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Paddy Bedford was a contemporary Indigenous Australian artist from Warmun in the East Kimberley region of Western Australia. He was named after the Bedford Downs Station where he was born but he was also known by his nickname of Goowoomji and his Gija (tribal) name, Nyunkuny.
Bedford’s life in the Kimberley was very hard and affected by the white Australians’ attitude to indigenous people at that time. He worked as a stockman on several stations, married Emily Watson and had two children who were taken away and put in a mission. In 1969 a law requiring equal pay for black and white workers was enacted and as a result Bedford lost his station work and was eventually forced on to welfare because of injury.
As an Aboriginal elder Bedford body painted as part of ceremony throughout his life but only began painting on canvas for exhibition in 1997. He was one of several artists from the Warmun /Turkey Creek area who, with the mentoring of Tony Oliver (artistic director of Jirrawun Arts and a former Melbourne gallery owner), established Jirrawun Aboriginal Art in 1998 to support the development and sale of works by indigenous artists from the Kimberley. Bedford’s career as a painter lasted for less than ten years, during which he received great critical acclaim both in Australia and internationally and was likened to Rover Thomas.
Bedford’s first paintings were on scraps of plywood and other materials and he progressed to works on paper and on canvas. His untitled gouaches were experimental and pushed his boundaries, leading to his larger, powerful paintings on canvas. His combination of drawing and painting, and the mixture of gouache, crayon, pencil and pastel applied on white or black cardboard, gave him freedom of form, composition and colour.
Bedford’s paintings show his love of his country and depict features of the Kimberley, including the rivers, roads and stockyards, which were part of his life there. His paintings represent important events in his life such as a massacre of Aborigines at Bedford Downs that occurred before he was born and family dreamings featuring emus, turkeys and cockatoos. His work is strongly influenced by traditional techniques and iconography and also by the work of Rover Thomas. He painted expanses of plain ochre with a few shapes and sparse lines marked by white dots in the ‘Turkey Creek’ style.
Bedford’s work is instantly recognisable and a major retrospective of his work was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney in 2006-2007. This was also the year that the Musee du quai Branly in Paris commissioned his work. In 2009 he had a solo exhibition at the Utrecht Aboriginal Art Museum in the Netherlands. His work is represented in collections that include the Art Gallery of New South Wales, National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Australia, Art Gallery of Western Australia and the Essl Collection in Austria.
Following a short illness Bedford passed away in 2007 in Kununurra, Western Australia, and his funeral service was attended by many dignitaries and collectors who had supported him and Jirrawun Arts, with Sir William Deane delivering the eulogy. He was survived by an extended family, including his two daughters.