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Campbell Jnr, Robert (1944–1993)

by Jayne Regan

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Robert Campbell junior (1944–1993), artist, was born on 15 August 1944 at Kempsey, New South Wales, fourth surviving child of New South Wales-born parents Thomas William Campbell and his wife Lottie Ivy, née Sherry. Named after his uncle, Robert belonged to the Ngaku clan of the Dunghutti nation. As a child he drew images of birds and animals, and his father used a hot wire to burn these images onto hand-carved boomerangs that he sold to tourists. He attended the Burnt Bridge Aboriginal mission school until the age of fourteen.

Following his schooling, Campbell held a variety of jobs, including bricklaying, pea picking, and factory work, and relocated to Sydney. These physically demanding manual occupations enabled his financial survival, though one cost him part of a finger. He maintained an interest in art throughout the 1960s and 1970s, often using found materials—such as cardboard, plywood, and leftover paint in tins sourced from the tip—to create artworks. In the early 1980s he returned to live at Kempsey. The Sydney artist Tony Coleing noticed his work in an exhibition in 1982 at the town’s Returned Services League club. Through Coleing, Campbell received greater access to art supplies and was introduced to members of the art community; his reputation grew throughout the decade.

Campbell became known principally for his brightly coloured acrylic paintings. These depicted a wide range of subjects, particularly relating to the historical and contemporary experiences of Indigenous Australians, including early contact with white colonists, massacres, the stolen generations, deaths in custody, and racial segregation at cinemas and swimming pools. According to Campbell, through his art he was ‘telling the stories, the struggle of Aboriginal people’ (Tyerabarrbowaryaou 1992, 14). He also painted contemporary Australian events and people, such as the disappearance of baby Azaria Chamberlain, Australia II’s victory in the 1983 America’s Cup, the racehorse trainer Bart Cummings, the boxer Jeff Fenech, and Senator Neville Bonner. He had no formal artistic training, but his work drew on wide influences, including traditional south-eastern styles, Central Desert dot painting, and Arnhem Land x-ray style. In the late 1980s he visited the Ramingining community in the Northern Territory where he met Aboriginal artists such as David Malangi, Paddy Dhatangu, and Jimmy Wululu, from whom he took inspiration and acquired some new artistic techniques, including incorporating ochres into his work. Seamlessly, he integrated traditional Aboriginal artistic techniques with a contemporary graphic style. This, in combination with the political content of much of his art, appealed to the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery of contemporary art in Sydney, which holds one of the largest collections of his work.

In 1987 Campbell was awarded a printmaking residency at the University of Sydney’s Tin Sheds centre. The same year, with other local artists, he formed the Kempsey Koori Artists collective. He was twice a finalist in the Archibald prize: in 1989 for My Brother Mac Silva and in 1990 for Sammy Alfie Drew, Local Macleay Aboriginal Sporting Identity (Football and Cricket). During his lifetime, his work was exhibited in many Australian cities, as well as in England, Scotland, and the United States of America, including in solo exhibitions at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery; the Christine Abrahams Gallery, Melbourne; and the Rebecca Hossack Gallery, London.

Campbell died of heart failure on 14 July 1993 at Kempsey and, after a funeral at All Saints Catholic Church, was buried in the lawn cemetery, East Kempsey. His de facto wife Eileen Button, and their two sons and two daughters, survived him. He is remembered as ‘a quiet, gentle man’ (McLean 2015, 37), with a keen wit. His self-portrait (1988) is held by the National Gallery of Australia, and his work is represented in national, State, and regional galleries, as well as private collections.

Select Bibliography

  • Coleing, Tony. ‘Robert Campbell Jnr.’ Art and Australia 31, no. 3 (1994): 380–81
  • Howie-Willis, Ian. ‘Campbell (Jr), R.’ In The Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander History, Society and Culture, vol. 1, A-L, edited by David Horton, 178. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, 1994
  • Lendon, Nigel. ‘Overlapping Territories in the Collaborative Work of Tony Coleing and Robert Campbell Jr.’ In Synergies, edited by Howard Morphy and Nigel Lendon, 35–42. Canberra: Australian National University Drill Hall Gallery, 2003
  • McLean, Ian. ‘The Politics of Australian Indigenous Contemporary Art.’ In Robert Campbell Jnr: History Painter, 36–46. Waterloo, NSW: Artbank, 2015
  • Mundine, Djon. ‘Common Koori/Goori.’ In Robert Campbell Jnr: History Painter, 10–27. Waterloo, NSW: Artbank, 2015
  • Mundine, Djon. Personal communication
  • Robert Campbell Jr Ngaku. Curated by Roslyn Oxley. Paddington: Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, 1997. Exhibition pamphlet
  • Tyerabarrbowaryaou: I Shall Never Become a White Man. Curated by Djon Mundine and Fiona Foley. Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1992. Exhibition catalogue.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Jayne Regan, 'Campbell Jnr, Robert (1944–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/campbell-jnr-robert-25181/text33648, accessed 25 April 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012