News

Renowned Aboriginal Artist's Spiritual Journey of Faith and Hope

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
21 Mar 2013

A member of the Stolen Generation, art offered Richard Campbell a release as well as joy

Richard J. Campbell is one of Australia's best known artists. His remarkable, moving and inspiring Aboriginal paintings of the Black Madonna and the Stations of the Cross are a beloved and a much admired feature of the Church of Reconciliation at La Perouse.

Tomorrow evening, Friday 22 March, the 56-year-old the artist will share his spiritual journey of faith and hope at the Church of Reconciliation.

Organised by the Archdiocese of Sydney's Aboriginal Catholic Ministry, the evening is a chance to hear Richard talk about his art and how his Catholic faith and talent for drawing served as an inspiration and escape from the brutality and abuse he suffered as a member of the Stolen Generation.

At nine years of age Richard was taken from his large and loving family and placed in Kempsey's notorious state-run Kinchela Boys Home at Kempsey.  His elder brother was also taken away while his three young siblings went to other homes. It would be more than 12 years before he was reunited with his parents. But during the years he was separated from them and his uncles and aunties as well as his brothers and sisters, Richard says he clung to his faith in the Lord and what he had been taught by his parents, particularly his mother, about God, the Gospel and Christ's all-embracing love and compassion.

"I grew up Catholic and went to a Catholic school in Bowraville before I was taken away," he says.

The Black Madonna by Richard Campbell for the Church of Reconciliation at La Perouse

But this all changed at the Kinchela Boys Home.

"It was a hideous time. Physical, mental and sexual abuse - it all happened there," he says. His voice is low and measured and despite all he suffered, surprisingly shows no bitterness.

Even at nine, he says, he knew that despite being taken from his family, his parents had done no wrong and that the years spent at Kinchela were not their fault or the result of anything they had done.

"My father was a Dunghutti man and my mother was a Gumbaynggir woman," he says proudly and says while his family never had much money, what they didn't have materially was more than made up for by love.

"As kids at home we were surrounded by love not only from our parents but all the aunties and uncles. Dad fished and hunted and no matter how tight money was, we always had food on the table," he says.

From early childhood, Richard loved to draw. At Kinchela he continued to sketch whatever he saw.  "I'd draw animals and people and fauna and pretty much everything I saw. When they put me in a government school in Kempsey, I remember winning some big art competition."

Despite this, Richard's talent was not encouraged at Kinchela and the grim-faced officials who ran the home quickly realised the best punishment they could mete out to Richard for some real or perceived mischief was to confiscate his pencils.

Crucifixion by artist Richard Campbell

By 16 Richard had managed to escape Kinchela . Finding work as a manual labourer it wasn't long before he headed for Sydney basing himself at Redfern which is where so many of the Stolen Generation went in a bid to find their families and siblings.

Calling this period his  "wild years," he admits he was pretty much out of control. This changed in the 1990s when he returned to Kempsey and for the next 10 years worked for Telecom as a linesman.

Despite being employed full time, at any and every chance he got, he continued to draw. This remained his outlet, hobby and escape; and may have remained so if he had not decided to complete his education and obtain his HSC.

"I wanted to get my life on track and get an education," he explains.

Enrolling at the local TAFE he commenced his studies and during this time, happened to pass a class on Aboriginal art and on impulse, asked if he could join.

"I knew about sketching but I didn't know how to mix colours or anything like that," he says.

The art class was a turning point. His teacher quickly recognised Richard was an outstanding and exceptionally gifted student and gave him much needed encouragement, that not only helped build his self esteem but his confidence in his ability as an artist.

A depiction of the Madonna and Child by Richard Campbell

Inspired by the Biblical stories his mother had told him as a child, which he describes as "very like the stories of Dreamtime," he began painting in earnest.  Reunited with his  family more than a decade before, it was his sister Louise who was responsible for Richard's first-ever commission.

This would change his life and eventually lead to him being able to become an in demand and full-time professional artist.

"A priest in Maitland, who passed away a few years ago, was looking for someone to paint some religious Aboriginal artworks for his church and he happened to ask Louise if she knew anyone who might be able to do it. She hadn't known I painted but a few months before I had shown her some of my work and she suggested to the priest that he contact me."

Richard's first commission was for an Aboriginal painting of the Annunciation and one of the Crucifixion.  Within a short time, this led to many more commissions from parishes and schools and community groups across Australia, including the spectacular and extremely moving Stations of the Cross and the Black Madonna for the Church of Reconciliation at La Perouse.

"So far I think I've done about five or six Black Madonnas and about the same number of Crucifixions," he says with a smile adding that his most recent work is one of the Last Supper which he has dubbed "the Last Corroboree."

Richard loves what he does, is inspired by his faith and the Lord, and strongly believes that for  Aboriginal Catholics to have the Gospel interpreted by an Indigenous artist helps give a real sense of identity and an acknowledgement that they are an important and integral part of the Australian Church.

Art by Aboriginal artist Richard Campbell was a feature of WYD08 in Sydney

One of his own highlights was having his paintings of the Crucifixion and of the Black Madonna chosen to be part of the Canonisation Ceremony of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop in Rome in 2010.

"I was over the moon, to tell you the truth, when I was told they wanted my paintings," he admits adding the Sisters of St Joseph also invited him to be in Rome for the Canonisation.

In spite of the cruel, loveless and brutal years spent at the Kempsey's Kinchela Boys Home, Richard harbours no bitterness. His life is one of profound faith interwoven with his proud heritage as an Aboriginal man and a spiritual inheritor of the land.

 A Spiritual Journey with Uncle Richard Campbell, renowned religious artist, begins at 7 pm, Friday 22 March at the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry's Reconciliation Church, Yarra Road, Philip Bay.