Tommy McRae 
Kwatkwat c.1836–1901

These drawings by Tommy McRae are the first examples by this important Aboriginal artist to enter the Gallery’s collection. From 1860 onwards, McRae produced pen and ink drawings and sketchbooks for a number of European patrons in the Corowa district. One of these collectors, J. C. Leslie, the editor of the Corowa Free Press at Wahgunyah, was the original owner of these two drawings.

In common with other single-sheet drawings by McRae, these are composite scenes, drawn in two tiers to illustrate discrete aspects of Aboriginal life. The starting point of each composition is the freely sketched ground, upon which the ceremonies take place, in the foreground of the compositions; hunting scenes are also depicted.

 

In each of these works, lines of decorated dancers have been drawn in silhouette, the figures differentiated from each other by individual body designs. The legs of the dancers, all bent at the same angle, lock together to give the impression of a group dancing in complete unison. The artist meticulously delineates details of body decoration and of material culture, including parrying shields and boomerangs that are peculiar to the Upper Murray region. In the second drawing, two camouflaged Aboriginal hunters are shown stalking three emu and a kangaroo, which are beautifully observed. Some lightly sketched saplings are indicated among the emu, to evoke a bush setting.

The drawings show McRae’s sophisticated control of ink density to suggest tone. Layers of very fine hatching are built up in a manner that is reminiscent of the incising of artefacts from the Upper Murray region. The artist’s use of line also bears comparison with that in Victorian bark drawings, where the line is incised into the charred surface of the bark, as well as with the markings scratched into the surface of possum-skin cloaks.

Judith Ryan