It was a great privilege to nominate NT artist Dion Beasley for the inaugural National Arts and Disability Awards. So I was thrilled to learn that the Australia Council for the Arts awarded Dion with the inaugural award for an emerging artist in Canberra yesterday evening.
I first encountered Dion’s work during my time as CEO of Arts Access Australia, when the organisation awarded him a Cultivate grant for the development of his first book project. I’ve been a fan ever since.
Now an award-winning artist and illustrator, 28 year old Dion is an Alywarr man who lives in Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory. His father’s country is Owairtilla, also known as Canteen Creek, and his mother’s country is Alpurrurulam, also known as Lake Nash.
Born in 1991, Dion has muscular dystrophy and is deaf. He uses his great passion for drawing (mostly country and camp dogs) as a means of communicating with others. These drawings began to gain attention when Dion was 17, starting with a solo exhibition of ‘A Dog’s Life’ at the Darwin Entertainment Centre in 2008, before being selected for the ‘Good, Strong, Powerful’ national touring exhibition and the national ‘Primevera’ exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney (both in 2012).
Dion’s art practice has expanded to include etchings, photography and three-dimensional installations. With the assistance of his carer, Joie Boulter, Dion’s work became the inspiration behind the ‘Cheeky Dog’ clothing label. This has included collaborations with printmakers Alan Murn, Leon Stainer, Jacqueline Gribbin and Kevin Banbury (through Northern Editions), and Frank Gohier from Red Hand Prints.
He has also worked with Barkly Regional Arts Media Mob and Melbourne-based Spatial Vision to create an online interactive map of Canteen Creek’s roads, landmarks and homes – and the dogs that live in each one.
In 2012, Dion began to make his mark on the writing world too. In collaboration with Darwin-based writerJohanna Bell, Dion has illustrated two professionally-published children’s books. ‘Too Many Cheeky Dogs’ (2013) has sold close to 10,000 copies since its launch.
‘Go Home Cheeky Animals!’ won The Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Book of the Year Award in 2017 (Early Childhood category) and the Territory Read Awards in 2018 (Children’s or Young Adult category) – which I co-judged with Toni Jordan.
Dion’s extraordinary illustrated autobiography ‘Cheeky Dogs: To Lake Nash and Back’ (also written in collaboration with Bell), was published by Allen & Unwin in 2019. “This is a story that had to be told,” Kingsley Gittins wrote for Off the Leash.
“It quickly becomes obvious why his work is attracting the attention of the art world – his deceptively simple illustrations have real emotive depth and a dark honesty that challenges the reader in a powerful way,” Gittins writes.
Noongar reviewer Cassie Lynch compared Dion’s “scratchy graffiti-style artwork” to American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat in her Books+Publishing review, noting how the book “transcends the picture book genre, much in the way that Shaun Tan’s work does.”
Despite living in different places, Dion and Johanna have established an extraordinary, effective and respectful collaboration. They spend time both in Tennant Creek and Darwin working on their projects, communicating through drawing, Auslan, improvisations and humour. The pair have been invited to do an illustrated conversation about working together at the 2020 Sydney Biennale.
While ‘Too Many Cheeky Dogs’ was originally written for young children in remote areas, the book (and the two that followed) proved to have much broader appeal, as well as becoming an invaluable teaching resource in a variety of learning areas.
Dion’s clever and captivating portraits create a unique chronicle of daily life. And as his interests and outlook continue to expand, so too does the range of animals in his idiosyncratic menagerie.
Dion is a keen observer and commentator on life within Canteen Creek, Lake Nash, Tennant Creek and nearby Mulga Camp (and, increasingly, further afield). His observations of the behaviour and social structure of the camp dogs and broader community provide a rare and welcome insight into remote Aboriginal Australia.
Put simply, there is no-one else who contributes to the expression, understanding and expansion of Australian culture in the same way as Dion Beasley. His high-quality, highly-skilled and insightful work speaks to Aboriginality, regionality, disability and the depiction of authentic, lived experience.
Bravo, Dion. Bravo.
A video of Dion’s award nomination can be found on the Australia Council’s Facebook page.
Huge thanks to Yo, Joie, Sally, Erica, Jeremy and everyone who supported Dion’s nomination.