Tony Oliver’s journey has been an extraordinary one. Born in the Victorian town of Wonthaggi in 1958, Tony moved to Melbourne with his parents when he was 6. A promising VFL player he signed with the Melbourne Football Club and was awarded the MFC Scholarship in 1975 and played a session in the under 19s team.
Oliver studied Art at the Preston Institute of Technology between 1979 and 1981 where he was taught art history by Betty Churcher. While still at Art School he opened his first gallery, the Reconnaissance, on the corner Gertrude and Napier Street, in Fitzroy where he started exhibiting the works of contemporary Australian Artists and building relationships with US and international artists and galleries. While he was running the gallery Oliver met Andy Warhol at the Factory in New York and discussed the possibility of an exhibition – Warhol’s exhibition, Myths, later runs at Reconnaissance. He also met the New York gallerist David McKee and began an ongoing lifetime friendship. Among notable exhibitions at the gallery at this time include Phillip Guston, Richard Bosman, Roy Lichtenstein, John Perceval, Hans Nammuth, Jean Dubuffet and Arron Siskind. The inaugural performance of Christopher Barnett’s, Last Days of the World with the All Out Ensemble
In 1985, after the death of his niece, Natalie Anastasiou, Oliver sold Reconnaissance and moved to Wat Pah Nanachat, a Buddhist monastery on the Cambodian/Laos border where he became a novice monk. In 1987 he returned briefly to Australia before moving to New York and immersing himself once again in the arts scene, meeting and working with David McKee, Jake Berthot and Harvey Quaytman among many others. Returning to Melbourne in 1989 he set up the Tony Oliver Gallery and, over the next 3 years his exhibitions include work by many contemporary and international artists including Paul Boston, Jeffrey Harris, James Clayden, Nicole Page Smith, Jake Berthot, Harvey Quatyman, and Porifirio Didonna. A dispute over rents results in the Gallery closing in 1992.
For the next four years Oliver lived in the Illawarra area South of Sydney. During this time he painted and read vast amounts of literature and was increasingly influenced by the essays of Isaiah Berlin and the ‘history of ideas’ and the writings of the Italian Renaissance thinker Gianbattisto Vico and writings of Theodore Adorno. He also began to develop a serious interest in Aboriginality as a result of living in the Illawarra landscape as well as through the writings of Xavier Herbert and D. H. Lawrence’s novel, Kangaroo, and its timeless and ancient subtext. He renewed his friendship with the mathematician Chris Czarnes, who lived nearby, and he also worked with potter Margaret Tuckson whilst curating an exhibition including her husband’s work, Reversals: Philip Guston and Tony Tuckson (Ivan Dougherty Gallery, Paddington 21 Apr 1994–21 May 1994, Heide Museum of Modern Art 31 May 1994–17 July 1994 )’ . Oliver spent time going through Tony Tuckson’s work in his studio where the influence of Aboriginal, Melanesian and Oceanic art on his paintings became clear.
A meeting with Aboriginal Artist Freddie Timms in Melbourne resulted in an invitation to accompany Timms back to the Kimberley. During this trip Oliver met many Gija people which included artists. The question of establishing an Aboriginal arts centre or company was initially raised during these discussion. He assists Timms set up a solo exhibition at the Watters Gallery in Sydney where Timms is treated on the same terms as all other Watters artists – a far cry from his previous experiences selling his work. A description of the artistic relationship between the two men can be found in Quentin Sprauge’s article in the Monthly Review (Two Painters in the Kimberley, December 2013 – https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2013/december/1385816400/quentin-sprague/two-painters-kimberley):
The Painting group, which is made up of Freddie Timms, Hector Jandalay, Paddy Bedford, Peggy Patrick, Rusty Peters, Phylis Thomas, Goody Barrett, Timmy Timms and Rammey Ramsey, is named Jirrawun by Hector Jandalay which means one mob standing together’. The central policy of Jirrawun other than creativity and production was to insure economic and social equity for all of its members. Over the next ten years Jirawun grows and expands with over 50 Jirrawun artists exhibitions curated for galleries in all Australian capital cities including Canberra over the decade of Olivers directorship. Some of the highlights of that decade were:
- Jirrawun exhibition at Martin Browne Fine art, Sydney attended by the artists
- Jirrawun exhibition at William Mora Galleries, Melbourne attended by the artists.
- Waterbrain, Rusty Peters – inaugural exhibition at the Grant Pirrie Gallery Sydney
- Paddy Bedford Retrospective, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney. Australia
- Beyond the Frontier – Exhibition at the Sherman Gallery Sydney
- Women’s Business – Sherman Gallery Sydney
- Jirrawun in the house exhibition held at Parliament House Canberra
- Blood on the spinafex – (exhibition Ian Potter Museum, University of Melbourne.
- Fire fire Burning Bright, a stage production based on a local massacre is produced and performed at the Perth Festival and opens the Melbourne Arts Festival at the Victorian Arts Centre.
- Numerous exhibitions with Raft Artspace, Darwin and William Mora Galleries Melbourne.
- The Jirrawun suite of works on paper created in Melbourne and later purchased by the Art Gallery of NSW
- Lunch with the Lawmen, Gija Lawman. Painter, Paddy Bedford addresses Federal Court Judges at a lunch at the Victorian Federal Court held in his honour along with lawyer Peter Seidel and Tony Oliver.
- Local and international curators travel to Jirrawun to purchase works by the artists.
- A relationship is established with Charles Darwin University which results in Jirrawun artists attending workshops at the university and becoming artists in residence.
- The creation of the Jirrawun Centre in Wyndham .
- Oliver becomes CEO of Jirrawun and later the CEO and Artistic Director of Jirrawun Atrs Corporation.
- Relationship with the Melbourne Law firm Arnold Bloch Leibler who work pro bono for a decade for Jirrawun Arts. Oliver forms a close frienship with the firms Pubic Interest lawyer, Peter Seidel, who works tirelessly to realise Jirrawun legal initiatives which include its historic corporate constitution which is the first to recognize Gija traditional law working simultaneously with Australian law. The establishment of a consignment legal contract document for Jirrawun artists with commercial galleries to protect their equity and intellectual rights and the creation of wills and estates for Jirrawun artists. These legal initiatives were then shared with other aboriginal arts organizations
- Sir William Deane becomes the Patron of Jirrawun Arts and Nemuwarlin Dance Group
During his time at Jirrawun Oliver visits Vietnam and, on the death of Paddy Bedford, he resigns and moves to Vietnam where he marries.
Tony Oliver and his wife, Le Chi, live in Ha Noi for the first year and a half after being married and their home turns into a art salon which includes historical Vietnamese paintings covering all of its walls mainly from the American war era and post war period. The house is frequented by a variety of artists, writers, film makers and older communist party members. During this time it was not uncommon to see the kitchen table surrounded with guests eating lunch or dinner. Friendships were formed with the silk painter Nguyen Thu, oil and silk painter the late Madam Vu Giang Huong, Madam Vo Thi Hao and oil painter Pham Luc. Their son, Jack Oliver, was born during this period and eventually the family moved back to Le Chi’s fishing village at Dong Hai – a little hamlet north of Nha Trang City. Here they lived in a little house in the village whilst Oliver built a house studio beside the beach not far from the village. Oliver continues to paint there and recently the family had a addition with the birth of a daughter Hoa Mi. Oliver exhibited work from this period at the William Mora Galleries in Melbourne In 2013 – Notes from Vietnam (http://www.moragalleries.com.au/2013/toliver-1.html ). Recently one of his paintings, Circle Within Circle appearing on the cover of Christopher Barnett’s recent book when they came for you / elegies of resistance (http://www.wakefieldpress.com.au/product.php?productid=1120).
– Mark Roberts
Mark Roberts is the founding editor of Rochford Street Review. His first major collection of poetry, Concrete Flamingos, Island Press 2016 will be launched by Anna Counai at the Friend in Hand Hotel in Glebe, NSW on Saturday 27 February at 2.30 pm.