White Woman – Black Art by Irena Hatfield.

Unaware that within a few years she would face trial for the murder of her late husband, Irena Hatfield flew from Darwin to Elcho Island, off the NT’s northeast coast, on 7 September 1993.

On her lap was her elderly Sydney Silky terrier, Twinkle, while in her bag was a letter of appointment to turn the derelict Galiwinku hospital into an Aboriginal arts and crafts centre showcasing the works of the local Yolgnu people.

As her diary records, the task would take three months, a third of her time in the job, during which she would experience immense frustration, although it should be noted that the centre continues to this day, under a changed structure, with the works, mostly barks, baskets and mats, having an excellent reputation.

Behind Hatfield lay two older children (by a previous husband), study at the University of NSW, where she had gained a Master’s in art administration, and the sensational shooting of husband, Chris, a highly successful butcher and, she writes, a passionate lover and philanderer.

At the time of his death, police had suspicions about his wife’s role but only acted years later when further information came to light. By then, Hatfield was running Lismore Regional Art Gallery, far from Arnhem Land.

I only mention this matter because, as she notes on the back cover of her self-published book, “Following a high profile murder trial in 2000… Irena Hatfield was acquitted and completely exonerated…”

She raises the murder again when Dave, her friend from the mining town of Nhulunbuy, mentions over a drink in Darwin that a Sydney homicide detective asked him to keep an eye on her, saying there was a $50,000 reward for information that would lead to a conviction.

Her own hints at notoriety are, it seems, irresistible, although they add little to what is a fascinating, and historically valuable, tale.

When Irena Hatfield arrived at Elcho she found her promised accommodation to be a chaotic, filthy mess, with the stove in pieces, ordered white goods still crated, and rubbish spread around the yard. Her only helper seemed to be Andy Hassan, an Indonesian who was the Assistant Town Clerk.

“The day had become oppressively hot and I was tired after the long journey from Sydney via Darwin,” she recalls in this memoir of a journey into the cultural and professional unknown.

“I’d only just arrived and I was already thinking this could be a mistake.”

While she went on to enjoy the “simplicity and humbleness of life,” the challenges she faced were immense, ranging from the inconvenient - “no fresh bakeries or coffee shops, no restaurants or supermarkets” - to the near insurmountable, mostly involving money.

These included tussles with the land council’s “creative accounting”, and the battle to convince local artists that the prices they received for their works could not match the much higher retail rates in distant Darwin, let alone down south.

Everything, it seemed, was done differently: “The blossoming of certain plants depicted the time to harvest stingray, the beginning of the wet season, and so forth. Therefore, for many of the older Aboriginal people, counting years and dividing time into days, weeks and months was foreign. This was another reason why scheduling meetings, deadlines and making appointments was difficult.”

As many (including myself) have found, working in the Northern Territory, especially in remote settings, can be difficult yet immensely satisfying.

For the author, “The experience was by far the most adventurous I had ever had; the Elcho Island Art Centre was built, operating and financially viable, with the artists receiving a modest income.

“Likewise, significant pieces of Elcho Island art had been acquired by major State galleries throughout Australia, which would remain as a cultural legacy for the world to enjoy.

“My job was finished.”

Not quite, for it has taken this heartfelt memoir to tell the complex story of how it was done.

Palmer Higgs sells the eBook at White Woman – BlackArt. It is also available from most North Coast bookshops. 


Irena Hatfield reads from the book at the Surry Hills, Sydney launch.