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Roslyn Betty Poignant (1927–2019)

by Martin Thomas

Roslyn Poignant, who has died aged 92, was a fine writer, a respected scholar and a tenacious historical detective. Trained as an anthropologist and historian, she was also a masterful interpreter of photographic evidence. Her forensic yet deeply humane research brought past injustices kicking and screaming into the present.

In the 1970s, in archives at the Royal Anthropological Institute in London, she found a photograph of three Indigenous Australian people — a man, woman and child — whom she would come to identify as Billy, Jenny and Toby.

The image, dated 1885, was taken by the anthropological photographer Roland Bonaparte in Paris. Roslyn’s desire to understand what they were doing so far from home was the genesis for a project that uncovered the grim back story of two groups of Indigenous Australians kidnapped from North Queensland in the 1880s and taken to the US and Europe, where they were exhibited as racial curiosities. They all died far from home.

In 1993, her research took her to an archive in Ohio that specialised in circus history. The librarian had received a call asking for information about an Indigenous Australian named Tambo who was somehow connected with the Barnum & Bailey circus. Roslyn was able to explain that Tambo was one of the group from Palm Island off the Queensland coast, and that the man who took them overseas was an agent of PT Barnum. Tambo and his companions were co-opted into Barnum’s notorious Ethnological Congress of Strange Tribes exhibit.

To her astonishment, the caller asked Roslyn if she would like to see Tambo. After his death in 1884, his body had been mummified and displayed for many years in Drew’s Dime Museum in Cleveland; and the caller was from a funeral business in the city that had discovered the “exhibit” in its basement.

Roslyn negotiated the repatriation of Tambo; and was present in 1994 when his descendants laid him to rest in his ancestral country on Palm Island. She told the story in an exhibition, Captive Lives: Looking for Tambo and his Companions, at the National Library of Australia in Canberra in 1997 and a book, Professional Savages: Captive Lives and Western Spectacle (2004).

Roslyn was born in Sydney, the daughter of Miriam (nee Audet), a seamstress, and David Izatt, a nurse, and brought up in the suburb of Maroubra. She credited both her Jewish mother and her Scottish father for her abhorrence of racism, her feminism and her sense of social justice.

After leaving Sydney girls’ high school, Roslyn studied history and anthropology at the University of Sydney. Her first job was with the Australian government’s film unit, where she worked with the linguist Ted Strehlow editing his footage of Indigenous Australian ceremonies.

Through friends at the film unit, Roslyn met the documentary photographer and cameraman Axel Poignant in 1950. They married in 1953 and forged a brilliant life-work partnership.

When Axel went to Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory in 1952 to photograph the people living around Liverpool River, his exposed films were airlifted to Sydney where Roslyn developed them. She made reference prints that were flown back to Arnhem Land so that Axel could show his work-in-progress to the people in the images.

The Poignants’ consultative methods were years ahead of their time. The community in Arnhem Land certainly appreciated them. At the end of Axel’s visit they made him the recipient of a Rom ceremony, a diplomatic rite traditionally used as an expression of respect for visitors or neighbours.

In 1956, seeking new horizons, Roslyn and Axel sailed to Europe, squeezing through Suez only hours before the canal was blocked to shipping. Although it had been intended as a temporary move, London became their base, and they settled in Blackheath. The Poignants would become part of the circle of creative Australians who moved to London in the 60s; and Axel played court photographer.

Images that Axel had shot in Arnhem Land were used for the children’s book Bush Walkabout (1957). A story about two Indigenous Australian children who get lost in the bush, it was the first in a series of bestselling “photo-narratives” by the Poignants that encouraged younger readers to engage with different cultures.

In 1969 they travelled through the Pacific, working collaboratively with communities in Papua New Guinea and Tahiti to create new stories. Roslyn wrote the text and Axel took the photographs for Kaleku (1972) and Children of Oropiro (1976), which were highly successful and translated into numerous languages.

Roslyn and Axel were contracted by the British Museum to document the museum’s collections, photographing some items for the first time in their history. This gave Roslyn a wonderful opportunity to closely observe and think about material culture. In 1967 she published Oceanic Mythology: The Myths of Polynesia, Micronesia, Melanesia, Australia and in 1970 Myths and Legends of the South Seas.

A member of the Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI), she became fascinated by its large collection of historic photographs documenting the peoples of the world, which sparked her research into Tambo and his companions. She also curated a key exhibition of ethnographic photography, Observers of Man, at the Photographers’ gallery in London in 1980 that toured the UK and Europe until 1984.

After Axel died in 1986, Roslyn left Blackheath, downsizing to an elegant flat near the British Museum. She installed a darkroom and established the Axel Poignant Archive as a working photo library. She continued to exhibit and interpret Axel’s work as she pursued other interests. After service as honorary secretary of the RAI, she was honoured with its Patron’s medal in 1995.

Roslyn travelled extensively in the 90s, making many visits to Australia. She returned to Arnhem Land, equipped with Axel’s photographs. Working closely with senior men and women, she researched a book (Encounter at Nagalarramba, 1996) and exhibition (It’s About Friendship: Rom, at the National Library of Australia) about the 1952 Rom ceremony performed for Axel, extending the consultative documentary process that had begun half a century earlier.

In 2006 Poignant was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Sydney, and made a last visit to Australia to attend the graduation.

In the last decade, she wrote several essays and curated a final exhibition of Axel’s earliest work.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Martin Thomas, 'Poignant, Roslyn Betty (1927–2019)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 21 July 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Izatt, Roslyn Betty

12 May, 1927
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


7 November, 2019 (aged 92)

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