IT was during World War II, when Roy McIvor was just 10 years old, that his entire community was rounded up by the army and forcibly transported thousands of kilometres south from their traditional Cape York country in far north Queensland. It was a traumatic upheaval and nearly one-quarter of the people died as a result of their banishment.
The Cape Bedford community at Hope Vale, about 50km north of Cooktown, was targeted by the army on May 17, 1942, because it was a time when anxiety about so-called “enemy aliens” was rampant.
The Japanese had just captured Singapore, invaded New Guinea, bombed Darwin and raided Broome. Amid the consequent panic, suspicions were aroused about the loyalties of Aborigines in the German-run Lutheran mission at Cape Bedford. There were allegations the mission was collaborating with the Japanese on the pearling luggers, leading to fears it would support an invasion of Australia.
It was also claimed that the mission was sending smoke signals and morse-code messages to help the Japanese, that the indigenous people would use their expertise to lead enemy troops through the bush, and that they spoke Japanese. When the army trucks arrived without warning on that May day in 1942, pastor George Schwarz, who ran the mission, was arrested and interned.
The indigenous residents, without any food or water, were forced at gunpoint on to a boat and then on to a train for the 1500km trip to the Woorabinda Aboriginal reserve, near Rockhampton in central Queensland, says Regina Ganter, professor of history at Griffith University.
In his autobiography Cockatoo, My Life in Cape York, Roy McIvor recalls how his community was made “prisoners of war” and how, as a young boy, he dreaded leaving behind his pet dog and pig.
“The soldiers told us to be quiet and to sit down in the truck,” McIvor writes. “We were worried about Towser [the dog] and my little piggy. It was so hard to leave them. I still remember my little pig standing there as we drove off.”
McIvor is now 81, an elder of the Binthi clan, and is back living in his traditional country after the community eventually returned to rebuild.
He has been painting for more than 50 years – since, he says, “it really got into me”.
An exhibition of McIvor’s work is on display at Cairns Regional Gallery, and when I visit it is evident that in paintings such as Dungganggay Thawunhthirrgu, he is resilient in maintaining a vital connection to his culture and his Guugu Yimithirr language.
The picture is a colourful, joyous depiction of dunggans, which are friendly, mischievous spirits. In Cockatoo: My Life in Cape York, McIvor describes dunggans as spirits who visit waterholes and lagoons, “making merry, paddling canoes, laughing and screaming with joy and diving for freshwater mussels. Whenever people come nearby talking or making any noise, the dunggans disappear.”
I’m shown McIvor’s painting by Cairns gallery director Andrea May Churcher, who says that his distinctive approach comes from “deep within himself, his great sense of connectedness to his land and people and his strong desire to share his cultural knowledge”.
“Dungganggay Thawunhthirrgu testifies to Roy’s instinctual skill as an artist and storyteller and his sheer delight in painting,” Churcher says. “In this work he creates an energetic and playful balance between the forms and the shallow space of the painting.
“Recalling the cave paintings around his homeland, Roy reinvents the sinewy forms of the spirit figures, portraying them in bright, exuberant colours as they dance mischievously across the surface, defying gravity and avoiding human presence.”