Geraldton Regional Art Gallery
Faces and Places Revisited presents a comprehensive picture of Lewis’ practice, drawing on imagery of flora, fauna, families and a series of ‘Faces’ paintings
Lewis’ favourite motif was the human face. Locked into the confines of his canvases, faces jostle together, cheek to cheek in a visual cacophony as each one tries to exert its unique identity. Some grimace under the strain, while others beam forth as though they are pushing themselves to freedom from the restraints of the painting. According to Lewis, these works were ‘expressions of all the feelings and emotions that Aboriginal people have had since settlement. In general terms, it is probably more sadness than anything else. If the relationship between Aboriginal people had been encouraged from the beginning… if people only knew something of Aboriginal culture and history.’ Irwin’s faces exude a powerful sense of dignity amidst the overwhelming pressures of colonialism. According to Judith Ryan, former Senior Curator of Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Victoria, they presented a moving meditation on ‘the subject of Aboriginal people searching for their identity and what’s gone on since white invasion’ .Lewis obliquely confirms this quest for identity, noting that ‘in every painting one of the faces always looks like me.’
Irwin Lewis was born in 1939 in the country town of Morawa, approximately 400 kilometres north of Perth. The second of eight children, Lewis began his schooling at Morawa State School, before being granted a scholarship to Christ Church Grammar School in Claremont. At Christ Church, Lewis excelled in both his studies, as dux of the Junior School, and on the sporting field, where he was elected captain of the school’s football and cricket teams. In 1956, Irwin completed his leaving certificate at Christ Church and was awarded a Commonwealth scholarship to the University of Western Australia.
In 1957, he became the first Australian Aboriginal to attend university, enrolling in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Western Australia. The former UWA Pro Vice-Chancelllor stated that Irwin Lewis was a brave and highly gifted man. “He had the courage to overcome obstacles and create the pathways for future generations, and the nobility to offer his gifts in the service of others. The University of Western Australia is proud to have been a part of his remarkable life.”
At university, Irwin excelled at sport as a leading cricketer and footballer. In 1964 he was part of Claremont’s premiership WAFL team, and later his three sons Clayton, Cameron and Chris Lewis would follow in their father’s footsteps playing for the Tigers. Chris would go on to be a champion player for the West Coast Eagles, playing in their 1992 and 1994 premiership sides.
In 1958, Irwin left university to pursue a career in the public service. Over the next four decades he would become one of Australia’s leading Indigenous public servants, working in a variety of areas in Indigenous welfare and development before retiring in 1989.
In the same year, Irwin commenced his artistic career, taking up painting and ceramics. Drawing on a range of motifs – from the landscape, flora and fauna at Morawa, through to his inimitable faces – Irwin’s work received immediate acclaim, with his works being acquired by the NGV, the Art Gallery of Western Australia, the National Maritime Museum, Berndt Museum and many University and hospital art collections. He was a six-time finalist in the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, along with numerous other contemporary art awards including the Bankwest Art Prize, the City of Whyalla Art Prize and the Joondalup Invitation Art Award. His work has been exhibited to acclaim throughout Australia, as well as in the USA, Europe, Africa and New Zealand.