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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Nangan, Joseph ('Butcher' Joe) (1900–1989)

by Kim Akerman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Joseph Nangan (‘Butcher’ Joe) (1900?-1989), Aboriginal lawman and artist, was born possibly on 25 February 1900 in Yawuru country at Kanen (Fishermens Bend), near Broome, Western Australia, son of parents later known as Dicky Djulba and Anne Binmaring.  His country lay to the east of Broome:  from his Walmatjarri father he held rights to Paliara, near Christmas Creek station, and from his Nyikina mother, to an area known as Jirkalli, on Dampier Downs station.  Moving between pastoral stations and the bush, he learned the trade of station butcher and acquired his European name, 'Butcher' Joe.  He narrowly avoided the massacre at Mowla Bluff station in 1916.  Between 1920 and 1940 he worked at Beagle Bay Mission as a butcher, and at Broome as a truck driver for a soft-drink company.  On 26 January 1937 at Beagle Bay Mission he married with Catholic rites Therese Bende.  They had a daughter, Mary.

A noted songman, Nangan received instructions for Nulu songs and dances from his spirit familiar, Papakamandina.  He performed his Mayata Nulu (dance of the pelican) at Broome for more than sixty years.  By 1960 he was known for his pocket-knife engravings of boab nuts and pearl shells, carved in a distinctive style.  He also produced pencil and watercolour pictures of flora and fauna, spirit beings, and mythological and historical events.  Demonstrating remarkable skill with both pencil and penknife, he delineated living forms with a full appreciation of anatomy and perspective.  His subjects were usually depicted in motion, showing emotion and tension.  Through his art and songs he recorded a vast body of cultural knowledge, which he hoped would interest non-Aboriginal people.  Despite his prodigious output, Nangan was concerned never to compromise the integrity of his work.  Most prolific in the 1970s and 1980s, he fulfilled regular commissions for the Western Australian art dealer Mary Macha, who helped to organise three exhibitions of his work, at Perth, Broome and Hobart in 1981-83.

Nangan was acutely aware of the rapid loss of his people’s historical and other cultural information.  He regarded the possession of this knowledge as an integral part of identity, and empathised with those he saw as being dislocated in terms of their harmony with either self or the cultural and physical environment.  Unable to read or write English, in 1974 he was assisted by Hugh Edwards to record twenty stories.  Joe Nangan’s Dreaming, with illustrations by Nangan, was published in 1976.  These legends provided insights into the way that Nangan and his people viewed their world.  Rarely was anything casual or unstructured; everything had meaning to those who had been taught to read the esoteric signs embedded in natural phenomena.

Widowed in 1963, Nangan married Josephine Balgalai on 17 June 1967 at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Beagle Bay Mission.  He was appointed OAM in 1987.  Predeceased by his wife, he died on 21 January 1989 at Broome and was buried in the local cemetery.  In 1993 works by Nangan were included in the exhibition Images of Power at the National Gallery of Victoria.  His work is held by the National Gallery of Australia and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Canberra; by Edith Cowan University, Perth; by the Berndt Museum of Anthropology, University of Western Australia; and in private collections.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Ryan with K. Akerman, Images of Power (1993)
  • S. Kleinert and M. Neale (eds), The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture (2000)
  • Living Today, 28 October 1976, p 25
  • personal knowledge

Citation details

Kim Akerman, 'Nangan, Joseph ('Butcher' Joe) (1900–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 7 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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