About Elizabeth Durack, an artist in Papua and New Guinea, 1968


Papua New Guinea is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world, with a rich cultural and social heritage. In the late 1960s, Papua New Guinea was administered as a territory of Australia until it gained independence in 1975. During this period of transition, Papua New Guinea experienced complex political, economic and social change.

Many Australians lived and worked in Papua New Guinea when it was administered as a territory of Australia. More than 2000 were Patrol officers, many of whom brought cultural items back to Australia, which have since been acquired by museums and galleries. (1)

The late 1960s was a time when Papua New Guineans advocacy for independence was reaching the world. Many describe the cultural diversity of the territory – over 800 languages and 600 islands. (2) The strength of the many Papua New Guinea cultures in an undeveloped nation resulted in great interest from religious groups seeking to strengthen the capabilities of the people and the country. Australian government support for education, welfare and society was reaching more sophisticated policy levels. Elizabeth Durack’s visit to Papua New Guinea is set within this period of political, economic and social upheaval.

The Australian Administrator for Papua New Guinea, when taking up his post in 1967, announced that “The Australian Government would not be slow to make constitutional and political changes in Papua-New Guinea if the people of the Territory wanted them”. (3) Charles Barnes, Australian Federal Minister for Territories and Minister for External Territories 1963–1972 was responsible for the Government’s policy, believing in 1966 that “PNG remained well short of capacity for self-government: ‘though the Commonwealth would progressively devolve its authority, in practice it would ... retain final responsibility’; ‘the Minister would retain the right to direct policy or to question any action’”. (4)

The young, educated and politically literate members of the Papua New Guinea House of Assembly increasingly advocated for independance and economic support. A new political formation known as the Papua and New Guinea Union Pati (Pangu Pati)was established and debate intensified.

Durack’s trip came after receiving recognition for her national contribution to the arts through her appointment as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE)in 1966. In some ways, her expedition was opportunistic. She discussed the genesis of her trip and her books on life in countries in the region in an interview in 1997:

The first of those was one that occurred through a link with the Australian Government, Mr Barnes. Mr Seth Barnes was Minister for Territories at the time and we met in some way through ... in Canberra and I said, 'I'd love to go to Papua New Guinea'. And then it was worked out through his department that they didn't think that the women ... though the men were coming forward towards the oncoming independence, the women ... women were not getting the same amount of attention. He said, 'Do something on the women of Papua New Guinea', and so that's how that ... that came about. I went up to Papua New Guinea, and moved right through, drawing the women and that took the shape of a book called The Women of Papua New Guinea, I think. Face Value. Face Value. It's a word I often use because I've got a huge assemblage of drawings of Aboriginals that I call Face Value, that itself would make a book. And then on to that I wrote the experiences of travelling through this country which was a marvellous adventure. And that ... that came out in a book called Seeing Through Papua New Guinea, published by Hawthorn Press in Melbourne. So that was the beginning of that. (5)

Durack’s work was firmly positioned in the context of a government that was becoming increasingly aware of the importance of understanding Papua New Guinea society and to work towards strengthening social relations with the Territory. In an internal submission on social affairs published in 1969, schools, community support and the role of women were recognised as vitally important. (6)

About Elizabeth Durack (6 July 1915 – 25 May 2000)

The Durack family name is well known in Australia. Elizabeth’s sister Mary wrote the novel Kings in grass castles, a story of the pioneering Durack family building a pastoral empire in the Australian outback during the 19th century. Patrick Durack, grandfather of Elizabeth and Mary, came from County Clare, Ireland, in 1853.

Elizabeth was a Western Australian artist and writer and her artworks are known for depicting the western and aboriginal elements of north and central Western Australia. Her contemporaries were William Dobell, Arthur Boyd, Albert Tucker and others. She had her own distinctive style from simple line drawings to lyrical watercolours and dyeline prints. (7)

Elizabeth held many successful exhibitions, the first in 1946, Perth. She was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1966 for services to art and literature, Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George in 1982, and these were followed by conferring of Honorary Doctorates of Letters by Murdoch and the University of Western Australia in 1994 and 1996, respectively.

Elizabeth is best known as an artist with exhibitions across Australia and in London, as well as an illustrator of Aboriginal tales and children’s books. She created works under the persona “Eddie Burrup” representing herself as an Aboriginal male artist. This controversy offended many indigenous artists. (8), although Durack defended her use of the persona: "I'm just using a nom de plume. Why are people so interested in the fact of what I've done?" (9)

Her significance is widely recognised – she is recorded in the Australian Womens’ Register. (10)

About the significance of the collection

The ANU Library acquired the collection from her family in 2016.

Academics have identified the significance of the collection:

I'm very impressed with its completeness (of the collection) I think it's one of the more significant post-war collections by an Australian artist relating to the Pacific, and offers some very important insights into the colonial relationship between Australia and PNG in the years leading up to Independence. As you know, we have a growing cohort of ANU scholars — staff and students — who are interested in drawing and art as forms of representation... This material would feature strongly in such an exhibition and in any publications associated with the project (aa project in conjunction with the University of Sydney and the PNG National Museum and Art Gallery that will explore pictorial representations of PNG)

Associate Professor Chris Ballard, Senior Fellow, School of Culture, History & Language, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific

This was a crucial time in Australia's relations with its then dependency. The collection offers an artist's record of the country, its people and its political development. Though wide-ranging, the collection's particular female emphasis is distinctive. Aside from the collection's timeless worth (and Durack herself was a strong member of a family honoured for contributions to Australian culture) it would also be timely. Australians are increasingly exhorted to reengage with PNG and better understand our nation's past and present involvement with our closest neighbour. The role of artists such as Durack in this engagement offers great potential - as highlighted, by analogy, in the exhibition of William Dobell's PNG work at the C.S. Irwin Gallery in Sydney earlier this year.

Dr Vicki Luker, Executive Editor, The Journal of Pacific History; previously Lecturer, Pacific and Asian History, CHL, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific

Research value

The collection was acquired from Michael Clancy and Perpetua Durack Clancy — trustees of the estate of Elizabeth Durack in 2016.

The collection offers a wealth of precious historical sources of original drawings and sketches that record the most critical phase in PNG’s road to nationhood and the valuable and significant role PNG women and girls were playing in the development of their country. Elizabeth’s journey into the interior of the country and her immersion into coastal communities enabled her to see first-hand the activities of PNG women. It was Elizabeth’s records of her experience that provided the Australian Government with some understanding of the status and role of women in the ‘colony’.

This invaluable collection of important historical sources on PNG will enable scholars across academic disciplines to research PNG women according to their own individual needs. This unique pictorial resource focuses on women at the most critical period of great change and transition from village to ‘modernity’.

This collection fills a significant gap in scholarly research.

The significance is increased by the fact that over 200 of 410 items in the collection have not been exhibited or published before.

This resource will enable ANU Library to support specialist research interests on Papua New Guinea women from Australia and the wider Asia Pacific region and indeed the world. The collection will be of particular interest to researchers interested in Australia’s formal political, economic and cultural association with the people of PNG.


This collection of 410 drawings is contained in seven folders.

Folder 1: Teaching and nursing nuns. — 42 folios (including 9 biographical notes) Field drawings of nine teaching nuns together with each nun's own short, hand-written, biography; studio portraits on transparent paper of nursing nuns; dyelines, with hand-finished variations, of most of the above individuals.

Folder 2: Villagers and masks — 23 folios Original field and studio drawings; dyelines with hand-finished variations; and one sepia proof.

Folder 3: Educators and volunteers — 39 folios Original field and studio portraits and dyelines of women: teachers, trainee teachers, scholarship girls, university undergraduates, welfare workers, girl guides, and volunteer socialites. Also a small unfinished field drawing of Alice Wedega MBE DBE (1905-1987) teacher and PNG's first female parliamentarian.

Folder 4: Nurses and midwives — 55 folios Original field and studio portraits of nurses, midwives and trainees; and complementary handfinished dyelines with variations.

Folder 5: Students - primary and secondary — 74 folios Original field and studio drawings of some students together with complementary hand-finished dyelines with variations and sepia proofs.

Folder 6: Topography - 'The shape of PNG' (1)— 119 folios Studio drawings and hand-finished dyelines — predominantly of the landscape: mountains, rivers, gardens, villages and more.

Folder 7: Topography - 'The shape of PNG' (2)— 58 folios Additional field and studio drawings, dyelines and sepia proofs of miscellaneous subjects ranging from landscapes to nursing clinics.

TOTAL: 410 folios (including 9 biographical notes)

All the works were photographed and collated by Michael Clancy and Perpetua Durack Clancy — trustees of the estate of Elizabeth Durack — in March 2012.


(1) For example the Norm Wilson Collection at the National Museum of Australia (http://www.nma.gov.au/collections/highlights/norm_wilson_collection)and collections in the Museum of South Australia (http://www.samuseum.sa.gov.au/research/humanities/world-cultures)

(2) Simons, Gary F. and Charles D. Fennig (eds.) 2017. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Twentieth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Online version: http://www.ethnologue.com.

(3) The Canberra Times. “PAPUA-NEW GUINEA Views of people 'to be heeded'.” Jan. 10, 1967. Trove, The Canberra Times (ACT: 1926 – 1995) http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article106956286

(4) Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. 2006. “Introduction.” Documents on Australian foreign policy: Australia and Papua New Guinea 1966–1969. Canberra: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. p. xxiv. https://dfat.gov.au/about-us/publications/historical-documents/Documents/australia-and-papua-new-guinea-1966-1969.pdf

(5) Hughes, Robin. "Elizabeth Durack". Australian Biography. Sep. 4, 1997.  

(6) Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. 2006. “272: SUBMISSION, RESEIGH TO BARNES Canberra, 19 May 1969”. Documents on Australian foreign policy: Australia and Papua New Guinea 1966–1969. Canberra: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. p. 769. https://dfat.gov.au/about-us/publications/historical-documents/Documents/australia-and-papua-new-guinea-1966-1969.pdf.

(7) Hutchings, Patrick. “The Art of Elizabeth Durack.” Perth: The Western Mail. 1981.

(8) Maynard, Roger. "Aboriginal male artist unveiled as white woman.” London: The Times. Mar. 8, 1997.

(9) Hughes, Robin. "Elizabeth Durack". Australian Biography. Sep. 4, 1997.  

(10) The Australian Women's Register. "Durack, Elizabeth (1915-2000)" May 12, 2008. Trove. http://nla.gov.au/nla.party-471148.    

For more reading

Film Australia. 1997. Elizabeth Durack 1915-2000: Study Guide. Lindfield, NSW: Film Australia. http://australianbiography.s3.amazonaws.com/study/8016_ausbiodurack.pdf