Alan Griffiths is a highly accomplished and respected artist, teacher, song-man, Indigenous elder and cultural leader. He has spent the past 35 years creating artworks connecting cultural heritage and knowledge with personal history and experience.
Born at Victoria River Downs Station in the Northern Territory in 1933, Alan grew up on cattle station stock camps. He began doing manual work at a young age, learning from his elders how to break in camels and donkeys, and muster cattle. With a non-Indigenous father and Indigenous mother, Alan was on the list to be taken from his home to a government mission. However, when the authorities came to remove him, his grandfather moved him away to a nearby bush camp. Alan spent several years living in the bush with his grandfather, learning to live on the land, and gaining knowledge about his cultural heritage and traditions. He cites his grandfather as his main inspiration and influence.
Alan was too old to be taken to a mission by the time he re-emerged from the bush and was returned to Victoria Downs Station where he lived and worked as a stockman until 1957. He then worked on several stations across northern Australia before becoming head stockman at Beswick Station. He then worked laying pipe for the Public Works Department in Wyndham before moving to Argyle Downs Station near Kununurra around 1965. He married his promised wife, Peggy, the same year. After the 1968 Pastoral Industries Equal Pay Legislation, when Aboriginal people were removed from stations, he sought work on a cotton farm in Kununurra.
After he retired in 1981, Alan began to take art seriously, starting out making didgeridoos and carving boab nuts. Alan’s growing interest in creating artwork coincided with the establishment of the Waringarri Arts Centre, which has been an integral supporter throughout his career. By the mid-1980s, Alan was working with canvas and ochre, presenting imagery that depicted the mapping of his traditional country alongside interpretations of cultural traditions and corroborees, as well as stories of his life on stations mustering cattle. In paintings that celebrate life and culture, Alan’s art is joyous, humorous and playful.
Alan’s work was exhibited across the country throughout the 1990s, and was shown at the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards in 1997, 1999, 2000, 2013 and 2014. Alan and Peggy were invited to launch the award in Darwin in 1997, and again as part of the TNASIAA’s 30th anniversary celebrations in 2013.
In 2006, Alan received a Creative Development Fellowship from the Department of Culture and the Arts, allowing him to produce a major body of work for the Darwin Festival. As part of the Fellowship, he became an artist in residence at Edith Cowan University and passed on knowledge about his practice. The same year, he took up a residency at Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory to advance his printmaking skills.
Alan is a respected cultural leader throughout the Kimberley region and across to the Daly River region of the Northern Territory. Alan’s corroboree, which includes the Bali Bali Balga and Joonba performances are complex interpretations of events, country, spirits and cultural knowledge.
Alan’s work is held at Parliament House in Canberra, the National Gallery of Australia, the Queensland Art Gallery and significant national and international public and private collections. His paintings, prints, carvings and cultural artefacts have been included in more than 40 group and solo exhibitions since the early 1990s. In 2007, he won the East Kimberley Aboriginal Achievement Award for his contribution to art and culture. His performances are regularly presented throughout the Kimberley and at key events as part of the Darwin Festival.
Alan and Peggy – also a highly respected artist in the region – continue to work with the Waringarri Aboriginal Arts Centre, and often collaborate on paintings and cultural works. “The most important thing for me is passing my knowledge onto my sons, daughters and grandchildren the things I learnt when I was growing up. Painting my country and keeping my culture strong is what is important.”
He has five children, 27 grandchildren and many great-grandchildren.
As an octogenarian, Alan continues to create, perform and teach.