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Self-taught and destined to paint
Edwin Lee Mulligan. Picture: Flip Prior/The West Australian

As a young child, Edwin Lee Mulligan would beg teachers every day for scraps of paper and coloured pencils and disappear into the bush after school.

Away from the other children, nestled among nature, he spent hours sketching realistic scenes of his life in the desert — the wrinkled, timeless faces of his elders, native animals and vivid, eons-old jutting landscapes.

“I taught myself through my own interest,” the now 32-year-old said, holding up his paintbrush and casting a critical eye over his latest work — a bold, linear and decidedly more abstract depiction of his lived environment today.

“Living in a remote community, there’s nothing going on for kids except going out bush and hunting, sleeping under the stars. Stories about dreams of country remind you who you are as a person and what is around you, what you are part of...you are one with country and country is one with you. I just like the colours, experimenting...the sky’s the limit, you know.”

Born in Derby, Mulligan grew up in Yakanurra Aboriginal Community, 42km south-east of Fitzroy Crossing, but now splits his time between nearby Noonkanbah and Broome.

The young man always seemed destined to follow in the footsteps of his late grandfather and acclaimed Walmajarri artist Jimmy Pike and father Pampila Hanson Boxer, a Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Prize finalist for his carved wooden heads,
When he was 11, Pike even told him: “You gonna be a famous artist like me” — but Mulligan’s talent for football promptly stole his attention. It wasn’t until he was in his mid 20s in 2005 that he turned his focus to art.

A trainee chef, he was only sketching “for pocket money” when he met Old Broome Lockup gallery director and didgeridoo artist Paul Boon through a mutual friend, award-winning artist Clifton Bieundurry.

In 2007 he moved away from traditional techniques and started producing abstract landscapes combining traditional dot painting with the “vibrations” of his modern environment. His work soon caught the eyes of critics: in 2008, he won the Shinju Aboriginal Art award and the Kimberley Art Prize in 2009.

By then, Boon and Bieundurry — OBL’s former artist-in-residence — had started garnering international attention through their collaborations with the New-York based WA photographer Russell James’ Nomad Two Worlds project.

Mulligan also became involved, exhibiting paintings in New York and Melbourne. In 2010, in a bittersweet moment, he and his father were bequeathed the first artists’ residencies through the Jimmy Pike Trust — a scholarship set up by his widow, Pat Lowe, to support emerging Aboriginal artists. Last year, works and performances by Mulligan, Boon and Bieundurry were seen in Berlin and featured in Hugh Jackman’s critically acclaimed one-man show on Broadway. Mulligan also held his first solo exhibition in the Netherlands.

These days, when in Broome, Mulligan takes up residence in the Old Broome Lockup’s shady stone courtyard, built more than a century ago to house his unhappy countrymen awaiting deportation for minor crimes.

The signature work to emerge from the latest residency, Ngarlimbah, uses acrylic paints blended with white and pindan sand from James Price Point, depicting Mulligan’s tale of a contemporary clashing of cultures.

Next month, Mulligan will headline the Lockup’s final exhibition, appropriately titled Yunku Parlipa, or “We are leaving”; after eight years, Boon is closing the door.

He said the tourism downturn had created a “semi-crisis” for the town’s galleries in recent years and most had now shut — but it’s not all doom and gloom for Kimberley artists.

New, global markets were emerging through the advent of social networking and pop-up galleries and projects such as Nomad Two Worlds, he said.

Boon hopes to start facilitating art “on country” with key Aboriginal artists, including Mulligan, inviting people into remote communities to see them at work instead of the other way round.

He will also concentrate on building his successful Groovylips Didjeridoos handmade instruments, one of which was also used in Jackman’s show.

“We’re looking for a new space, but obviously with the way the market is at the moment, we’re just being patient,” Boon said.

“The music we’ve made, the paintings we’ve made, have travelled all over the world and that won’t stop — creativity is in the Kimberley’s DNA”.

Yunku Parlipa runs at the Old Broome Lockup gallery from December 7-17 with works by Mulligan, Mark Nodea, Hanson Boxer, Yute Bannattee, Bonny Sampi and Bruce Wiggan.