At Home: My saltwater murris

Michael Philp is remembering. He’s thinking of his childhood: his father, of fish and of the night skies.

Philp paints his memories in a new body of work called My saltwater murris and it unfolds with all the awe and tenderness of a much-loved story book. Each painting recalls his watery childhood along the Tweed rivers and coast of northern NSW.

Michael Philp was born in Murwillumbah into a Tweed Minjungbal family, the youngest of 16 children. His father, from Scottish heritage, was a man of the sea who struggled for acceptance from those opposed to intercultural marriages. According to Philp, his mother was his ‘rock’ – providing a stabilising influence through many a stormy sea.

The power of Philp’s new work lies largely in the palpable love and admiration for his father. Portrayed as a tall white pillar – his painted presence is faceless, daunting and untouchable and this resonates through many of the pieces in the show. This towering father figure is humanised by Philp’s rendering of himself as a tiny black mark – miniscule by comparison – crab-like and very nearly invisible on the horizon. Philp’s ‘little self’ exerts the briefest of action as he crawls, scratches in sand and tangles himself in fishing nets – he’s caught in a moment in time which seems to dissipate his childlike energy into an intense stillness. It’s this quality that Philp captures on canvas.

The power of Philp’s new work lies largely in the palpable love and admiration for his father.

The body of work is unified by a limited palette and a well-defined vocabulary. This vocabulary is a stylised one and is used to simplfy story – differentiating male from female and signifying campfire by a spit of yellow on canvas. The delicate and restrained dotting is used to narrate conversation; subtly describing emotional relationships between family members and the close connections between murris and their country. Ultramarine, cobalt and flat grey are laid in broad stripes across the canvas. They evoke the quiet insignificance of man in a land which he reveres. Philp paints a place where landscape is king – people diminished in scale and a little boy’s adventures set against an expansive stage.

There’s a naivety and simpleness to the work which makes them powerful beyond illustrative, and poignant without trace of the cloying sentimentality to which other versions of remembered childhood are prone. They are modern and contemporary, blending story of home and country with personal memoire and as such, embody the best of Aboriginal art in NSW.


Relatively new to painting, Philp has a host of successes already under his belt.

  • In 2009 he secured the Shirley Kennedy Encouragement Award for the Border Art Prize at the Tweed Regional Gallery and a commendation in the NSW Premiers Aboriginal Art Prize.
  • Michael has had sell-out solo exhibitions at DACOU Gallery Northern Rivers.
  • He was a featured artist in Arts Northern Rivers 2009 book, A special kind of vision.
  • He was a selected artist for the 2010 Travelling Art Prize with Regional Galleries NSW.
  • Grafton Regional Gallery is in the process of acquiring one of Philp’s works.
  • DACOU Northern Rivers have been supporting Michael over the last 5 years and funded, developed and managed his grants including the recent Sydney exhibition. 
  • Djon Mundine is currently writing an article for Art Monthly about Michael and his work. Keep an eye out for his upcoming exhibition at Coo-ee.


M&G viewed My saltwater murris at Mary Place in Sydney in October. We wish to thank Michael for his generosity in interview and Justine for assistance with the logistics.

Would you like to view Michael’s Home country on the Aboriginal map?

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