Bill Leak dies: A brilliant cartoonist who polarised Australia
Bill Leak has been celebrated for his wit and distinctive style. Loved and loathed, he was to his admirers a genius of wit and originality who confronted tough topics, while to his detractors he fuelled race tensions and polarised a nation.
Bill Leak, who created some of Australia’s most recognisable and inflammatory cartoons, has died of a suspected heart attack in hospital. He was 61.
Last year, his caricature of an indigenous man with a beer can who could not remember his son’s name was labelled “disgusting” and “discriminatory” by Aboriginal leaders. The artist had also faced death threats and was forced to move out of his home after publishing an image of the Prophet Muhammad following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris.
“[He was] a giant in his field of cartooning and portraiture and a towering figure for more than two decades,” said Paul Whittaker, editor-in-chief of The Australian newspaper, where Mr Leak worked.
The cartoonist was born in Adelaide but raised near Sydney, where he trained at the Julian Ashton Art School in the city’s historic Rocks district. He would later travel to Europe to soak up the region’s art, and it was in the early 1980s that he got his big break with The Bulletin magazine.
“I was the first person to get him to draw cartoons [and] his whole life changed,” explained Lindsay Foyle, a cartoonist and cartoon historian.
“He had terrific control over the pen. He also had a mind which seemed uncontrollable. It would go in any direction and he was totally unpredictable, so it was combination of his drawing skills and his quirky sense of humour,” Mr Foyle told the BBC.
“I don’t think Bill was ever surprised about the controversy he caused. He enjoyed it and on many occasions tailored his cartoons to cause a stink. Bill enjoyed being in the limelight.”
Mr Leak won nine Walkley awards that recognise journalistic excellence in Australia, and had worked for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp Australia newspapers since 1994.
His distinctive style won many fans, but he often drew intense criticism for his views – particularly in recent years. Last year’s depiction of the indigenous man sparked a complaint to Australia’s Human Rights Commission, with a claim it had violated a controversial race discrimination law.
One indigenous advocacy group at the time called the “disgusting, disrespectful, and hurtful”, adding: “Those involved in publishing such a clearly racist cartoon should be ashamed and should issue a public apology to all Australians.”
Tributes on social media have praised his fearlessness, lamenting the loss of an artist who was “supremely talented, principled, brave, witty & decent”, and “a true warrior for freedom of speech”.
Others, though, had far more brutal assessments. Several posts after his death did not just attack Mr Leak’s views, but the cartoonist personally – demonstrating how polarising he had become within sections of the community. Others swiftly condemned the critical posts.