Jack Britten

DOB: c. 1921 - 2001
Born: Tickalara Station, Turkey Creek, WA
COMMUNITY: Frog Hollow, Warmun, WA

Yalatji- Jack's given name at birth - was born and raised in the bush on Tickalara cattle station, just south of Turkey Creek and west of the Bungle Bungles. His first memories include that of the camel wagon trains and their Afghan drivers with supplies for the outstations, and seeing his first motor vehicle, driven by Jack Britten, the then Hann Springs cattle station manager, who took young Jacky Boy, as he prefers to be called, under his wing and taught him the fundamentals of station life. Having 'footwalked' most of the station country with family as a young man, his services were eagerly sought by subsequent station managers, both for his local knowledge and his ability to survive in the hostile environment of the Australian bush.

Jack's horsemanship was legendary, and he worked as a stockman on many East Kimberley cattle stations, including Mabel Downs, Bow River, Lissadell, Texas Downs and the now defunct Tickalara, Hann Springs and Bungle Bungles cattle stations. In the wet seasons, when mustering and working the cattle became impossible, Jack would be found camped out in the goldfields of Hall's Creek where, with his keen eyesight, he would 'spec' for alluvial (surface) nuggets and gold bearing rocks, these he would trade with dealers for tobacco, flour and blankets.

He did not paint during his years in the saddle, the inspiration apparently not coming until he was community based, perhaps, from his proximity to such artists as the late greats, Queenie McKenzie, Paddy Jampinji (Jampiny), George Mung Mung and Rover Thomas. As a senior 'lawman', his repertoire of the myths and legends of the 'gnarangkani' (dreamtime) is endless and provides a firm database for his very visual and descriptive canvasses. He was one of the traditional owners of the Bungle Bungles.

Jack Britten was born and spent his childhood at Tickelara Station, in the north west of Australia, at a time when many Gidja people were massacred during the gold rush at Hall's Creek and Chinaman's Garden in the East Kimberley region.

"Sometimes they bin shootin people there" Jack recalled in his later years, "my father and mother and grandparents were with good gadiya (white man). I might have got shot if he didn't look after me" (Ryan 1993:41)

Their 'good gadiya' was Ted Britten, a European stockman who took Jack, whilst still a boy, to Fitzroy Crossing to work on stations such as Cherrabun, Christmas Creek and Cogo. He did not rejoin his mother at Ticklerra until in his late teens, and he worked there as a stockman well in to his late 40's. The introduction of the pastoral award in 1969, which aimed to provide Indigenous workers with similar wages to their non-Indigenous counterparts, had the unfortunate and unintended effect of ending their jobs entirely. Jack, who, along with other Aboriginal stockmen, found himself unemployed, moved to Nine Mile creek at Wyndham and became a road-worker with the Shire. One of his nicknames Yalarrji, was given to him after spending a number of years panning for gold and dingo trapping at Yalarre on Alice Downs after Ted Britten's death. He used to relate the tale of finding a reef of gold, enough to make a prospector a rich man and having been paid for the 44 gallon drum of ore he mined from it, in rations and blankets.

It was not until the establishment of the Warmun Community at Turkey Creek, some 500 kilometres south of Wyndham, that Jack returned to his traditional lands which stretched from his new residence at Frog Hollow east to the Bungle Bungles; south, to take in the former Hann Springs and Tickelara Cattle stations; north to upper reaches of the Ord river; and west to the rugged hilly domain of the Mabel Downs high country. It is this country and its sacred and significant sites that he came to depict in his paintings.

Jack Britten actually began painting earlier than almost all of his contemporaries, including Rover Thomas and Paddy Jaminji, his grandparents having taught him to paint using traditional materials, methods and themes. In many of his canvases, most particularly the earliest ones, Britten used bush gum, sap from the Bloodwood tree and kangaroo blood to bind the ochres. Besides these traditional binding agents, Britten showed other signes of the tutelage he received from his grandparents. The manner in which he marked the dark surface of his canvases with zig zag, linear, and dotted scrifito and paint is reminiscent of how the Gidja traditional decorated their artefacts, slates and boab nuts in the region, as well as the designs they created for body painting. Most especially in early paintings, these effects animate Brittens' unique composite perspective of country.

Despite his vast repertoire, Jack Britten is most renowned for his depictions of the Purnululu, the Bungle Bungles region of which he become the most senior living custodian. Throughout his career he constantly drew inspiration from this land, painting the Bungle Bungles as dark clusters of dome shaped mountains, layered with glistening white trails of dots. Never the less, eccentricities and undulations in composition and stylistic manner were still to be found throughout his artistic output. His early works were daring in their execution, featuring highly unusual compositions of alternating perspectives. In contrast to the sombre, moody atmosphere of his early works, Jack's late career paintings tend to be more open and stark.

It is Britten's moody atmospheric canvases that will be his most enduring. Works with similar sensibility can also be found in the early paintings of George Mung Mung and Freddie Timms. However, while George and Freddie produced very few works with such temperament, Jack Britten dedicated the majority of his career to investigating the subtle variations of mood and composition within the domain of his own sombre outlook on a life lived during turbulent times. As a prolific artist, such an investigation left a sumptuous legacy of work of intriguing emotion.