“When in the bush at first it seems like there is nothing there. After some time the land get’s you then you become part of the land. Then when you lift a rock or look up you notice that the world is teaming with life. Everything is living—the air, everything… This is what I try to put in my paintings—the things that you don’t necessarily see.” Joe Danau
Joe Danau – Australian Builder and Artist
Joe Danau found his artistic inspiration and enlightenment from the most unlikely of circumstances.
It is as though Joe has had a few lives in this one lifetime. He began his life in Belgium and his childhood was deeply affected by the war. When peace came he migrated to Australia. He then became a very successful tradie, then builder and businessman with his own sub-contracting company. Unexpectedly he was influenced by a most ‘out of this world’ unusual friendship, to finally find his way back to his original childhood intention of becoming an artist.
This is Joes life story so far.
Joe was born in Belgium in 1935 and the first five years were wonderful years where the people of Belgium couldn’t spend all of their money. Food was plentiful, there was laughing, dancing the Charleston and life was plentiful. His mother owned a cafe in Brussels where beer and food was sold and the cafe seemed to be one constant party for the young Joe.
Joes older brother (left) and little Joe in their woollen pants
When he was about five the war arrived in Belgium and Joe he remembers going by horse and cart down the main road out of Brussels with a man who owned the horse, his mother and brother.
Joe’s Mother had decided to take an open horse and cart away from the invasion—it was a quick decision in the heat of the moment.
They were part of a mass exodus and the road was packed with people and their belongings. After one day of walking down the road the old horse was exhausted so they pulled off the road beside a big warehouse. Very soon after they pulled off they heard the sound of German airplanes as they came over machine gunning, shooting and dropping small bombs onto the road and down the side of the road that was full of people. If they had not pulled off when they did they may have been killed.
Soon after that some Germans soldiers drove down the road and pulled over to the warehouse and broke in. They found that it was full of food—biscuits and jam. One solider gave Joe an open tin of jam and he remembers sitting on the stairs and eating from the big can with his fingers.
His mother decided it was really unsafe to stay or go further down the road away from Brussels and so asked his brother to get Joe so that they could return to Brussels. Unknown to the mother his brother couldn’t find Joe and simply jumped back on the cart without him. They started back down the road without Joe. Luckily for Joe when this was discovered they came back and found him on the stairs with the jam.
On the way back the stench on the road was horrific. There was blood, body parts and guts everywhere. The horse was as spooked as were the humans. It was very slow going with fear their constant companion.
At this stage a row of German tanks came out from Brussels. The first tank had a big blade on it that clearing everything off the road.
When they eventually got back to the café they found that people had broken in to the café stolen the beer and used the bed as a toilet.
During the war his mother had to run the café to survive. Joe’s father was initially a POW. He had been rescued by the Swiss Red Cross from a camp. He spent his time in an infirmary recovering from a severely infected head injury that was inflicted by a rifle butt while he was a POW.
Joe on his bike — in front of his mother’s café.
His grandfather thought that the boys would be safer and better cared for in a Catholic boarding school so as a little mite of seven years old Joe went to live in the strict surroundings of a convent for boys.
Joe escaped the brutality of the boarding school by spending much of his time reading.
He became a choirboy so at times would sing in the Cathedral. This was his first introduction to art because the works of Rubens and many other Flemish Masters were hidden away from the eyes of the invader in the back of the Cathedral. The young Joe loved those paintings and vowed that someday he would become an artist.
Joe painted at this time and the walls of his mother’s café were covered with his works.
When Joe left boarding school he was 12 and when 13 Joe was invited to learn at the Institute of Art in Construction. Everyone else in the class was over 20 years old and some were 30 however, this didn’t worry him at all. He was an immediate success as he had been reading books his whole life so won first prize for the theory and was advanced immediately to the second level.
The certificate from the Belgium Institute of Art and Construction
The day he turned fourteen his father put him to work and Joe started digging trenches for foundations. At the same time he continued with his studies at night school and learned all about stone masonry, and other artistic aspects of building. At his fathers work he advanced to brick laying.
Joe the apprentice builder at 14 years old
When peace came the Danau family reunited but the friction between the allied troops and the Russians horrified Joe’s father who had spent three years in hospital recovering. He was filled with trepidation and declared: “We’re not going to be caught again… we must get out of Europe.”
In 1951 the family migrated to Western Australia and bought a farm in Donnybrook.
Country life was not to the liking of 16 year old Joe so he moved up to Fremantle.
Joe’s first work in Belgium had been as a stonemason therefore it was natural that he entered the building trades. Quickly he graduated from bricky’s laborer to a full time bricklayer.
Soon after his 17th birthday he met an Australian girl who had two children and they settled in Fremantle. When he was 20 they were married, as he felt very protective of her and her children particularly as she was mentally unwell. They had two more children making a family of three girls and one boy. This marriage lasted fifty-three years and ended with her death at a ripe old age.
In the late 1960’s the building trade slumped and Joe accepted a job at the isolated Catholic Lombardina Mission staffed by Germans in Beagle Bay. Beagle Bay is 125 kilometres north of the pearling centre of Broome in the North West of Western Australia.
The famous Beagle Bay Pearl Shell Church
Joe had no idea that this would change his life forever and he would return to his original childhood dream of becoming an artist.
Joe became well known to the local Aboriginal people as he was building for their community, in particular an old bloke who was an elder became a regular friend.
The elder was respected and a tad feared as he had flashlight eyes, with a light that smoldered behind them. His very presence demanded respect. He rarely spoke and when he did he was quiet and of few words. Many people found him intimidating and the Mission locals mainly avoided him.
Joe found that the elder’s beliefs and physicality different — powerful and pure. Joe understood that the elders way of living was beyond anything that was currently held as possible by most people.
He was not just an elder but also a “Medicine Man” who had walked from the Northwest down a song-line via Uluru to Adelaide and up to Queensland at least twice. Along the way he would perform ancient traditional Medicine Man initiation rituals.
As there were so many languages along the way, the old bloke would have to learn each language. This man was extremely educated and spoke all the languages. At each language group they would pick up a new person and drop off the person who had been picked up when they last visited. This ensured that each language group had a few people who understood all of the languages along that song line.
The elder was from a time when his teachers had little or no contact with white people so his education was purely traditional. His way was often diametrically opposed to the ways of the Christian raised Aboriginals of the mission. Joe noticed that he was feared and ostracized for his traditional Aboriginal beliefs therefore he had few friends and Joe and he struck up a strong bond.
Joe felt that the elder knew what he was doing all the time—it was like he was a fully conscious human being.
Joe reminisces what happened when they went net fishing. When a big fish was caught in the net the old bloke would jump in and disappear below the water for up to two minutes. Then Joe would see a hand with a huge one meter long fish slowly rise up above the water. The fish would be dead. The old man had killed it with his teeth. Joe has many stories of this mans exquisite control and use of his body and understanding of the landscape and animals.
The local mission people had fear around this elder’s ability so avoided him and thus his knowledge. The elder found this to be very heartbreaking but after some attempts to pass on the knowledge and artifacts he gave up.
He told Joe that Christianity and alcohol affected the next generation —he gave special totem objects to relatives as required by law and his people sold them for alcohol in Broome. These artifacts were ancient and powerful and the Christian raised family members simply didn’t grasp the cultural significance of the objects.
The old bloke then realized that respect for the traditional Aboriginal culture was usurped by “white mans ways” even by his blood brothers and sisters. He came to the conclusion that there was no one that he could trust to pass his ancient knowledge onto so he stopped. He told Joe that the original Aboriginal culture would be gone once his generation was gone.
Cooking lunch on the Beach
No work on Sunday was a Mission rule so Joe would often take a truckload of men, women and children and their dogs to fishing spots or picnics.
On one of these fishing trips Joe was standing in a small river about knee deep in the water with his fishing rod. The children all started yelling “snake, snake” and a couple of them ran over to Joe and climbed on him literally rooting him to the spot.
Two black snakes swam down the river towards him and they circled him then swam through his legs and swam off.
The elder was watching and interpreted it as a sign.
One day the elder asked Joe on walkabout. Joe accepted thinking that the trip would be pleasurable just like the ones they had done so far—maybe a few days or a week at the most. He had been on many walks with the elder and thought nothing of it.
“I’m just going back to where I came from” explained the elder.
Self portrait – Fishing at Beagle Bay
Joe had no idea that before him was a walk from Beagle Bay to the Mitchell Plateau in the extreme north of Western Australia. Over 1,000 kilometers of terrible terrain and that this walk would take between three to four months to complete.
“There was the elder, two of his nephews, one wife. some children and me. The day we left the Mission we simply collected our hunting gear—I had my own spear and woomera—and we went bush.”
“After two weeks of walking and living off the land and whatever water was offering I was well and truly ready to toss it all in and head for home. But as I had no idea where we were, I had to keep going. My survival was entirely in the hands of the elder.”
“Along the way we met various tribes and mates of the elder and we would stop for about a week. Ceremonies would be held and although I was not formally initiated I was permitted to watch the dancing, singing and the corroboree’s.”
Joes painting – The spirit of the elder . This is not an exact depiction as culturally the elder would not have wanted that.
“I only had the clothes I was wearing and after some time the cloth became weak and worn until it simply rotted away and I was left without much on. The same happened with my shoes. I was not used to going bare foot so the elder made me some shoes out of bark.”
“I was so dependant on him for everything. We ate what the land provided. We ate little but the foods was so nutritious that just a little seemed well and truly enough.”
“Although I was totally dependant on him at no time did I feel insecure.”
“A couple of times due to the situation I was placed in — my mind would become different — and I became the land and the land became me. I was floating around in it all wrapped in the blackness of the night.”
“After a few days this feeling would subside and I felt totally at peace. I was filled with a new wisdom and understanding of myself and my fellow human beings and our mutual relationship to ‘our land’.”
“I had become, in fact, a totally different person. The combination of the dancing, the chanting and the elder’s magnetic personality had affected me deeply. Our close human contact while travelling together in the wilderness had given me a deep appreciation of ‘simplicity’—we revealed ourselves to each other without pretence or deceit of any kind. For me this was the first time I had seen human beings acting in complete honesty.”
They eventually reached the elders “place” and a great reunion ensued.
Joe had to return to work at the Mission so a vehicle was found to take him down the tracks via the legendary Fitzroy Crossing, back to Broome and out to Beagle Bay.
On his return home to Fremantle Joe found his had no desire to continue many aspects of his former lifestyle. Once a ‘regular’ at the pub, he gave up drinking entirely, and smoking, and also lost interest in the more material aspects of ‘civilization’.
He gave up building and enrolled at Claremont School of Art where he won many awards over the five years that he was there.
He is known for painting, ceramics as well as sculpture.
Two years running he won the sculpture award.
Today he owns no car and is happy with just the ‘simple things’.
Examples of Joes sculptures
Joe describes himself as an Australian Artist with his unique and unusual techniques that he has developed over the years.
Joes art techniques are uniquely developed over the years.
Honey ant people
Joe with a couple of large paintings
Joes current art and sculpture
Joes website is: http://joedanauartist.com/index.html