Virtue: a portrait of Laurie Baymarrwangga
Senior Australian Of The Year 2012

Laurie Wamutjan Baymarrwangga, the ninety-six year old Senior Australian of the Year 2012, accepted my offer to paint her portrait for the Archibald Portrait Prize primarily as a way to promote her invaluable humanitarian work.

The portrait’s preliminary studies were done in the shade outside her granddaughter’s house on the beach of Milingimbi Island, Baymarrwangga’s mother’s country. She sat on a tarpaulin under the Tamarind trees, weaving and chatting with family. The gathering was part of ongoing work on a trilingual dictionary, the latest in a long line of culture and language projects that Baymarrwangga has initiated. I was able to be there because project-assistant Dr Bentley James, who has lived in the area for the past 20 years, is a long-time friend.

Sitting in Baymarrwangga’s profoundly serene presence was an experience of almost overwhelming respect. I was meeting, also, the face of my own ignorance, and often felt deeply uncomfortable. I have sought here to convey something of the qualities she exudes – her wisdom, tolerance, insight, foresight, leadership, her extraordinary kindness and generosity. In a sense, this is an attempt to map the impossible, the contours of nearly one hundred years of remarkable human life.

Baymarrwangga saw the arrival of the first missionaries and the bombing of Milingimbi. She started an island homeland, a school, a ranger program, a turtle sanctuary, she is creating ‘language nests’ and a trilingual dictionary, and is still looking to reach out to everyday Australians to make them aware of her culture.

Baymarrwangga’s way of resisting assimilation is the endeavor to ennoble the hearts of those who try to change her people. Her great fear is that her culture and country will be destroyed and it is this thought that keeps her struggling on against ignorance. She continues to oppose forced assimilation and the destruction of indigenous languages long after others have given up.

She talks of the future, and how she wants the children to learn their country and their language. By sharing so generously the gift of her knowledge, her language and her country she seeks to protect it for a future generation that will appreciate its value.

Gillian Warden with Dr Bentley James 2013 

Bentley James article appeared in issue 261, July 2013, p32 of Art Monthly Australia