Judith Ryan, senior curator of Indigenous Art in the National Gallery of Victoria, discusses the life and work of William Barak.
Judith Ryan: The great Wurundjeri artist William Barak occupies a unique place in the history of Indigenous Australian art and is also central to the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria.
The gallery was founded in 1861 in country of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation.
Two years after its founding in 1861, Barak, with other members of the Kulin nation, went on a long journey ending up back in his country at Coranderrk near Healesville, about 60km north-east of Melbourne.
He lived for the rest of his life at Coranderrk Aboriginal Station. And he developed such a reputation that by the time of his death in 1903, he was the most famous Aboriginal person in the whole of Victoria and arguably the whole of Australia, and the only one renowned as an artist in his own right.
Australian photographers visited Coranderrk and took photographs of Barak and other Wurundjeri people because Barak had become a celebrity renowned for his demonstrations of boomerang-throwing, his storytelling and also the watercolour drawings that he made of his own culture particularly recording ceremonies, hunting, flora and fauna and aspects of customary ritual prior to European colonisation.
When we think about Barak's position in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, it was Dr Ursula Hoff, the keeper of prints and drawings who happened to make a visit to a Balwyn private collector in 1962, a century after the founding of the NGV. And there, she encountered two remarkable drawings made by Barak.
One in Christmas 1898, Figures In Possum Skin Cloaks, and the other, a drawing of a Wurundjeri ceremony made around the same time. These works which she decided to purchase for the National Gallery of Victoria were the first works of Barak to be purchased by a public institution in Australia and this was long before the National Gallery of Victoria had its own Indigenous art department or any funds for the purchase of Indigenous work so it was as an artist that Dr Ursula Hoff responded to these works of Barak.
When we look at the drawing Figures In Possum Skin Cloaks of 1898, we see that he was recording the possum skin cloaks worn by senior men which also are used to wrap around the body of deceased Aboriginal people from Victoria.
We see that he is recording the sacred designs belonging to the Wurundjeri people and he's also recording elements of his country.
As he passionately remarked too when questioned about Coranderrk and the importance of Wurundjeri people staying in this particular place, he said that it was important to stay near the Yarra River because this was his country.
There was no... The mountains and the river of the Murray where he had been living prior to moving down to Coranderrk meant little to him.
When the National Gallery of Victoria held an exhibition Remembering Barak on the centenary of his death, a very well-known and important Dhalwangu elder from North-East Arnhem Land, Gawirrin Gumana, when he saw the portraits of Barak and the paintings of Barak, remarked that he believed that his ancestor had come from the waters of North-East Arnhem Land, made a long journey down to Victoria and had passed on his sacred designs straight to Barak who was actually also a member of the Dhalwangu people. So much was the affinity and the power of the work that Gawirrin, one of the great Yolngu artists of our generation who at that stage had been painting continuously for over four decades, he witnessed that this was an important man, important elder and felt a spiritual affinity with him.
There is no doubt that Barak was a remarkable man. Not only was he highly regarded at Coranderrk but also he made strong connections with the non-Aboriginal community of Victoria.
His fame was immense. Many important visitors came out to Coranderrk, including representatives of the British royal family, the Governor of Victoria, Henry Locke, and others.
And the interesting thing is that when these important people came to Coranderrk, they came wanting to see performed for them but at that stage, the Moravian order had forbidden the Wurundjeri people to perform ceremonies at Coranderrk so all that they could provide for these visitors, like any tourist anxious to see a little sort of glimpse into the world of the romanticised other, all they could provide for these visitors were Barak's drawings of ceremonies that he had participated in prior to European contact.
He produced a remarkable body of work. There are about 50 drawings extant, many of which are in collections overseas, mainly in Germany.
But one of the things that Barak did was to create a precedent because Coranderrk was really the first Aboriginal arts centre.
There are many of these art centres existing today where artists are supported and works of art are made for sale, for trade, to Europeans or non-Aboriginal people.
Coranderrk was the first of these enterprises. Women made money by making baskets, sedge-woven baskets.
Barak and others performed demonstrations of boomerang-throwing, told stories and made drawings.
Barak also was an innovator. He was interested in using new materials. He loved working on paper, experimenting with watercolours and gouache along with the ochres used in body painting or cave painting of Wurundjeri people. So he mixed new materials with organic pigments.
He was able to experiment with lateral perspective,with the sort of perspective that he obviously encountered when he had meetings with artists. He used to meet with Loureiro and other well-known Australian artists. And that was one of the things he was spreading...
He was an informant for Howitt and other anthropologists and through his dealings with Europeans, he ensured that the true stories of his culture live on and the beauty and spirituality of it is passed on to future generations and that is his importance to the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria which still remains on country of the Wurundjeri people.