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Senator Bonner
, 1990

by Robert Campbell Jnr

synthetic polymer paint on canvas (frame: 120.5 cm x 97.0 cm, support: 118.5 cm x 95.0 cm)

Neville Bonner AO (1922 –1999) was Australia’s first Indigenous parliamentarian. Bonner’s mother was a Jagera woman; his father was English. Born under a palm tree on Ukerebagh Island, Tweed Heads, he was educated by his grandmother, only attending school for two years in his mid-teens. He worked in labouring jobs including ringbarking, cane cutting, scrub clearing and herding stock before moving to Palm Island, where he lived for many years. There, he began his involvement in community affairs, joining the One People of Australia League, of which he was to be Queensland president from 1967 and national president from 1980. He joined the Liberal party after the Referendum of 1967. In 1971 the party invited him to fill a Senate vacancy; famously, soon after giving his maiden speech, he demonstrated his prowess with the boomerang on the Senate Lawn. He was elected a senator in four subsequent elections between 1972 and 1980. During his twelve-year term Bonner was Senate Deputy Chairman of Committees and served on the Joint Parliamentary Publications Committee, the Senate Standing Committee on Social Welfare, the Regulations and Ordinances Committee and the Joint House Committee. Along with environmentalist Harry Butler, he was Australian of the Year in 1979. After resigning from the Liberal Party in 1983 he served on the Board of Directors of the ABC for eight years, was a patron of World Vision and Amnesty International, and was a member of the council of Griffith University, from which he obtained an honorary doctorate in 1993.

Robert Campbell Junior (1944–1993) a Ngaku/Dhunghutti man, grew up in Kempsey. Campbell’s father was a boomerang maker and Campbell observed him at his craft, shaping wood and inscribing designs. Having attended the Burnt Bridge Mission School, from the age of fourteen Campbell worked in a series of menial jobs in Kempsey and Sydney. In the 1980s, after he had begun to paint in earnest, shows in Sydney and Melbourne brought him critical recognition; in 1987 he was the artist-in-residence at the University of Sydney and was commissioned to create a poster for the Bicentennial Authority. In the late 1980s he travelled to Ramingining in the Northern Territory; he found the experience of the traditional community totally new, and to a certain extent the visit influenced his subsequent work. Although it was completed over a relatively short period, his body of work now stands as a key graphic record of mid- to late-twentieth-century Indigenous experience.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Purchased with funds provided by
Tim Fairfax AC 2008
Accession number: 2008.13