Carol Cooper, Senior Curatorial Fellow, National Museum of Australia, 30 September 2014
HELEN ENNIS: Thanks so much, Aunty Joy, for putting your personal story about [William] Barak into context. Our next speaker is Carol Cooper who has had a longstanding interest in Aboriginal art of the nineteenth century. Carol is currently the senior curatorial fellow here at the National Museum of Australia. Please welcome Carol. [applause]
CAROL COOPER: Thanks very much, Helen. It’s very hard to follow on from Aunty Joy, but I’m glad I am following because she said lots of things and introduced lots of ideas that I can draw on in my talk. I would also like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal and the Ngambri people and their elders, past and present, and today our very special guest Aunty Joy Wandin Murphy, herself a great communicator, descendant of William Barak, and member of the Wurundjeri people.
Joy is Barak’s great-great-niece, as we know, and she has kindly supported and encouraged my own research into Barak’s art in a joint publication that we wrote, with Judith Ryan, in 2003 for the Remembering Barak exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. Joy concluded her essay entitled ‘Barak, my uncle’ with the words, and I love these words:
Thank you, Uncle, for keeping the fire burning and for keeping our culture alive. Your paintings are ancient treasures. In the modern world, you remind us of our place of belonging.
[image shown] This painting of Barak made when he was approximately 60 years old is a very fine one, and always reminds me of Anne Bon’s beautiful description of Barak. Bon said:
He might be termed one of nature’s gentlemen. He possessed an intellectual head covered with beautiful, wavy hair, a kindly, intellectual face with fine features, and piercing black eyes. His countenance was very attractive and radiated by his pleasant smile and merry laugh.
It’s good that Bon, a close and life-long supporter of Barak and of Coranderrk Station, records this memory of Barak’s merry laugh, because he did in many ways have such a sad life. When I read that I thought of Aunty Joy actually, because she has a very merry laugh. It’s good that we’re here today to celebrate both Barak and the other Aboriginal artists of the south-east, and to also acknowledge the great work that Andrew [Sayers] has done in drawing the attention of everyone to these great artists.
I remember as though it was only yesterday, although it was 20 years ago, how amazing and exciting it was to walk into the National Gallery of Australia in 1994 and see a wall of Barak drawings. [image shown] While it’s wonderful to have this black and white photograph courtesy of Andrew - thank you very much, Andrew, for sending me this - it doesn’t do justice to my memory of the colour of that wall. The incredible movement in colour of the Barak drawings as Judith Ryan from the National Gallery of Victoria has commented:
Barak’s drawings present a very powerful feeling of being ‘inside an event’ from an inclusive Wurundjeri perspective. This strong feeling comes from seeing one of Barak’s drawings, so it was an incredible privilege and joy to see so many of his original works together.’
This was the first time that I remember thinking that, even though in general the works were often similar in content with the arrays of cloaked and dancing tribesmen, seated woman making music, display of native animals and wooden weapons, they were also all very different. This can be seen when looking closely at these three drawings now held in museums in Germany [images shown] - similar in their content but no doubt recounting very different stories.
It was an amazing amount of work that Andrew did in curating the 1994 exhibition. Those of us who were lucky enough to see it in Canberra but also down in Melbourne were indeed very privileged. To see all of those works amassed together was a huge job, a huge treat, and I don’t know when that will happen again. So that was very good.
William Barak was extraordinarily knowledgeable about his culture and he was also a gifted communicator, Ngurungaeta or head man, and a leader of his people. Early in his major written work The Native Tribes of South-East Australia when he first introduces Barak, Howitt says that he ‘was an extraordinary repository of information as to his tribe’. Although his name is not listed in the index, Howitt quotes Barak directly at least 35 times in the book and often includes a transcription of the phrase used by Barak in his Woiwurrung language.
Barak’s name and knowledge is also very frequently called upon in the earlier pages that Howitt published. It is obvious that his conversations with Barak were, in fact, his primary source for Aboriginal culture. I don’t have time here to more than briefly sketch Barak’s relationships to Howitt, but I would like to acknowledge the work of both John Mulvaney and the late Diane Barwick for much of the background I use, as well as Isabel McBryde for her study of the Mt William axe quarries.
As you can see, [image shown] Barak and Howitt were roughly contemporary, and they both lived into their late ‘70s. Barak was a young boy, by his own reckoning about 11 or 12, when his world was changed dramatically by the incursion of explorers and graziers into his tribal lands of Port Phillip in 1835.
His father Bebejan was one of the headmen of the Wurundjeri, a clan of the Woiwurrung language and larger Kulin nation. The public servant, explorer and amateur anthropologist AW Howitt lived in Gippsland, Victoria, and talked extensively with many of the Aboriginal elders on the missions and settlements with whom he actively sought connection.
In the early 1840s, the situation for Aboriginal people in Victoria was fairly desperate. In his 1880 publication, Kamilaroi and Kurnai, Howitt described the advancement of European settlement as being ‘marked by a line of blood’, and surviving groups were also badly affected by lack of food and susceptibility to diseases. The Port Phillip Protectorate was abolished in 1849, but Protector William Thomas was retained as the court interpreter and guardian to the local Aboriginal people of the Melbourne area.
From 1860, Barak became associated with the Coranderrk Aboriginal Reserve situated on Badger Creek near the Yarra River, and worked with both William Thomas, and later John Green, who we saw in one of Aunty Joy’s slides, to make the small farming community at Coranderrk a success. At its peak in 1870, the settlement comprised 32 cottages, five other buildings, 300 hectares of fenced grazing land and with a further 60 hectares under cultivation.
However, by 1875 the Central Board for the Protection of Aborigines had dismissed Green and appointed a succession of bad managers. This was also the year that Barak became Ngurungaeta for the Kulin after the death of Billibellary’s son, Simon Wonga. Over the next seven years, Barak fought against a concerted proposal by greedy colonists to remove Coranderrk to a less desirable – that is, less fertile and productive - site. Through the diplomacy and network of influential connections, Barak was successful in lobbying for a board of inquiry to investigate continuing problems at Coranderrk. This resulted in its gazetting in 1884 as a permanent reserve, revocable only by an act of Parliament.
Barak would have first met Howitt in 1877 when Howitt was appointed as a member of the 1877 Royal Commission into the Coranderrk Station. Twice in the early 1880s, first in 1882 and then again in 1884, Barak journeyed to Gippsland on Howitt’s invitation and expense so that he could be questioned about the customs of tribes from the Melbourne area. Their first encounter produced 73 foolscap pages of notes, now in the National Museum of Victoria; and the second visit included Barak’s attendance at the initiation ceremony sponsored by Howitt for the Kurnai people at Lake Victoria.
Barak’s legendary skills as a communicator and, importantly as cross-cultural communicator are strongly illustrated by this important object now in the Museum’s National Historical Collection [image shown]. It is a handwritten, illuminated address to former Victorian Premier Graham Berry. In March 1886, a group of Kulin men led by Barak traveled to Melbourne, probably walked, to farewell Berry, who was returning to England. Along with gifts of spears, boomerangs and other artefacts they presented this illuminated address, which they obviously considered was the proper form of thanks to Berry for his assistance in keeping Coranderrk Station against the advice of the Aboriginal Protection Board.
As Jonathan Jones- who is working with me at the moment on a provenancing project in the south-east- has suggested to me about Barak and other nineteen-century Aboriginal people, they had to become ‘explorers’ in their own country. They had to work out the best ways to survive in the new world that had been thrust upon them, a world in which, their rights, especially their rights to land and natural resources, were no longer acknowledged. This idea, is taking the prism of history and turning it, to shed new light on what happened in the past. Barak and other Aboriginal leaders of the time were not just reacting to the European presence but were actively working strategically to make the best that they could of their changed circumstances. This illuminated address, and the beautiful drawings made by Barak both as presents and for sale, are testimony to this view.
Before we can move on to discussing Barak’s highly original drawing, it is useful to consider the relationship of his drawings to the traditional art of the time and cultural area. The figurative and schematic dimensions of Barak’s drawings, combined with the patterns, colours and shapes, reveal the consistency with the engravings on wooden objects such as shields and clubs. Contemporary narrative art of bark drawings, with its concern to record and perhaps relate specific notable events, seems also to have been common in the south-east, including Tasmania, in early contact times or from when people were collecting material. However, the bark charcoal drawings were highly perishable and, like other bark art from the south-east, few have survived in collections today.
Here are the line drawings of the three extant examples [images shown]. From left to right they’re the Lake Tyrrell bark, collected before 1874 and now in Museum Victoria; and two early barks from the Loddon River. Both of these collected by pastoralist John Hunter Kerr and exhibited at Sandhurst - the old name for Bendigo - in 1854, before being forwarded to the International Exhibition held in Paris in 1855, and are now in the collections of Kew Gardens and the British Museum respectively.
This last one [image shown] is a sketch by the Chief Protector George Augustus Robinson of a bark drawing which he saw in a hut on the Loddon River in 1843, and which is now in the State Library of New South Wales. On this trip, Robinson had come across several abandoned camp sites with huts containing drawings scratched into the blackened inner bark. The first he saw was of humans and drays, possibly a representation of Major Mitchell who had passed through the area in 1836, the marks of his dray, ‘the Major’s line’, being visible for many years. Robinson also records drawings containing at least 90 figures of men and emus dancing, and gives a sketch of a striking, if worrying, representation of a white man indicated by the hat. The quote from Robinson is: ’He was pierced through with spears, some throwing, others picking them up. There were men, women and children.’
Now I want to discuss the meanings behind some of Barak’s drawings. The subject of this drawing [image shown], which was collected by the Reverend Fredrick Hagenauer, show aspects of the traditional culture that he most feared, such as ceremonies and fighting. Hagenauer was against Aboriginal people at his station engaging with what he thought were traditional activities in any way. This drawing appears to contain at least three to four different scenes. In the central area a large figure is bent backwards, his body pierced by three separate spears; to its front, a large cloaked figure accompanied by small dogs stands under the tree; while in the background somebody is running away. To the left is a group of four cloaked women holding small babies to their chest; and above them is a procession of 11 cloaked men, their traditional bags strung off their shoulders. The drawing is completed by another three figures set at right angles to the main composition. They are warriors brandishing broad shields and spear throwers. They appear to be running through the trees, their cloaks flying open behind them. And here in fact were Hagenauer’s worst fears about corroborrees realized, that they led to fights, presumably about women. But this drawing is obviously a narrative. It’s more than just shapes and people on a canvas. Barak must have used it to illustrate a real story, either an event he witnessed or a story he had been told.
One hundred years later after the events have been recounted, it is difficult to proscribe this particular narrative to one story, but there is one that fits. It is written up in the section of Howitt’s *The Native Tribes of South-East Australia * that deals with marriage rules. This particular story was one which Barak remembered from ‘the time he was a boy without whiskers’ or before the European settlement of Port Phillip. It happened near Benalla when an old man of the Kulin tribe took revenge on his son for stealing a young woman who was in relationship a sister to him. The old man got very angry and said, ‘I’m ashamed. Everyone will hear of this. Why have you done this thing? I have done with you altogether,’ at which point he speared his son who died soon after. The account goes on to describe how there were lots of fighting activities within the Kulin nation over women when people on both sides met and fought.
The above is not necessarily exactly the same story as drawn by Barak in the Herrnhut picture where that drawing currently resides, but it provides a convincing explanation of how narrative might work in Barak’s art, just as in some of the earlier bark drawings that we saw. Although these interpretations are to some extent supposition, there are many other examples in Barak’s oeuvre which appear to be convincing narratives. This is certainly the case with the four Barak drawings in the ethnographic museum in Berlin, which were collected by German ethnographer Arthur Baessler in the 1890s from Australia when he visited Coranderrk.
One of these, Ceremony, 1890s, displays a complex composition. It appears to have four to five related vignettes, including a row of cloaked women, a row of dancing men holding clubs, a set of energetic warriors dancing with boomerangs, two ceremonial leaders, seated clapping women, a wombat, an echidna and, most extraordinary of all, is the group of stylised women standing at the front of the drawing wearing elaborate headdresses and intricately patterned cloaks. The lead woman is also holding two barbed spears. Who can say today what stories is being recounted in this drawing?
However, I was immediately reminded of one that William Thomas had told to Robert Brough Smyth, author of the two-volumed Aborigines of Victoria 1878, which related to members of the Aboriginal police and an incident that had occurred on 12 December 1845. It was a story in which a group of women was featured, and indeed this was the arresting singularity. Again, it was a story which was recounted at the time - not by Barak in this instance – but was being narrated by William Thomas.
Three of the police, which possibly included Barak, who was in the native police at the time, so he may have actually either witnessed this event or heard the stories about it, were all camped with William Thomas when they woke suddenly one morning and said that they had the disease called ‘Tur-run’. They thought that thin twigs of she-oak had been thrust into their eyes by sorcerers and they despaired. The quote then goes on:
Dismay spread through the people and there was great confusion in the encampment. But then a group of female doctors approached.
And that’s female ‘clever women’ really.
And after a variety of practices, including the repetition of strange songs and wild notes of sorrow and defiance, the patients recovered and returned to their usual duties.
Another striking Barak drawing in Berlin appears to be equally complex, with layers of stories, but I suggest it actually recounts a well-documented tale. In all the stories that Barak recorded for Howitt, there does not appear to be any subject that occasions a journey - I’m thinking of the bottom two rows of the Barak drawing there [image shown] - in association with a celebration in the upper rows at the top of the scene. However, such an event did in fact occur and was recorded by later staged photographs. This was in December 1862, when the Kulin families began their long walk from the old Acheron station to their promised land, the camping place of the Wurundjeri, where Badgers Creek joined the Yarra River. This was the site of the new Aboriginal station that became known as Coranderrk.
This drawing could very well re-tell this momentous event. In the lower half of the drawing, we see the Kulin men and women on the march. The bearded men are loaded with their traditional possessions such as spears, spear-throwers and kangaroo-skin bags. While the women lead the way forward leaning on their digging sticks, their own bags slung over their shoulders. The upper part of the drawing depicts the celebration when they arrived. A corroboree is under way and the men dance in triumph while the seated women make music. The three deep-rooted trees that frame the scene represent the bountiful country of their new home at Coranderrk. [bell rings] - oh dear, that means ‘one minute to go!’
Remarkably, the photographer Charles Walter staged this exact scene for the benefit of his camera in the mid-1860s. The resulting photograph describes the same event: the walk from Acheron with the men balancing their guns and their bedrolls, led by Simon Wonga and the Reverend John Green in the centre, and the women glimpsed walking in parallel but behind them. The perspective of the Barak drawing is sadly lacking.
The previous photo is often paired with another image by Charles Walter titled Open-air Service in Bush Setting. It shows John Green holding an open-air service at Coranderrk a couple of months after their arrival. It is possible to see this photograph as the visual or mental counterpart for the upper half of the Barak’s Berlin drawing. It is strikingly similar with the men standing, bibles in hand, and the women sitting, singing under the trees. Maybe there’s not quite the same sense of joy as in the Barak drawing. Perhaps it was Barak, John Green’s first true convert to Christianity at Coranderrk, who suggested the photographs be taken, which later then provided inspiration for this drawing.
I’m going to have to miss the very famous drawing of the quarry site. I won’t have time for that. But there it is from the National Gallery’s collection [image shown].
In conclusion, I hope you will agree that Barak’s drawings are so much more than groups of similar schema which tell a repeated corroboree, fighting or hunting story. As I recounted at the beginning of this presentation, Judith Ryan has commented that:
An extraordinary feature of Barak’s works is how his compositions dominate all of the pictorial space. They’re not just some exotic spectacle but an inclusive Aboriginal perspective, as if from inside the event.
I believe my approach of trying to match Barak’s words to his drawings has helped to confirm this very perceptive comment. With historical research and a detailed examination of his drawings, the storytelling intent can be clearly recognised. It was Barak’s genius as a great Aboriginal leader and communicator that his drawings have continued to gain admiration, respect and value as unique narratives which he used to illustrate elements of his beloved Wurundjeri or wider Kulin culture. Thank you. [applause]
Disclaimer and Copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.
© National Museum of Australia 2007–22. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.
Date published: 01 January 2018