'The Dawn of Art' is a set of six drawings by three Aboriginal men identified as Billamook, Ilontereba and Mindilpilpil. It is the only set of artworks from the 1888 Intercolonial Exhibition in Melbourne that remains in its original format (however the original frame was replaced in 2004). Works were gathered by John George Knight, who, as Deputy Sheriff of Palmerston (now Darwin), had responsibility for the welfare and reform of prison inmates in Fannie Bay Gaol. Knight recognised the artistic talents of the Aboriginal prisoners and had them produce most of the works for the installation entitled 'The Dawn of Art'. The works were exhibited as art rather than as 'primitive art', which works by Aboriginal artists were designated in following decades.

Billiamook, a Larrakiya man was amongst the Larrakiya people who greeted the first British colonists that arrived by boat in 1869 on a survey expedition to establish a permanent settlement at Palmerston. He learned English and by the 1880s was retained as an interpreter for the police, courts and prisons. He completed the two drawings in the top row centre and bottom row, left. Mindilpilpil was also a Larrakiya and as an inmate of Fannie Bay Gaol in the 1880s, produced most of the works for Knight. His drawings appear here in the top row, left, top row, right and bottom row, centre. Ilontereba was a Wulwulan man from the area of Pine Creek and the South Alligator River east of Darwin. He was serving a life sentence in Fannie Bay Goal at the time and his work here is in the bottom row, right.

Physical Description

Lead and coloured pencil on paper, six individual drawings framed as a single object. Label mounted within frame, printed in red and black ink: 'THE DAWN OF ART. / Original Sketches and Drawings by Aboriginal Natives of the Northern Territory of South Australia executed without the aid of a master. Exhibited by J. G. KNIGHT, Deputy Sheriff, Palmerston, N.T.'


The six drawings are still adhered to the original 1888 display board. They are a set from the series known as 'The Dawn of Art', which were exhibited at the 1888 Centennial International Exhibition in Melbourne. The installation was listed in the fine arts section of the exhibition catalogue, and this was the first time that works by Aboriginal artists were exhibited as 'art' rather than as 'primitive art'. John George Knight was Commissioner for the Northern Territory's contribution to the exhibition in 1888, and secured these and other works on paper from five Aboriginal men who were mostly prisoners in Fannie Bay Gaol in Darwin.

The South Australian Museum was thought to hold all surviving works from 'The Dawn of Art', however in September 2000 during the final stages of the relocation of the Indigenous collections to Melbourne Museum in Carlton, this treasure was uncovered at the museum's former site in Swanston Street. It had been donated to the museum by the Zoology Department at The University of Melbourne in September 1929, however it is not known when and how it was obtained by the University. During that same year the then National Museum of Victoria (now Museum Victoria) mounted the very first exhibition of Aboriginal art, entitled 'Primitive Art', and this may have been the prompt for the University to donate the work to the museum.

The only other known works from 'The Dawn of Art' installation are eighteen individual drawings in the collections of the South Australian Museum that were transferred to them from the South Australian School of Art in 1958.

More Information

  • Collecting Areas

    Australian Indigenous - Northern Australia and Queensland and Torres Strait Islands

  • Illustrator


  • Date Produced


  • Collector

    John G. Knight

  • Date Collected


  • Agent

    John G. Knight, Northern Territory, Australia, 1888
    JG Knight was commissioned to prepare the Northern Territory courts for the 1888 Bicentennial International Exhibition in Melbourne.

  • Locality

    Darwin, North, Northern Territory, Australia

  • Medium

    Pencil on paper

  • Technique


  • Primary Inscriptions

    The Dawn of Art. Original sketches and drawings by Aboriginal Natives of the Northern Territory of South Australia executed without the aid of a master. Exhibited by J.G. Knight, Deputy Sheriff, Palmerston, NT.

  • Cultural Groups


  • Object/Medium


  • Category

    Indigenous Collections

  • Discipline


  • Type of item


  • Object Measurements

    325 mm (Length), 325 mm (Width), 635 mm (Height), 325 mm (Outside Diameter)
    These are the dimensions of the entire framed work not the individual drawings.

  • Exhibition Collection Management

    325 mm (Length), 325 mm (Width), 635 mm (Height)

  • Overall Dimensions

    166.5 cm (Length), 81.5 cm (Height)

  • Framed

    1735 mm (Width), 40 mm (Depth), 944 mm (Height)
    Dark stained timber frame - not contemporary with the artwork.

  • Secondary support

    1632 mm (Width), 15 mm (Depth), 780 mm (Height)
    Secondary support of fabric nailed to wooden strainer. Primary supports (works on paper) have been adhered to this fabric.

  • References

    [Book] Museum Victoria. 2004. Treasures of the Museum. Victoria, Australia.

  • Keywords