Early colonists in Australia often struggled with the unfamiliar land, coveting a culture and identity more in keeping with their European origins than with their new home.

  • A European home?

    We could be mistaken for thinking this is a painting of a British country manor but the subject of Eugene von Guérard’s portrait is a colonial homestead nestled in the valley of Deep Creek, 27 kilometres north of Melbourne. Known as Glenara, the property was owned by a wealthy pastoralist, depicted in the painting with his family standing amid the formal landscaped gardens. Yet beyond the manicured lawns, imported trees and vineyards – a pocket of imported European civilisation – the untamed Australian wilderness quietly asserts its presence.

  • Observers and the observed

    Many images of the colonial period recorded and celebrated the progress of European settlement. Others documented the unfamiliar native plants and animals, and the Indigenous people and their activities – often for the purposes of classifying them according to established European values and ideas.

    In 1847, the English-born photographer Douglas Kilburn opened Melbourne’s first commercial photographic studio. As a way of promoting his business he took at least eight daguerreotypes of Aboriginal people from the area around Melbourne. These daguerreotypes, one of which is shown here, are the earliest surviving photographs of Australia’s Indigenous people.

    Kilburn intended the images as ethnographic studies rather than as individual portraits, objectifying the sitters as ‘curiosities’ for European viewers and offering a European view of Aboriginality. In this way these images are perhaps more revealing of the observer than of the observed. 14

  • Indigenous culture on its own terms

    The incursion of European settlers in Victoria in 1835 signalled the beginning of the destruction of the traditional life of its original inhabitants, the Wurundjeri people. But Wurundjeri leader and artist William Barak resisted being controlled by gubba (white) society, turning to art as a way of maintaining his culture and fighting for the rights of his people. Most of Barak’s drawings record the ceremonies of his people in the days before the devastating impact of European colonisation and in this way help to preserve and perpetuate Indigenous cultural identity.

    Ceremony 1898 represents a nargee (public ceremony) at which songs and dances are being performed. The viewer is brought up close to the action. Barak’s dancing figures leave us spellbound because he takes us right inside the event from his own inclusive Wurundjeri perspective.

    Barak evokes the music of the spectacle by capturing the dynamic movements of the swaying and leaping figures, which seem to project and recede in space. Below the dancers are three rows of female participants. They are subordinate in scale to the dancers and the commanding pair of Elders who face each other in heraldic symmetry, providing a focal point for the lower section.

Endnotes

  • 14 Isobel Crombie in Isobel Crombie and Susan van Wyk,2nd Sight, Australian Photography in the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2002.