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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.

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Rosalie Kunoth

1960s
Donald Cameron

oil on canvas mounted on board (support: 41.0 cm x 36.0 cm, frame: 52.0 cm x 47.0 cm)
Image not available

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks OAM (1937-2022), Arrernte and Anmatjere woman, Aboriginal activist, former actress and nun, was born at Artekerre soak on Utopia Cattle Station in the Northern Territory, the daughter of Allan and Ruby Kunoth. Her paternal grandfather was German, and her paternal grandmother was from Arrernte country. In 1953 Kunoth was cast by the producer Charles Chauvel in the title role of the film Jedda. Selected unwittingly from among local schoolgirls because she had the shy demeanour Chauvel was looking for, she was coached, cared-for and chided by Chauvel and his wife Elsa, with whom she stayed throughout the filming. At one point, she ran away but was retrieved. Because the scenes were filmed out of sequence she never knew the story until Jedda was released in 1955; it previewed at the Star Theatre, a segregated cinema in Darwin, but Kunoth given special dispensation to sit with the white audience. Both Kunoth and her mother were dismayed by the sexualised nature of Kunoth's role, which breached their customs. Further, the publicity booklet for the film, Eve in Ebony … the story of 'Jedda', stated falsely that Ngarla was her tribal name as a child. Kunoth was dismayed, as Ngarla was her mother's skin totem: 'And every part of my body screamed and said, "I am not a Ngarla, I am an Apunaga woman", because I'd been brought up knowing who I am, and for a white person to change my skin was more than I could take', she said in her 1995 interview for the Australian Biography series.

Kunoth left Alice Springs in 1957 and joined an Anglican order of nuns in Melbourne. Ten years later, with the blessing of the church, she left in order to work directly with Aboriginal people. She was employed at the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, and set up the first Aboriginal family group home in Victoria at Essendon. After returning to the Northern Territory with her husband Bill Monks, she became involved in politics, social work and environmental causes, and was appointed adviser to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Paul Everingham. In 1979, she sought election to the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly, in order to fight the proposed construction of a dam which threatened sacred land. Although not elected, she continued to oppose the dam, for which plans were abandoned in 1992. In 2008, she moved back to her Utopia homelands and was a spokesperson for Amnesty International in Canberra, censuring Federal Government intervention in the Territory as a violation of human rights. She was named Northern Territory Australian of the Year in 2015.

Gift of Audrey Cameron in memory of the artist Donald Cameron 2022
© Estate of Donald Cameron

The National Portrait Gallery respects the artistic and intellectual property rights of others. Works of art from the collection are reproduced as per the Australian Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). The use of images of works from the collection may be restricted under the Act. Requests for a reproduction of a work of art can be made through a Reproduction request. For further information please contact NPG Copyright.

Artist and subject

Donald Cameron (age 33 in 1960)

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks OAM (age 23 in 1960)

Subject professions

Activism

Performing arts

Religion

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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 past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

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The National Portrait Gallery respects the artistic and intellectual property rights of others. The use of images of works of art reproduced on this website and all other content may be restricted under the Australian Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). Requests for a reproduction of a work of art or other content can be made through a Reproduction request. For further information please contact NPG Copyright.

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