Victoria, Australia 1824 – 1903
[Corroboree (Figures in possum-skin cloaks) Figures in possum skin cloaks] c.1885 Description: Figures in possum-skin cloaks
Place made: Coranderrk, Victoria, Australia
Materials & Technique: drawings, graphite; charcoal; natural earth pigments; paper drawing in charcoal and natural earth pigments, over black pencil Support: paperboard
William Barak’s style and subject matter are unique in Australian 19th-century art. The work in the National Gallery’s collection is characteristic of his many compositions depicting groups of people wearing possum skin cloaks, the traditional dress of Aboriginal people across the colder parts of the mainland. Possum skin cloaks were generally worn skin-side out and the skins were elaborately decorated with incised geometric patterns coloured with ochres. This variegated patterning is typical of Barak’s style.
During his lifetime, Barak experienced enormous cultural change. He was a child when Europeans began to make pastoral incursions into the Port Phillip district of Victoria in the mid-1830s, he went to a mission school and was a member of the Native Police (disbanded in 1853). In 1863, he was one of a large group of Aboriginal people from across Victoria who were the first members of the Aboriginal settlement at Coranderrk, outside Melbourne. Barak had hereditary status as clan elder of his people (the Wurundyeri) and was one of the leaders of the Coranderrk community. When the settlement was threatened by competing pastoral interests, Barak led a determined opposition to any move: ‘Yarra’, he said, ‘my father’s country’.1 He lived at Coranderrk until his death in 1903, by which time he was one of the few people in Victoria with a first-hand knowledge of the traditional language, songs and religious law of the original inhabitants of the Yarra Valley. Europeans often referred to him as ‘the last chief of the Yarra Yarra Tribe’.
Barak appears to have made most of his drawings in the last decades of his life and there are many stories of such drawings being commissioned for the stream of important visitors who travelled from Melbourne out to Coranderrk. A photograph of Barak at work on a drawing, taken in the last years of his life, clearly shows his unique blend of materials: pencil (for underdrawing), watercolour, ochres and charcoal.
Andrew Sayers 2002
1A.F. Bon, ‘Barak, an Aboriginal Statesman’, Melbourne Argus, 28 November 1931
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002