Important drawing by William Barak

In January 1999 the Gallery acquired a very important drawing, of large scale, by Wurundjeri artist William Barak, who from 1860 onward lived at the Aboriginal reserve known as Coranderrk, producing most of his drawings from 1880 until his death. Barak is the first Aboriginal artist to be known by name in the wider community in his own lifetime. He was also the first to use introduced materials in order to record a culture that was facing annihilation as a result of white invasion. Work by Barak is of great cultural, historical and aesthetic importance for the National Gallery of Victoria, located as it is in country of the Wurundjeri.

This atypical example of a drawing from very late in the artist’s career has an excellent provenance. Given to Annie Danks by the artist in 1899, the work passed by descent to the Fraser family, who offered it to the Gallery for acquisition one hundred years after its date of execution. The dating of the drawing to January 1899 is based on two inscriptions on the calico wrapping in which the work was stored rolled.

Barak depicts a ceremonial gathering or corroboree, showing it from an inclusive Aboriginal perspective, as if the viewer were inside the event. Five bearded male dancers of varying scale are represented at the top in dynamic movement, leaping and swaying with legs bent and apart. Each dancer holds two boomerangs, used as clapsticks for percussion accompaniment. The men’s faces are painted with totemic markings reminiscent of vertical and horizontal bands of red ochre found on nineteenth-century broad shields from Southeastern Australia. At the bottom of the composition, a row of Aborigines dressed in possum-skin cloaks are actively involved in viewing the event. These seated figures wearing emu-feather headdresses are subordinate in scale to the dancers and to a commanding pair of bearded male figures in possum-skin cloaks. The outline of the cloaks of the observers forms a serpentine line that echoes that found on the possum-skin cloaks and is accentuated in the centre by a bold meander that subsumes three of the observers.

The middle ground contains two small campfires but is dominated by an extraordinary range of native birds and animals: echidna, kookaburra, goanna, kangaroo, emu, lyrebird, dog and snake. Interestingly, some of these are identified by written inscriptions, illustrative of the original owner’s interest in taxonomy. Some of the animals are given European names – iguana instead of goanna, and porcupine rather than echidna – and occasionally spelling mistakes are corrected by a later inscription. The bodies of the birds and animals are patterned with linear meanders similar to those found on the possum-skin cloaks. It is possible that these creatures elaborated with totemic markings relate to songs and dances performed at the ceremony.

This drawing, the sixth by Barak to enter the Melbourne collection, will enrich our representation of the artist’s work, complementing but not duplicating the Gallery’s other examples.

Judith Ryan, Senior Curator of Indigenous Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1999).