Tommy McRAE, Duellers Enlarge 1 /1

Tommy McRAE

Kwatkwat people

Australia 1840 /1844 – 1901

Duellers 1880-1901 Place made: Wahgunyah, Victoria, Australia
Materials & Technique: drawings, pen and black ink on two sheets of buff paper Support: two sheets of wove buff paper
Manufacturer's Mark: no manufacturer's mark.

Primary Insc: no inscriptions.
Secondary Insc: no inscriptions.
Dimensions: sheet (sight) 11.0 h x 50.5 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 2013
Accession No: NGA 2013.95
  • Purchased by Roderick Kilborn, Wahgunyah.
  • Mary Ellen Cox, by descent.
  • E.H. Cox, by descent.
  • Private collection.
  • Purchased by the National Gallery of Australia from Deutscher and Hackett, Melbourne, 2013.

One of the earliest Indigenous artists to attain an artistic reputation outside his community, Tommy McRae produced some of the most insightful images of Australian Aboriginal life and culture during the nineteenth century. The pen-and-ink drawing Duellers is a particularly fine example of his work and records a highly ritualised form of physical combat between Aboriginal people. Rendered with McRae's economic yet lucid use of line, four groups of silhouetted figures are engaged in battle across a frieze-like composition, shields and spears in hand.

Born near the Upper Murray region during the 1830s, McRae grew up witnessing the threats posed to his culture and traditions as colonists cleared the land and claimed its resources. He swiftly adapted and successfully negotiated with the growing settler population, selling fish, poultry and sketches. His drawings record Indigenous–European interactions and celebrate various aspects of traditional Aboriginal life such as ceremony, hunting and food gathering. They were primarily produced in his old age, which almost guaranteed, as noted by Andrew Sayers in his Aboriginal artists of the nineteenth century, that they 'would have a retrospective cast'.

Duellers is certainly underpinned by a sense of nostalgia for a disrupted culture. The absence of non-Indigenous figures, landscape motifs or animals in the composition denies the scene a location or narrative and seems to aspire instead to the period before colonisation. While McRae maintained excellent relationships with nearby settler communities, he was nevertheless deeply affected by the changes wrought upon his way of life. Viewed within this context, McRae's Duellers can be understood as a wistful reconstruction of Indigenous life and culture as he remembered it before European settlement of the Upper Murray region.

Rebecca Edwards Gordon Darling Intern, Australian Prints and Drawings

in artonview, issue 74, Winter 2013