ACT News

Neville Bonner's family donate bark painting to Old Parliament House museum

From humble beginnings on an island in the Tweed River in northern NSW and time spent living on an Aboriginal reserve on Palm Island, Neville Bonner rose to become Australia's first Indigenous Member of Parliament, despite limited formal education.

A bark painting depicting his remarkable life journey has now joined a collection of Mr Bonner's possessions in the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House thanks to a donation from Mr Bonner's son Alfred.

Neville Bonner's son, Alfred Bonner, at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House.
Neville Bonner's son, Alfred Bonner, at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House.  Photo: Jay Cronan

Palm Island artist Bill Congoo, a relative of Neville Bonner's, painted the work in the 1970s and gave it to him on one of his many visits after he entered the Senate in 1971.

After receiving the treasured painting from his father shortly before his death, Alfred Bonner gave it to his great-niece Narelle Anderson as he feared it would be lost in the family.

Neville Bonner.
Neville Bonner. Photo: Fairfax Media

He said he was very pleased when he heard Ms Anderson had decided to donate it to the museum.

"If you knew what his life was, this bark painting will tell you everything about it," he said.


"From where he started on the Tweed River, he wandered around and came up to Palm Island where his children were born, then he came down … and mixed with the different races of people then he got into politics and ended up in this building."

Sitting in his father's former senate seat during the handover was a great feeling, Alfred Bonner said.

Neville Bonner's bark painting.
Neville Bonner's bark painting. Photo: Jay Cronan

His niece Joanna Lindgren is a current senator, but he said he never thought he'd follow in his father's footsteps to become a politician.

"I don't think there will be another man that suffered all those years and then came in and got on top of the world by being a senator," he said.

"He was a great man … he fought all his life to better his life and better the life of the Aboriginal People, which was a hard thing to do and I doubt we'll ever resolve anything.

"Take a look outside," he said referring to the Aboriginal tent embassy.

The museum's Bonner collection features about 40 personal items, ranging from photo albums and office stationery, to his RM William boots and a boomerang he made with Alfred he called a "Bonnerang", senior historian Libby Stewart said.

But the bark painting was "really special".

"It just sums up his life, but also such a personal thing as well," she said.

"It's really about maintaining it, carefully looking after it, preserving it and keeping it for the nation so it helps us tell his story so much better.

"It's been on Palm Island all these years, but it's still in really good condition."

The museum's director Daryl Karp said Mr Bonner's pillow was the object that struck a chord with her the most.

"Despite all of the achievements of Mr Bonner years later, he said of his loneliness at Parliament House: 'It was worse than being out droving. I was treated like an equal on the floor of the chamber … but there were hours just sitting in my office, and I went home alone to my unit at night. There was never one night where someone said, 'Hey, let's go out together,'" she said.

Ms Stewart said the museum would test the painting to decide how best to preserve it before putting it on public display.