Roberts was painting at night at Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), just half a mile from his camp with the Anangu people, when he encountered a supernatural experience.
“This was in the Olgas, it’s one of the eeriest places I’ve ever been in my life: full of feelings and reverberations, vibrations and not all pleasant.”
“There was no sound, absolute stillness and I knew I was not alone.”
“The hair literally started to stand up on the back of my neck, I got goosepimples.”
“This feeling welled up until it was not just a panic, it was a blind panic and I ran.”
When he made it back to camp, he explained what had happened to one of the Anangu men.
“He said, ‘Ainslie you were in the wrong place, at the wrong time, you were on sacred ground and they let you know.’”
When they went back to get his belongings the next morning they were all there right where he had left them, apart from one thing.
His palette was 100 metres from where he had been standing stuck to the rock by the paint.
Understandably shaken, he recalled thinking at the time: “Take the hint mate, take the hint.”
“I firmly believe it was a spiritual presence of Aborigines long gone, still there.”
This story captured in the only documentary made on Roberts and his life’s work, Beyond the Dreamtime, explains something of the profound admiration Roberts had for Indigenous culture.
Ainslie Roberts was born in London and migrated to Australia at age eleven. Completing his schooling in Adelaide he showed proficiency as an artist at a young age; painting landscapes and drawing ships, buildings and bridges.
After graduating he started as an office boy in an insurance firm while keeping his artistic talents alive through a side business in graphic arts and evening classes at the South Australian School of Arts and Crafts.
In 1938, at the age of 27, he joined with Keith Webb and Maurice McClelland to form what would become South Australia’s largest advertising agency. The artist of the team, Roberts would often spend painstaking hours completing an illustration for an ad that would be published once in the paper and then never used again.
After 12 years of hard work and with a growing business employing 35 staff, Roberts suffered from a nervous breakdown and was given orders for peace and quiet.
In response his wife Judy bought him a one-way ticket to Alice Springs, where he spent his time painting and sketching.
This was to be the start of many trips, and as Roberts slowly withdrew from the business world, he began to focus solely on his artwork.
In 1952 he met Charles Pearcy Montford, an anthropologist and keen photographer and the pair travelled around Central Australia photographing the landscape as well as Indigenous rock art.
Montford began to collect stories of the Dreaming that he was told by the different communities they visited while Roberts continued to sketch and paint people and places.
Roberts’ sketch of Gwoya Jungarai, also known as One Pound Jimmy, which was made around this time, became the inspiration for the final design on the Australian two dollar coin.
Roberts began painting scenes from some of the stories that Mountford had collected in 1962 and collated a sell-out exhibition of them in Adelaide in October 1963. A book of the images and their accompanying stories was suggested and ‘The Dreamtime’ was first published in 1965.
“It was an enormous success and no one was more surprised than Montford and myself and the publishers who were highly delighted, naturally” explained Roberts in ‘Beyond the Dreamtime’.
The book went on to sell over a million copies in Australia and has been reprinted almost twenty times.
For Roberts the book offered an opportunity to share his unique artistic talent and his respect for Aboriginal people and their stories with a wider audience.
“I saw my role as a white man, painting in the white man’s style, and painting for white people and trying to bridge this gap between the two cultures in a way that just might give back to the Aborigines some of the dignity and some of the respect that I don’t think they deserved to lose in the first place.”
Today, concern would certainly be raised over the practices used to obtain the stories, the place of Roberts to depict these stories and his use and incorporation of certain spiritually significant sites and animals. In fact one of Mountford’s later books, Nomads of the Australian Desert, was withdrawn over issues of cultural insensitivity due to its depiction of sacred sites.
There is no doubt, however, that the book brought stories of the Dreaming into the hands of many who would not have otherwise heard them.
John Lind, the director of the ‘Beyond the Dreamtime’ documentary credited the work for expanding his own understanding.
‘Ainslie's paintings had offered me a portal into another world both strange and familiar, an Australia I wanted to know far removed from Australia's satellite cities constructed out of nostalgia for distant abandoned home countries by immigrants reluctant to embrace the Indigenous culture.’
Ainslie Roberts was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in June 1993 before he passed away in August of that year.