Jack Britten was born and spent his childhood at Tickelara Station, in the north west of Australia, at a time when many Gija people were massacred during the gold rush at Hall’s Creek and Chinaman’s Garden in the East Kimberley region.
'Sometimes they bin all day shootin people there,' Jack recalled in his later years, 'my father and mother and grandparents were with good gadiya (white man). I might have got shot if he didn’t look after me' (cited in Ryan 1993: 41).
Their ‘good gadiya’ was Ted Britten, a European stockman who took Jack, whilst still a boy, to Fitzroy Crossing to work on stations such as Cherrabun, Christmas Creek and Cogo. He did not rejoin his mother at Ticklerra until in his late teens, and he worked there as a stockman well in to his late 40’s. The introduction of the pastoral award in 1969, which aimed to provide Indigenous workers with similar wages to their non-Indigenous counterparts had the devistating unintended effect of ending their jobs entirely. Jack who, along with other Aboriginal stockmen, found himself unemployed, moved to Nine Mile creek at Wyndham and became a road-worker with the Shire. One of his nicknames Yalarrji, was given to him after spending a number of years panning for gold and dingo trapping at Yalarre on Alice Downs after Ted Britten’s death. He used to relate the tale of finding a reef of gold, enough to make a prospector a rich man, and having been paid for the 44 gallon drum of ore he mined from it in rations and blankets.
It was not until the establishment of the Warmun Community at Turkey Creek, some 500 kilometres south of Wyndham, that Jack returned to his traditional lands which stretched from his new residence at Frog Hollow east to the Bungle Bungles; south, to take in the former Hann Springs and Tickelara Cattle Stations; north to the upper reaches of the Ord river; and west to the rugged hilly domain of the Mabel Downs high country. It is this country and its sacred and significant sites that he came to depict in his paintings.
Jack Britten actually began painting earlier than almost all of his contemporaries, including Rover Thomas and Paddy Jaminji, his grandparents having taught him to paint using traditional materials, methods and themes. In many of his canvasses, most particularly the earliest ones, Britten used bush gum, sap from the Bloodwood tree and kangaroo blood to bind the ochres. Besides these traditional binding agents, Britten showed other signs of the tutelage he received from his grandparents. The manner in which he marked the dark surface of his canvaes with zig zag, linear, and dotted scrifito and paint is reminiscent of how the Gidja traditionally decorated their artifacts, slates and boab nuts in the region, as well as the designs they created for body painting. Most especially in early paintings, these effects animate Brittens’ unique composite perspective of country.
Despite a vast repertoir, Jack Britten is most renowned for his depictions of the Purnululu, the Bungle Bungle region of which he became the most senior living custodian. Throughout his career he constantly drew inspiration from this land, painting the Bungle Bungles as dark clusters of dome shaped mountains, layered with glistening white trails of dots. Nevertheless, excentricities and undulations in composition and stylistic manner were still to be found throughout his artistic output. His early works were daring in their execution, featuring highly unusual compositions of alternating perspectives. In work such as Untitled (Ord River Country)1990, one shifts from a topographical omnipotent perspective of the Ord River, which twists through the work diagonally, to silhouette’s of the Bungle Bungles in lateral perspective, scattered around the river implying their individual orientation in the landscape. In constrast to the somber, moody atmosphere of these early works Britten’s late career paintings tend to be more open and stark as exampled by Pumululu 2001.
It is Britten’s moody atmospheric canvases that will be his most enduring. Works with a similar sensibility can also be found in the early paintings of George Mung Mung and Freddie Timms. However, while George and Freddie produced very few works with such temperament, Jack Britten dedicated the majority of his career to investigating the subtle variations of mood and composition within the domain of his own somber outlook on a life lived during turbulent times. As a prolific artist, such investigation left a sumptuous legacy of work of intriguing emotion.