The Qantas-Balarinji flying art series has long been an iconic symbol of the flying kangaroo. It’s captured the imagination of millions around the world and put Australian art and first nations culture on centre stage. It provided aboriginal art with a platform like no other and became part of the Qantas legacy and Australia’s identity.

This week, the first design in the series, “Wunala Dreaming”, celebrates 28 years since departing Sydney Kingsford-Smith Airport for Kansai International Airport in Japan.

QANTAS-Wunala-Dreaming-Boeing-747-438-VH-OJB
The Qantas Wunala Dreaming Boeing 747-400 depicts ceremony tracks of Kangaroo Spirit ancestors and the continuation of all living things in the harmony of nature. © Qantas

The Qantas-Balarinji partnership is a catalyst for cultural recognition

In a time when Australia failed to embrace first nations culture, art and heritage, the national carrier Qantas formed a historic partnership with Balarinji, an indigenous design and strategy studio. The partnership has since produced five unique aboriginal artwork liveries that have become some of the world’s largest pieces of modern art.

Initially destined to be a three-month promotional campaign in 1994, the Wunala Dreaming Boeing 747-400 went on to enjoy 17 years of service, including a re-paint before the Boeing 747 was retired by Qantas.

The Qantas-Balarinji series grew by four more aircraft following the success of the Wunala Dreaming. Artworks have graced the bodies of two Boeing 747’s, two Boeing 737’s and most recently, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Qantas-Balarinji Emily Kame Kngwarreye Dreamliner arrives in Alice Springs
Qantas-Balarinji Emily Kame Kngwarreye Dreamliner arrives in Alice Springs in 2018, the latest design in the Qantas-Balarinji flying art series. © Balarinji

Designs have all followed a theme that resonates with the flying kangaroo. In particular, Wunala Dreaming means kangaroo in the Yanyuwa language, spoken in the Gulf of Carpentaria in Australia’s Northern Territory. Balarinji describes the artwork as “depicting the ceremony tracks of Kangaroo Spirit ancestors and the continuation of all living things in the harmony of nature.”

The Nalanji Dreaming (1995) and Yananyi Dreaming (2002) were both produced by artist Rene Kulitja. Mendoowoorrji (2013), which will celebrate its 9th anniversary on the 11th of September, was based on a painting by artist Paddy Bedford. While Emily Kame Kngwarreye (2018) was named after the famed aboriginal artist based on the painting “Yam Dreaming”.

Flinders Ranges in South Australia part of the inspiration for the Wunala Dreaming
Flinders Ranges in South Australia is represented by the purple and blue colours in the Wunala Dreaming design. © Qantas

The Wunala Dreaming utilises contemporary graphic design that illustrates Balarinji co-founder John Moriarty’s totemic stories from the Nothern Territory. Each colour in the design represents the various pigments of outback ochres, a type of clay that forms colourful layers of land in outback Australia. Ochre is symbolic of aboriginal culture as it holds spiritual meaning, used in rituals and ceremonies, visual communicative arts and storytelling.

In Wunala Dreaming, red is symbolic of Australia’s most recognisable natural landmark, Uluru (Ayers Rock). Blue and purple represent the Flinders Ranges, an 800 million-year-old mountain range in South Australia known for its geological significance and bright orange sandstone landscape. Green illustrates Kakadu, one of the largest tropical national parks in the world, where Jungle Book meets Jurassic Park.

Aboriginal artist Liddy Walker painting at Yuendemu
Aboriginal artist Liddy Walker painting at Yuendemu, a remote community 290km northwest of Alice Springs in Central Australia. Yuendemu has a thriving community of aboriginal artists. © Mulapa Aboriginal Art

The best thing about aboriginal art is that it’s entirely centred on storytelling. Just like how we use the written word to convey a story or use video to depict a story, indigenous art uses colour, symbols and patterns to tell a story. Indigenous art passes on knowledge of the land, events, survival skills, cultural stories and beliefs. Although indigenous art can be appreciated by anyone and as a consumer of art, it can symbolise and tell a unique story of Australia in a way that only you can see.

Jim Jim Falls in Kakadu national park in the Northern Territory
Jim Jim Falls in the Northern Territory’s Kakadu National Park. The name Jim Jim comes from andjimdjim, the Aboriginal name for “water pandanus”, an aquatic plant that lines the creek leading to the falls. © Tourism NT

Wunala Dreaming became a symbolic way to challenge cultural cleansing

The Qantas-Balarinji partnership provided Balarinji with a public platform to challenge the notion of indigenous cultural cleansing in Australia. Co-founder of Balarinji, John Moriarty, was taken away from his mother during the Stolen Generations era. The term refers to the laws, policies and practices set in place by the Australian government that resulted in the forced removal of generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families.

Ros Moriarty, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Balarinji, said in a provided statement that the aircraft became a powerful acknowledgement of Australian identity and pride.

“For Balarinji, it was both a personal and a public way to challenge the abhorrent intention of cultural cleansing that had taken Balarinji co-founder John Moriarty away from his mother during the Stolen Generations era,” Ros Moriarty explained.

The Wunala Dreaming campaign was launched during an era where Australian officials failed to accept responsibility or apologise for their atrocities. Even at the end of the decade, a statement of ‘deep and sincere regret’ was released, still failing to apologise to Australia’s population of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In the 2000s, the Australian government went on to deny that a “Stolen Generations” existed.

“Wunala Dreaming was created at a time when Aboriginal design was rarely showcased or celebrated. It was a culturally restorative statement by the best-known Australian brand in the world.”

The partnership meant that one of Australia’s most respected and recognisable symbols did not just recognise the horrific acts of cultural cleansing but advocated for the rights of indigenous Australians.

Ros Moriarty and John Moriarty in front of the Wunala Dreaming Boeing 747-400
Ros Moriarty and John Moriarty in front of the Wunala Dreaming Boeing 747-400 © Balarinji

Wunala Dreaming propelled aboriginal art onto an international stage

The Balarinji-Qantas partnership was more than just what it meant to be an indigenous Australian. It shot aboriginal art into the glaring eyes of millions around the world. From the red sand of the outback to exclusive art galleries on Madison Avenue, aboriginal art is now appreciated and admired globally. This success story can largely be traced back to John Kundereri Moriarty and his wife, Ros Moriarty.

John Moriarty was born in Borroloola, a remote Northern Territory fishing community located on the banks of the McArthur River in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Moriarty lived with his mother for four years before being taken. He is a survivor of the Stolen Generations yet remains strongly connected to his Yanyuwa people.

The Malandarri Festival is an annual event in Borroloola
The Malandarri Festival, an annual event in Borroloola, celebrates both traditional and contemporary arts and cultural practices from Borroloola clan groups, the Yanyuwa, Garrwa, Gurdanji and Mara peoples. Visual and performing arts are a significant part of aboriginal culture. © ArtBack NT

While Moriarty is best known for his contributions to aboriginal art, he led a remarkable life full of landmark achievements. His childhood and teenage years saw him move around Australia before settling in Adelaide, where he became the first Aboriginal student to graduate from Flinders University. Moriarty was also the first aboriginal person selected to represent the national soccer team in a tour that was sadly cancelled.

John Moriarty went on to meet his wife Ros in Canberra in 1979, and together they founded Balarinji in 1983. Balarinji had a humble beginning when they started their journey in Melbourne. After the birth of their firstborn son Tim Bundyan, the pair would screen print turtle images onto his bed linen in an effort to keep Tim connected to his Yanyuwa heritage. The name Balarinji originates from the skin names of their two son’s Tim and James Djawarralwarral. John said that the vision was to celebrate the heritage and identity of their three children, which evolved into a statement about identity for all Australians over time.

Just over ten years later, Ros Moriarty developed a bold idea to plaster Balarinji’s work on a Qanats aircraft. John, speaking to SBS in 2020, recalled that Ros woke up at two o’clock in the morning and said, “We got to put our designs, that Kangaroo Dreaming, Wunala, on a Qantas plane”. Reflecting on the moment that produced one of the greatest aircraft liveries of all time, John remembers telling Ros to just go back to sleep.

Ros and John Moriarty of Balarinji
Ros and John Moriarty started Balarinji from humble beginnings in Melbourne, screen printing turtle images onto linen bed sheets for their firstborn son. © Balarinji

Business and life partners John and Ros, who celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary on the 28th of August, set out to get their art seen on the largest commercial aircraft in the Qantas fleet in 1994. After seeking permission to share his Dreaming from Ceremonial boss Musso Harvey Muddemburra, talks were held with James Strong from Qantas, and the Balarinji team set out to design and produce the Wanula Dreaming artwork.

After painting the aircraft in Sydney, no one could quite believe the reach and impact the design would have. “People couldn’t believe how strong it was and the impact it would have on the world, not only for Qantas but Australia,” said John in an interview with SBS in 2022 as part of the ‘Australia come fly with me’ series.

Success didn’t stop there for the Moriartys when John and his wife Ros founded the Moriarty Foundation, delivering nurturing educational programs to aboriginal families and children.

It’s unclear what the true scale of impact the Qantas-Balarinji partnership had on the Australian and global narrative of Indigenous Australians, but it’s clear to see the positive influence this history-making deal had on the way Qantas was perceived. There are no known current plans for a sixth design, but three of the five remain in service today.

“As Aboriginal Australians, we have so much knowledge to share and celebrate. It is important to me that Balarinji brings together Aboriginal people from all over Australia to present their culture in a way that is meaningful to them.” – John Moriarty

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