fig. 1
Brook Andrew

The Felton Commissions (The Barak Project) was conceived as part of an ambitious three-tiered program that celebrates the National Gallery of Victoria’s 150th anniversary through a specific focus on the extraordinarily diverse work of Australia’s Indigenous artists, and so marks the NGV’s coming of age in terms of its acknowledgement of the importance of Aboriginal art and culture.1 This program was initially conceived by Sir Andrew Grimwade, CBE, Chair of the Felton Bequest committee and former president of the NGV Council of Trustees (1976–1990). The first part of this program was the acquisition of sixty-three nineteenth- and early twentieth-century shields from eastern, Central and Western Australia, which considerably strengthens the Gallery’s historical holdings;2 These are accompanied by a further three shields, two of which were acquired with state funds, and one with funding provided by the federal government. the second was the monumental exhibition Living Water: Contemporary Art of the Far Western Desert, comprising 107 paintings by Pintupi, Spinifex, Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara, Yulparija and Martu artists, which are now part of the Gallery’s permanent collection; and the third was The Barak Project: a site-specific installation of three works by Vernon Ah Kee, Brook Andrew and Jonathan Jones at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia.

Central to the concept brief and resulting selection process behind the project is the question of how an institution such as the National Gallery of Victoria both marks and celebrates its complex and rich history. As an institution that in one sense was founded as a signifier of the growing maturity of a young colony (and of all the associated Enlightenment notions of progress and education; of fostering a civilised society and of engendering a sense of morality and ‘good taste’), how is a respect for the past and a sense of the possibilities of the future symbolically conveyed through works of art?

While there is no doubt that such significant and high-profile recognition of Indigenous art as contemporary practice is to be commended, the link between Indigenous culture and the anniversary of a public institution from which it was until very recently excluded is not without a certain, rather poignant, irony.3 The National Gallery of Victoria’s department of Aboriginal and Oceanic Art was established in 1981 under director Patrick McCaughey, with its first acquisition funds being allocated in 1984–85. Its inaugural curator was Anne Brody, followed by Judith Ryan (now Senior Curator of Indigenous Art), who has been responsible for the extensive program of Indigenous art commemorating the NGV’s 150th anniversary. Historically, the material culture of Australia’s Indigenous peoples was displayed within the Public Library, Museum and Gallery, which was housed together in what is now the State Library of Victoria on Swanston Street, but this was largely within an ethnographic context. The NGV moved from this site in 1968 when a new gallery, designed by Sir Roy Grounds, was opened on St Kilda Road. As contributing artist Jonathan Jones highlights, this conundrum is also inherent in The Barak Project commissions, which are intended ‘to create a lasting tribute to Barak that celebrates his life, art, culture and contribution to society’:4 Frances Lindsay, letter of invitation to submit a proposal for The Barak Project, 31 August 2010, NGV file 06909.

The whole project was meant to be this bizarre link between somehow making Barak intrinsically linked with the NGV, which had some prob-lems, inherently, embedded within it. You know, at the same time as Barak was fighting for his country, and for his culture, this white institution was growing up. And he wasn’t really collected and he wasn’t part of that mainstream dialogue that this institution stands for. So it was really a bit awkward to try and then somehow take him and re-place him back into this institution, which was what the whole conversation was about.5 Jonathan Jones, NGV, Victorian Government, , accessed 28 November 2011. Alfred Felton’s (1831–1904) bequest, the most important benefaction in Australian art history, was made to the NGV in 1904, a year after Barak’s death at Coranderrk.

However, as then prime minister Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008 has demonstrated, symbolic gestures can nevertheless generate a palpable power (and in this instance, a platform for healing) despite their often inherently flawed nature.6 This is not to deny the significant debate that has surrounded the federal government’s handling of Indigenous affairs after this historic moment and the sense of dissatisfaction that has affected many since that time. Most notably, this has occurred with regards to the Northern Territory Intervention, which was introduced by the former Howard government in the lead-up to the federal election in 2007, and has been continued by both the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments. While there is no denying the tragic parallels between the establishment of the National Gallery of Victoria on the land of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation in 1861 and William Barak’s move back to his father’s country at the newly founded Coranderrk Aboriginal Station in the Yarra Ranges just two years later, in the twenty-first century Barak is represented by seven drawings in the NGV’s collection (the largest holding of his works in existence) and is now an integral part of the history of Australian art.7 It is important to note that two Barak drawings were acquired for the NGV by Dr Ursula Hoff, Keeper of Prints and Drawings, as early as 1962; many years prior to the establishment of the department of Aboriginal and Oceanic Art. More than just an artist of prodigious talent, Barak was a highly respected Wurundjeri ngurungaeta, or head man, who both protected and promoted the rights of the residents of Coranderrk during a time of fundamental and irrevocable change. Treading what one would assume was a precarious diplomatic path between two vastly different cultures, Barak managed to maintain customary beliefs and rituals while simultaneously adapting to the ways and expectations of the white man’s world.8 Barak, for example, was a Christian convert and, by all accounts, an ardent churchgoer. He married his second wife, Anne (or Annie), in the first Christian wedding ceremony at Coranderrk on 26 February 1865. It was a double wedding – the other couple were ‘Peter Werry of the Avoca tribe who married Eliza from Kilmore’. The ceremony was performed by Reverend Hamilton of Lilydale. (See Shirley W. Wiencke, William Barak: Last Chief of the Yarra Yarra Tribe. When the Wattles Bloom Again, self-published, 1988, reprinted 2001, pp. 57 & 59.) Interestingly, his accomplished drawings similarly straddle this divide, confidently employing his own unique version of Western figuration to both document and inform the viewer about important aspects of Wurundjeri culture.

Many of these drawings are evocative depictions of Indigenous ceremonies and, occasionally, fights; rendered in a style that conveys the prescribed positions of men, women and children during various rituals; the presence of native animals, birds and reptiles that were performed in totemic or pantomimic dances (and hunted as prey); and the intricate detail and patterning of the possum-skin cloaks worn by the participants. It is also no accident that most of Barak’s drawings completely subsume the pictorial space, highlighting the fact, as Judith Ryan has noted, that ‘this is not some exotic spectacle, but the dance is shown from an inclusive Aboriginal perspective, as if from inside the event’.9 Judith Ryan, ‘William Barak’, in Caroline Clemente, Australian Watercolours 1802–1926 in the Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria (exh. cat.), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1991, p. 40. As Carol Cooper has remarked: ‘This was a perceptive comment as now, with the benefit of further historical research and an even closer examination of the drawings, we can see just how close Barak was to the events he described. His drawings have been shown to be narratives, either personal or retold stories, which illustrate elements of Kulin culture’. (‘Remembering Barak’, in Joy Murphy-Wandin, Judith Ryan & Carol Cooper, Remembering Barak [exh. cat.], National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 34.) William Barak’s works provide invaluable insights into Indigenous society at a time of immeasurable conflict and change, and convey his deep personal connection to the stories and events he depicts. As Carol Cooper has commented:

Historical research and a close examination of Barak’s drawings have shown them to be narratives that eloquently recount many of the import-ant features of Kulin society, which he genuinely wanted ‘others’ to understand. William Barak stands today as a monumental figure of his time, a diplomat and communicator who tried to adjust to the world of the Europeans but was also a spokesman for the rights of his own people.

Barak has joined a group of inspirational Aboriginal artists such as Tommy McRae, Erlinkilyika (Jimmy Kite) and Dick Roughsey, who, through their incredibly individual visual statements about their Abori-ginality, have communicated to a broader external audience. This is not to deny that their distinctive oeuvre is derived from the traditional art forms of their cultures, but to emphasise the special efforts that they have made to connect with outsiders.10 Clemente, p. 15.

It is to this complex identity – artist, negotiator, ambassador, ngurungaeta – full of contradictions and pathos, that the works of The Barak Project pay lasting tribute.

Brook Andrew

Traversing the three levels of The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Brook Andrew’s Marks and Witness: A lined crossing in Tribute to William Barak (fig. 1) is a dizzying intervention that literally subsumes the shard-like escalator cavity that cuts through the volume of the building in a zigzag alignment; transporting visitors from the foyer to the first and second floors. The work employs a decorative schema – a hypnotic, pulsing, black-and-white design based on Wiradjuri markings that appeared historically on dendoglyphs and objects such as shields11 Brook Andrew references his family’s designs (from southern New South Wales) to connote the alternate markings employed by Barak in his depiction of possum-skin cloaks. – and coloured neon; both of which have become signature components of Andrew’s multidisciplinary practice.12 As the artist has stated: ‘Wiradjuri design has become a motif for me – an abstract wallpaper design that is optical – a metaphor for being hypnotised. In today’s society we are hypnotised’, quoted in Anne Loxley, ‘Flashing and smashing: the art of Brook Andrew’, in Brook Andrew: Eye to Eye (exh. cat.), Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, 2007, p. 54. These separate elements also exist in dialogue with Western art-historical references such as Op Art (particularly the work of Bridget Riley) and artists such as Joseph Kosuth and Bruce Nauman’s long engagement with neon. As Geraldine Barlow has noted:

The process and problems of translation are at the core of Brook Andrew’s work … the gallery is a theatre of meaning, as well as a space of aesthetic experience and experiment: darkness and light are manipulated, the unknown is as much a presence as the known. In his use of language, Andrew creates gaps in the flow of meaning. Andrew delivers difference to his audience but the hook is barbed: a problem of signs is embedded, a semiotic gap in which our own expectations and possible readings of the work … circle, eddy and are amplified.13 Geraldine Barlow, ‘Brook Andrew: Eye to Eye’, in Brook Andrew: Eye to Eye (exh. cat.), Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, 2007, p. 30.

Concerned with issues surrounding globalisation and the constructions (and aesthetics) of power and difference, Andrew’s work often shrouds confronting, at times conflicting, politics in an undeniably seductive cloak. However, in his hands, beauty is a double-edged sword – at once alluring and unsettling – forcing us to interrogate the way we look at and consume images, and the cultural baggage that informs the assumptions we make in doing so.

For Andrew, the contrasting wall ‘drawings’ of Marks and Witness (the zigzag and the diamond), which are positioned on opposing fragments of NGV Australia’s ‘fractured’ architecture, figuratively represent William Barak’s use, in his own work, of the moiety designs on the possum-skin cloaks of his subjects. This disorienting juxtaposition ‘aims to place witnesses in their own “spatial” experience of … one of the corroborees Barak depicts – a swaying of patterned cloaks with flashing neon lighting up and disappearing in nooks … activating the flat black and white drawings’. These bold, graphic elements both compete with one another and combine optically to create an oscillating, strobing effect, and are similarly connected through the red, white, yellow and blue neon ‘lines’ that traverse the open space between the walls; representing ‘fire and Barak’s strong “ideas” and understanding of culture’.14 Brook Andrew, artwork proposal, Marks and Witness: a lined crossing in Tribute to William Barak, NGV file 06909. As the artist has stated:

William Barak’s extraordinary life marks and witnesses an absolute point of precipice in cultural (ex)change and trauma prominent in early settlement society. His role as Wurundjeri ngurungaeta must stay strong in the consciousness of First Peoples legacy in this country and for visitors from afar. The power and grace of Barak’s actions, in balancing that of arguably two worlds in collision demands absolute respect amongst other Australian sung heroes. But in this case the context of ‘hero’ is as I understand it, a different way. [The] Aboriginal way in keeping culture strong and alive has been a battleground. Barak’s legacy is a multifaceted crystal where light pierces even the fiercest darkness to glow colour. His representations of culture in dance and animals rejoice in a culture so easily misunderstood yet so powerful. It is in contemporary times where many now see clearly the presence of Barak’s legacy.15 ibid.

Vernon Ah Kee

At once resoundingly political and deeply personal, Vernon Ah Kee’s practice – which encompasses text work, drawing and video installation – is strongly connected, in the first instance, to the history of the artist’s family on the Aboriginal reserve established on Palm Island, Queensland, in 1918 and, more broadly, to the ongoing (and largely unacknowledged) repercussions of Australia’s colonial history for its Indigenous people.16 As Robert Leonard has noted: ‘His work addresses the situation and experience of Aboriginal Australians and is informed by a deep resentment, grounded in his awareness of historical injustices and a sense of the ongoing exclusion and invisibility of Aborigines in Australia’. ‘your call’, in Vernon Ah Kee: borninthisskin (exh. cat.), Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2009, p. 6. Ah Kee’s family were moved to the Aboriginal reserve on Palm Island during the 1930s and his great-grandmother (Annie Ah Sam) and grandfather (Mick Miller) were photographed there by anthropologist Norman Tindale during this time. These images, which are held in the Norman Tindale Collection in the South Australian Museum, Adelaide, became the starting point for a series of family portraits that Ah Kee commenced in 2004, and were initially known to the artist through small reproductions that were carried by his grandmother in her purse. She also had a photograph of Ah Kee’s great-grandfather (her father) George Sibley (see Vernon Ah Kee: borninthisskin). For Ah Kee and many Indigenous people, these photographs encapsulate the ‘double-bind’ of ethnographic photography; functioning as important and heartfelt connections to family and as major sources of genealogical research, while highlighting the plight of Indigenous subjects during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Through the acerbic and at times confronting language of his text works (‘If I was White / I could stand back, / walk on by, / sit on the fence / and do nothing’)17 This phrase is drawn from Ah Kee’s work If I was white, 2002, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. and particularly in his lyrical, large-scale charcoal and conte portraits of Indigenous sitters, Ah Kee attempts to ‘revision the Aborigine as a beautiful and worthy subject full of depth and complexity’:18 Daniel Browning, ‘It’s a black/white thing: proppaNOW Artists’ Collective’, Artlines, no. 2, August–November 2007, p. 27.

I like to achieve an intensity that talks more about who we are as Aboriginal people today, as a modern, complex and sophisticated people of emotion and hunger and persistence and anger and love and hate and all the things that all people are. … I’m trying to show an idea of who I am and who I think my family is and who I think all families are through this idea of [the] portrait; but stripping away the exotic and the romantic and the primitive; also the virtuous and the noble, and all of those kinds of trappings actually, which are not necessary and don’t accurately describe who we are as people.19 Vernon Ah Kee, NGV, Victorian Government , accessed 7 December 2011.

Ah Kee’s installation Ideas of Barak (fig. 2), which is displayed in the multi-media room of the NGV Indigenous galleries, comprises three components that together reflect upon what is known of Barak and importantly, for Ah Kee, all that remains unknown.20 Ah Kee has commented: ‘For Aboriginal people, especially those interested in art, William Barak is someone who seems far away. A distant idea of Aboriginal Art, of the Aborigine in Victoria, the Aborigine in Australia. And were it not for the works he left and photographs of him, his legacy would be even more removed. Consigned to historical record, anecdote or hearsay, like Bennelong or Pemulwuy.
For me, Barak, along with Tommy McRae and Mickey of Ulladulla, have a unique position in terms of Australian art. There was really no-one before them. It could be argued that these three men, these art drawers, had established the beginnings of what we generally think of as Aboriginal art, i.e. art for the ‘white box’. But the three are also far removed from the contemporary aesthetic that we are most familiar with. There is little said about them in art schools and almost nothing at all in primary school and high school.
They are far-removed, Barak, McRae and Mickey of Ulladulla. Far-away, almost as if, in isolation, they exist only in reference to each other, or even themselves as individuals. Perhaps less so in Victoria and Southern New South Wales, but certainly to the rest of Australia, particularly northern Australia, and North Queensland where I was born and raised’ (Vernon Ah Kee artwork proposal, Ideas of Barak, NGV file 06909).
As a result, Ideas of Barak asks questions – about history and the role of remembrance and memorial; creating a space for contemplation for the audience that allows them to come to their own understanding of Barak, his historical role, and his ongoing significance to contemporary Australia. As Ah Kee has stated: ‘I have my own idea of Barak. It is what it is. But I would add my meaning of Barak to other “ideas of Barak” and see what becomes of him’.21 ibid.

The first element of the installation is a documentary-style looped video work that investigates Barak’s country and the story of his life. Sensitively narrated by Ah Kee and almost reverential in tone, the work incorporates scenes from Barak’s birthplace at Brushy Creek, near present-day North Croydon (a suburb in Melbourne’s east), and Coranderrk, along with images of the city of Melbourne, historical photographs of Barak, and close-up images of Barak’s work from the NGV collection; filmed in long panning shots that encourage extended looking and a unique opportunity to absorb their extraordinary detail.

Subtly revealing Ah Kee’s own perspective and ruminations on Barak the man (as leader), Barak the artist, and the very different times in which he lived, this simple but elegantly crafted story also speaks of Ah Kee’s initial connection to and interest in Barak via the medium of drawing; a connection that is further reinforced by his own majestic portrait of Barak that serves as the final point of the installation. As he has reinforced elsewhere:

My entry to Barak is through his art work. I think of Barak as a drawer. His line  is confident, there’s a quality to it, a sensibility, which probably had a lot to do with who he was and his position within his clan and Coranderrk community … They [the drawings] seem to me the equivalent to photography. These are scenes that he was making because he was there.22 ibid. The immediacy and revelatory nature of drawing is particularly important to Ah Kee: ‘There’s a sensitivity that drawing allows that no other art-making process can achieve. In drawing, the personal element is sometimes overwhelming. Perhaps that’s why not many artists actually give themselves over to it. You reveal a lot of yourself and people are afraid of that. You can’t hide in it. It’s also unforgiving. Bad drawing shows up for what it is. I’ve spent years developing my drawing skills and that gives me the courage to work on a large scale and to work with this subject matter [the portraits of his family based on Norman Tindale’s photographs]’. (Vernon Ah Kee interviewed by Glenn Barkley, 7 March 2009 in Vernon Ah Kee: borninthisskin, pp. 21–2.) It is important to note that Ah Kee’s Ideas of Barak was developed in close consultation with the Wurundjeri community and particularly William Barak’s niece Joy Murphy-Wandin. The time that Ah Kee was able to spend in Barak’s country during this process was especially significant.

Ah Kee’s video and drawn ‘portraits’ of Barak are accompanied by five small screens across which unfolds a dinner conversation about William Barak and his work between a group of contemporary Indigenous artists including Richard Bell, Jennifer Herd, Gordon Hookey, Dianne Jones, Gary Lee and Laurie Nielson, among others,23 Like Ah Kee, Richard Bell, Jennifer Herd, Gordon Hookey and Laurie Nielson are part of the Brisbane-based Indigenous artist collective proppaNOW. and curators Tess Allas and Bruce McLean. As all of these singular individuals speak of their own understanding and appreciation of Barak and what he means to them as an Indigenous leader and artist (often revealing, as a result, how little they in fact know), there is a sense of the frustration that comes with wanting to know more. As the rightful inheritors of Barak’s artistic lineage, both Ah Kee and his colleagues powerfully convey – through the constraint of their delivery and their measured consideration – the selective nature of official histories and the pain that can come from a loss of connection to one’s past.

Jonathan Jones

You got to know your father’s country, Yarra is my father’s country.

Me no leave it, Yarra, my father’s country. There’s no mountains for me on the Murray.24 William Barak, quoted in Joy Murphy-Wandin, ‘Barak My Uncle’ in Joy Murphy-Wandin, Judith Ryan & Carol Cooper, Remembering Barak, p. 4.

One of the most subtle and poetic architectural elements of the innovative design of The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia is the manner in which the Indigenous galleries on the ground floor seem to open themselves up to the Birrarung (Yarra River) through the vast windows positioned at the galleries’ end. These windows provide a vista to the outside world and flood the space with natural light, while acknowledging the Birrarung – one of the most important features of Wurundjeri country, and a significant landmark of contemporary Melbourne. For Jonathan Jones, the role of the Birrarung was central to the conception and final placement of his work untitled (muyan) (fig. 3); connecting the site of NGV Australia at Federation Square to Coranderrk, Barak’s home.25 As Jonathan Jones has stated: ‘It is Birrarung that connects the two sites of the NGV Ian Potter Centre and Barak’s home, Coranderrk. This position will provide a direct connection between Barak and the NGV Ian Potter Centre, through Birrarung which weaves through his country’. Jonathan Jones, artwork proposal, MUYAN | BERUK, NGV file 06909. Jones’s work now commands the main stairwell that leads from the ground to the first floor, sitting at the apex from which the sightline to the windows and the Birrarung beyond unfolds. This position, in an intermediary space (the stairs and landing) – a zone which physically connects and facilitates movement between the Indigenous and Australian galleries – similarly reflects for the artist the conciliatory nature of Barak’s character and role as ngurungaeta, which ‘was not based on popularity or marked by ostentation’.26 ibid. As Jones has commented: ‘Barak, through his work, created a new zone for people to live within, a space that we as contemporary Australians are still aspiring to achieve today’.27 ibid.

Jones has used incandescent and fluorescent light (which immediately calls to mind the work of American artist Dan Flavin) throughout his career, creating singular works and physical environments that are based on a process of accumulation reflecting the artist’s interest in the ‘intangible paradigm’ of the individual and community, their co-dependence, and the relationship between the two.

The notion of a community is in many ways an impossibility, as there is no group of people who are exactly the same constituting a community. Therefore, all communities can be broken down into individuals. The individual by itself is a further impossibility, as all individuals are products of their community and must relate to the powers of each other … Placing a group of lights together creates a light-mass, much of which overlaps, the same way that the community members overlap. That, and individuals or light who happen to overlap have similarities, though the light is seen to emanate from a discrete and individual bulb. Within the context of Aboriginality, these issues arise when people analyse and discount the parts that overlap, the areas of shadow which are the differences of such an exchange of energies.28 Artist statement, in Jonathan Jones (exh. cat.), Gallery Barry Keldoulis, Sydney, 2003, n.p. As Hetti Perkins has perceptively written: ‘Jones’s intervention in the mechanical processes of electricity and manufacturing infuse his systems of representation with an organic energy. Through repetition, Jones’s patterns release a kinetic force analogous with the cumulative glow of clustered light bulbs. In Aboriginal ceremonial life, where participation is structured according to the position of the individual within the community, cultural affirmation is conducted and achieved through reiteration. From within these nuclei of society – like the collective brilliance of overlapping light sources – emanates a radiance that illuminates the darkness that surrounds us’. Hetti Perkins, Jonathan Jones: Lumination (exh. cat.), Gallery Barry Keldoulis, Sydney, 2003, n.p.

Jones’s concept of the individual and community is similarly echoed in the repetitive forms of the five light boxes comprising untitled (muyan), which appear to both lean on and support one another. For the artist, these separate but connected forms encapsulate the various ideas about and facets of Barak’s personality (his role as a father, leader, friend, political activist, artist and keeper and communicator of cultural knowledge) and are similarly representative of the five different groups that constitute the Kulin nation.29 Ibid. It is also important to note that this understanding of the individual and community is likewise reflected in the artist’s working method, as untitled (muyan) was created in close collaboration with Cox Architects of Melbourne. These sentinel forms are lit from within by LED lights whose individual designs are drawn from Barak’s images30 Like Vernon Ah Kee, Jones’s untitled (muyan) was developed in close consultation with the Wurundjeri community. Jones discussed an initial selection of possible designs with Joy Murphy-Wandin, who made the choice of five represented in the final work. He also spent considerable time at Coranderrk (discussion between the author and Judith Ryan, 8 December 2011). One of the designs is of particular significance to the artist as it refers to the linear carved markings on an Indigenous club that he discovered while working in the archives of the British Museum, London. This object was from the area east of Bathurst, NSW, which is where Jones’s descendants originate from (Jones interview). Another employs the diamond design that similarly features in Brook Andrew’s Marks and Witness. and also echo, in their seemingly ‘casual’ placement, the construction of the traditional wilam, or home, in a Wurundjeri campsite, which was built of overlapping pieces of dhaap, or stringybark.31 Jones attributes his interest in the wilam to a photograph from the late 1850s by Antoine Fauchery (1823–1861) (Jones artwork proposal).

In old age, with what seems like a characteristic pragmatism, Barak predicted his death, stating in 1903 that he would die when the muyan, or wattle, bloomed again. In fitting tribute, Jones’s untitled (muyan) will undergo a surprising physical transformation during August; the month in which the artist died, at a time when the wattles of Coranderrk were, and are indeed in full bloom.

Kelly Gellatly, Senior Curator, Contemporary Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2012).

Notes

1     This program was initially conceived by Sir Andrew Grimwade, CBE, Chair of the Felton Bequest committee and former president of the NGV Council of Trustees (1976–1990).

2     These are accompanied by a further three shields, two of which were acquired with state funds, and one with funding provided by the federal government.

3     The National Gallery of Victoria’s department of Aboriginal and Oceanic Art was established in 1981 under director Patrick McCaughey, with its first acquisition funds being allocated in 1984–85. Its inaugural curator was Anne Brody, followed by Judith Ryan (now Senior Curator of Indigenous Art), who has been responsible for the extensive program of Indigenous art commemorating the NGV’s 150th anniversary. Historically, the material culture of Australia’s Indigenous peoples was displayed within the Public Library, Museum and Gallery, which was housed together in what is now the State Library of Victoria on Swanston Street, but this was largely within an ethnographic context. The NGV moved from this site in 1968 when a new gallery, designed by Sir Roy Grounds, was opened on St Kilda Road.

4     Frances Lindsay, letter of invitation to submit a proposal for The Barak Project, 31 August 2010, NGV file 06909.

5     Jonathan Jones, NGV, Victorian Government, , accessed 28 November 2011. Alfred Felton’s (1831–1904) bequest, the most important benefaction in Australian art history, was made to the NGV in 1904, a year after Barak’s death at Coranderrk.

6     This is not to deny the significant debate that has surrounded the federal government’s handling of Indigenous affairs after this historic moment and the sense of dissatisfaction that has affected many since that time. Most notably, this has occurred with regards to the Northern Territory Intervention, which was introduced by the former Howard government in the lead-up to the federal election in 2007, and has been continued by both the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments.

7     It is important to note that two Barak drawings were acquired for the NGV by Dr Ursula Hoff, Keeper of Prints and Drawings, as early as 1962; many years prior to the establishment of the department of Aboriginal and Oceanic Art.

8     Barak, for example, was a Christian convert and, by all accounts, an ardent churchgoer. He married his second wife, Anne (or Annie), in the first Christian wedding ceremony at Coranderrk on 26 February 1865. It was a double wedding – the other couple were ‘Peter Werry of the Avoca tribe who married Eliza from Kilmore’. The ceremony was performed by Reverend Hamilton of Lilydale. (See Shirley W. Wiencke, William Barak: Last Chief of the Yarra Yarra Tribe. When the Wattles Bloom Again, self-published, 1988, reprinted 2001, pp. 57 & 59.)

9     Judith Ryan, ‘William Barak’, in Caroline Clemente, Australian Watercolours 1802–1926 in the Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria (exh. cat.), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1991, p. 40. As Carol Cooper has remarked: ‘This was a perceptive comment as now, with the benefit of further historical research and an even closer examination of the drawings, we can see just how close Barak was to the events he described. His drawings have been shown to be narratives, either personal or retold stories, which illustrate elements of Kulin culture’. (‘Remembering Barak’, in Joy Murphy-Wandin, Judith Ryan & Carol Cooper, Remembering Barak [exh. cat.], National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 34.)

10     Clemente, p. 15.

11     Brook Andrew references his family’s designs (from southern New South Wales) to connote the alternate markings employed by Barak in his depiction of possum-skin cloaks.

12     As the artist has stated: ‘Wiradjuri design has become a motif for me – an abstract wallpaper design that is optical – a metaphor for being hypnotised. In today’s society we are hypnotised’, quoted in Anne Loxley, ‘Flashing and smashing: the art of Brook Andrew’, in Brook Andrew: Eye to Eye (exh. cat.), Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, 2007, p. 54.

13     Geraldine Barlow, ‘Brook Andrew: Eye to Eye’, in Brook Andrew: Eye to Eye (exh. cat.), Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, 2007, p. 30.

14     Brook Andrew, artwork proposal, Marks and Witness: a lined crossing in Tribute to William Barak, NGV file 06909.

15     ibid.

16     As Robert Leonard has noted: ‘His work addresses the situation and experience of Aboriginal Australians and is informed by a deep resentment, grounded in his awareness of historical injustices and a sense of the ongoing exclusion and invisibility of Aborigines in Australia’. ‘your call’, in Vernon Ah Kee: borninthisskin (exh. cat.), Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2009, p. 6. Ah Kee’s family were moved to the Aboriginal reserve on Palm Island during the 1930s and his great-grandmother (Annie Ah Sam) and grandfather (Mick Miller) were photographed there by anthropologist Norman Tindale during this time. These images, which are held in the Norman Tindale Collection in the South Australian Museum, Adelaide, became the starting point for a series of family portraits that Ah Kee commenced in 2004, and were initially known to the artist through small reproductions that were carried by his grandmother in her purse. She also had a photograph of Ah Kee’s great-grandfather (her father) George Sibley (see Vernon Ah Kee: borninthisskin). For Ah Kee and many Indigenous people, these photographs encapsulate the ‘double-bind’ of ethnographic photography; functioning as important and heartfelt connections to family and as major sources of genealogical research, while highlighting the plight of Indigenous subjects during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

17     This phrase is drawn from Ah Kee’s work If I was white, 2002, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

18     Daniel Browning, ‘It’s a black/white thing: proppaNOW Artists’ Collective’, Artlines, no. 2, August–November 2007, p. 27.

19     Vernon Ah Kee, NGV, Victorian Government , accessed 7 December 2011.

20     Ah Kee has commented: ‘For Aboriginal people, especially those interested in art, William Barak is someone who seems far away. A distant idea of Aboriginal Art, of the Aborigine in Victoria, the Aborigine in Australia. And were it not for the works he left and photographs of him, his legacy would be even more removed. Consigned to historical record, anecdote or hearsay, like Bennelong or Pemulwuy.

For me, Barak, along with Tommy McRae and Mickey of Ulladulla, have a unique position in terms of Australian art. There was really no-one before them. It could be argued that these three men, these art drawers, had established the beginnings of what we generally think of as Aboriginal art, i.e. art for the ‘white box’. But the three are also far removed from the contemporary aesthetic that we are most familiar with. There is little said about them in art schools and almost nothing at all in primary school and high school.

They are far-removed, Barak, McRae and Mickey of Ulladulla. Far-away, almost as if, in isolation, they exist only in reference to each other, or even themselves as individuals. Perhaps less so in Victoria and Southern New South Wales, but certainly to the rest of Australia, particularly northern Australia, and North Queensland where I was born and raised’ (Vernon Ah Kee artwork proposal, Ideas of Barak, NGV file 06909).

21     ibid.

22     ibid. The immediacy and revelatory nature of drawing is particularly important to Ah Kee: ‘There’s a sensitivity that drawing allows that no other art-making process can achieve. In drawing, the personal element is sometimes overwhelming. Perhaps that’s why not many artists actually give themselves over to it. You reveal a lot of yourself and people are afraid of that. You can’t hide in it. It’s also unforgiving. Bad drawing shows up for what it is. I’ve spent years developing my drawing skills and that gives me the courage to work on a large scale and to work with this subject matter [the portraits of his family based on Norman Tindale’s photographs]’. (Vernon Ah Kee interviewed by Glenn Barkley, 7 March 2009 in Vernon Ah Kee: borninthisskin, pp. 21–2.) It is important to note that Ah Kee’s Ideas of Barak was developed in close consultation with the Wurundjeri community and particularly William Barak’s niece Joy Murphy-Wandin. The time that Ah Kee was able to spend in Barak’s country during this process was especially significant.

23     Like Ah Kee, Richard Bell, Jennifer Herd, Gordon Hookey and Laurie Nielson are part of the Brisbane-based Indigenous artist collective proppaNOW.

24     William Barak, quoted in Joy Murphy-Wandin, ‘Barak My Uncle’ in Joy Murphy-Wandin, Judith Ryan & Carol Cooper, Remembering Barak, p. 4.

25     As Jonathan Jones has stated: ‘It is Birrarung that connects the two sites of the NGV Ian Potter Centre and Barak’s home, Coranderrk. This position will provide a direct connection between Barak and the NGV Ian Potter Centre, through Birrarung which weaves through his country’. Jonathan Jones, artwork proposal, MUYAN | BERUK, NGV file 06909.

26     ibid.

27     ibid.

28     Artist statement, in Jonathan Jones (exh. cat.), Gallery Barry Keldoulis, Sydney, 2003, n.p. As Hetti Perkins has perceptively written: ‘Jones’s intervention in the mechanical processes of electricity and manufacturing infuse his systems of representation with an organic energy. Through repetition, Jones’s patterns release a kinetic force analogous with the cumulative glow of clustered light bulbs. In Aboriginal ceremonial life, where participation is structured according to the position of the individual within the community, cultural affirmation is conducted and achieved through reiteration. From within these nuclei of society – like the collective brilliance of overlapping light sources – emanates a radiance that illuminates the darkness that surrounds us’. Hetti Perkins, Jonathan Jones: Lumination (exh. cat.), Gallery Barry Keldoulis, Sydney, 2003, n.p.

29     Ibid. It is also important to note that this understanding of the individual and community is likewise reflected in the artist’s working method, as untitled (muyan) was created in close collaboration with Cox Architects of Melbourne.

30     Like Vernon Ah Kee, Jones’s untitled (muyan) was developed in close consultation with the Wurundjeri community. Jones discussed an initial selection of possible designs with Joy Murphy-Wandin, who made the choice of five represented in the final work. He also spent considerable time at Coranderrk (discussion between the author and Judith Ryan, 8 December 2011). One of the designs is of particular significance to the artist as it refers to the linear carved markings on an Indigenous club that he discovered while working in the archives of the British Museum, London. This object was from the area east of Bathurst, NSW, which is where Jones’s descendants originate from (Jones interview). Another employs the diamond design that similarly features in Brook Andrew’s Marks and Witness.

31     Jones attributes his interest in the wilam to a photograph from the late 1850s by Antoine Fauchery (1823–1861) (Jones artwork proposal).