Essay by

Dr Lyndon Ormond-Parker

Australia as a nation has always sought to close the tyranny of distance. In his 1966 book The Tyranny of Distance: How Distance Shaped Australia's History, Geoffrey Blainey, an Australian historian, academic, philanthropist and commentator, wrote of the geographical isolation that Australians felt from the nation’s coloniser, Great Britain, and the major European powers and economies. Modern Australians have always sought to break down this geographical-isolation ‘tyranny of distance’ through technological development and engaging in local regional partnerships. Today, in these challenging times, the strengthened opportunities for digital engagement through Zhou Xiaoping’s online exhibition are a commitment to sharing the rich cultural heritage of humanity.

Zhou Xiaoping is an extraordinary and legendary artist who has collaborated with many Australian Aboriginal artists. His work has featured in many exhibitions in Australia and internationally. In 2011 it was memorialised in an award-winning, internationally acclaimed documentary by James Bradley and Rachel Clements, Ochre and Ink.

As Professor Robyn Sloggett observes, “Zhou Xiaoping’s art sheds light on traditions of art making that have been overlooked within the canon of Western art history… he helps us look at cross-cultural art production in ways that are reinvigorating, respectful and enlightening. In so many ways the work of Zhou Xiaoping remains new and confronting.”

When Zhou Xiaoping first came to Australia in 1988, he found his way to regional and remote Australia, spending time in Alice Springs, the Kimberley, Maningrida and Yirrkala. He met and collaborated with Aboriginal people including artist Jimmy Pike, who went on to exhibit in Hefei, China. Later Xiaoping and Jimmy Pike exhibited jointly at the National Gallery of China, Beijing. Xiaoping also collaborated with ceremonial leader John Bulunbulun of the Gurrambakurramba clan, whose ancient influences are highlighted throughout this exhibition.

Our relationship with Indonesia and China was established several hundred years before European occupation of the Australian continent. Northern coastal Aboriginal people developed trading relationships with Macassan fishermen who were seeking the highly desired trepang or sea cucumber (Holothuroidea species), which is found in the warm waters from the Kimberley coast to northeast Arnhem Land. Macassan traders from Sulawesi in what is now Indonesia processed the trepang for markets in southern China and other parts of Asia. Today, commercial fishermen fish trepang in partnership with Aboriginal communities in these same Northern Australian waters.

As Professor Aaron Corn explained in a recent essay, “Long before the first Methodist missionaries arrived in northeast Arnhem Land at Milingimbi in 1923, the Yolŋu held extensive knowledge of their Southeast Asian neighbours. Some Yolŋu people even travelled to Makassar and made families with shared Makassanancestry. Makassan religion, culture, goods and seacraft are recorded in many Yolŋu ceremonies still practised today” (Corn 2019).

The old Aboriginal trepang trade was highlighted in the exhibition Trepang: China& the story of Macassan-Aboriginal trade, held at Beijing’s Capital Museum in April 2011 and at the Melbourne Museum from July to October 2011. The exhibition featured works by artistic collaborators senior Aboriginal artist Johnny Bulunbulun and the classically trained Zhou Xiaoping. Sadly, Johnny passed away in April 2010, a year before the exhibition opened. The Trepang exhibition explored the “centuries-old relationship arising from this trade that existed between Indigenous Australia, societies across the Indonesian archipelago, and China. Using a range of historical records, evidence from archaeological sites and objects of material culture, the exhibition documented these trade relationships and their consequence on the development of art and culture in Australia” (Langton &  Sloggett 2014, p. 6).

Ten years on, in2020, in a global pandemic, it is only fitting to show these beautiful, culturally rich paintings made by this unique collaboration between two artists steeped in ancient cultural traditions. Australian Aboriginal artists developed art practices based on influences from across the Asia-Pacific long before colonisation (Langton & Sloggett 2014). Zhou Xiaoping’s deep and lifelong friendship with John Bulunbulun is immortalised in the current works. The work entitled How Johnny Sees Me (Zhou Xiaoping 2009),depicting Johnny photographing Xiaoping, reflects the deep relationship with collaborators from Chinese culture and “is also a powerful reflection of interest that Aboriginal people have in engaging with new cultural offers” (Langton & Sloggett 2014, p. 6).

The painting Portrait of Johnny Bulunbulun (Johnny Bulunbulun and Zhou Xiaoping 2007), which was exhibited in Trepang: China&the story of Macassan-Aboriginal trade, shows Johnny posing for his portrait, relaxed but gazing intently at the viewer. Johnny himself filled the background with a traditional use of Rarrk cross-hatching in the Yirritja style.

In 2020 we should be looking to our closest friends and neighbours in Southeast Asia, supporting each other as our historical and cultural ties have made progress across the centuries. Post European invasion of Australia, Chinese migrants were some of the first free migrants to Victoria in 1815, many working and interacting with Australia’s Indigenous peoples as pearlers, miners, cooks and farmers. Relationships and friendships were forged with the local Indigenous populations and children followed. Enduring family relationships between Aboriginal and Asian peoples ensued from Victoria to the Kimberley and the Top End of the Australian continent, and those relationships, extending from Yolŋu people back to Sulawesi, endure today.

This exhibition highlights how collaborations happen, not just on the diplomatic international stage, but with human interactions and relationships. As one member of the Beijing audience enthused in the comments book of the Trepang exhibition: “combining together Australian Aboriginal sensibilities and Chinese art brought forth a wondrous beauty.” Another commented, “Chinese-foreign cultural and art exchanges can open up our intellectual horizons and break through former boundaries” (Inglis & Lowish 2012).

Xiaoping’s medium of oil and acrylic on rice paper and canvas is combined with various Aboriginal, Eastern and Western influences in People, Nature, Spirit (1) (2019) and Living in Arnhem Land (2006). He is expressing ancient cultural living traditions in his style and storytelling. Xiaoping has faced criticism over his Aboriginal-influenced art style, but Stella Grey quotes him as saying: “I always sought approval from the communities I worked with and they had no problems.” However, as Grey also notes, “even after so many years of making art with Aboriginal people, collaboration remains a constant process of negotiation” (Grey 2011).

The arrival of Europeans saw the adaptation and adoption of Western artists’ materials in Aboriginal communities, leading to one of the greatest art movements of the twentieth century, a continuation of a much older tradition of sharing stories, of trade, influence and innovation among cultures. We are now reminded “that there is a strong need for global solidarity and co-operation … A need to appreciate such global interrelations and the way in which all our lives as human beings are connected with each other could turn out to become the most important lesson from the current corona crisis for future societies”  (Holtorf2020).

We must now promote our ancient cultures to the world. Our trading relationship with China and Southeast Asia will be part of a collaboration to build our joint economic recovery in the months and years ahead. Our interdependency with our neighbours and all peoples across the globe is starkly highlighted during this COVID-19 pandemic, reminding us that we are all very much “part of an interconnected humanity” (Holtorf 2020).

Online exhibitions will be the norm for the immediate future. I have respected Xiaoping’s work since seeing the ground-breaking Trepang exhibition at the Melbourne Museum in July 2011. I consider that this online experience will be engaging for viewers, as it offers a transcendent experience, an escape, for many people who find themselves culturally isolated and facing the ‘tyranny of distance’ in these challenging times.

Xiaoping says: "Art should stand at the forefront of independence." He is creating a unique art that does not resemble anyone or any genre. This courage and ability are rare and should be supported, respected and praised.

For those of us interested in art, and done with the 24-hour news cycle, TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, the constant barrage of emails, and Zoom meetings, this exhibition by Zhou Xiaoping will be a pleasure to view.


Dr Lyndon Ormond-Parker is an ARC Research Fellow in the Indigenous Studies Unit, Centre for Health Equity, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne. Lyndon was born in Darwin of Alyawarr descent and is from the Barkly Tablelands region of the Northern Territory. He is a member of the Australian Heritage Council and the Advisory Committee on Indigenous Repatriation. Lyndon is a cultural heritage expert who has advocated for Indigenous cultural rights, including the repatriation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander human remains, material culture and heritage.


Blainey, Geoffrey (1966). The tyranny of distance: how distance shaped Australia's history. Sun Books, Melbourne.

Bradley, James & Clements, Rachel (2011). Ochre and Ink. Ronin Films documentary, 30mins.

Corn, Aaron (2019). Friday essay: how Indigenous songs recount deep histories of trade between Australia and Southeast Asia. The Conversation, 29 November 2019. Accessed Online 12 April 2020

Grey, Stella. (2011). Creative archaeology over Arafura seas.Art Monthly Australia, No. 244, October 2011: pp. 61-63.

Holtorf, Cornelius (2020). From corona crisis to heritage futures. UNESCO Chair on Heritage Futures Statement, 14 April 2020, Linnaeus University, Sweden. Accessed Online 12 April 2020

Inglis, Alison & Lowish, Susan (2012). Trepang: crossing cultures / creating connections, Artlink, June 2012. Accessed Online 12 April 2020: 

Langton, Marcia (2011). Trepang: China & the story of Macassan-Aboriginal trade. Melbourne: Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation, University of Melbourne.

Langton, Marcia & Sloggett, Robyn (2014). Trepang: China and the story of Macassan-Aboriginal Trade – Examining historical accounts as research tools for cultural materials conservation,AICCM Bulletin, 35:1, 4-13, DOI: 10.1179/bac.2014.35.1.001

Sloggett, Robyn (2020). Personal comments by Professor Robyn Sloggett, Cripps Foundation Chair in Cultural Materials Conservation and Director of the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation, University of Melbourne.