon Bennett Estate

Audio description icon

Audio description

3 minutes 22 seconds
Show transcript

Artist and subject

John Citizen

Eddie Mabo

Subject professions

Activism

Supported by

The Gordon Darling Foundation (36 portraits supported)

Related information

The Companion

Permanent collection catalogue

Café and shop

On one level The Companion talks about the most famous and frontline Australians, but on another it tells us about ourselves: who we read, who we watch, who we listen to, who we cheer for, who we aspire to be, and who we'll never forget. The Companion is available to buy online and in the Portrait Gallery Store.

L. Gordon Darling AC CMG
L. Gordon Darling AC CMG
L. Gordon Darling AC CMG
L. Gordon Darling AC CMG

Portrait of a patron

Magazine article by Dr Sarah Engledow, 2007

A new painting by Jiawei Shen captures the vision and resolve of the Gallery's founder, L. Gordon Darling AC CMG.

Andy Thomas
Andy Thomas
Andy Thomas
Andy Thomas

Uncommon Australians

The vision of Gordon and Marilyn Darling

Previous exhibition, 2015

This exhibition showcases portraits acquired through the generosity of the National Portrait Gallery’s Founding Patrons, L Gordon Darling AC CMG and Marilyn Darling AC.

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

The National Portrait Gallery is an Australian Government Agency