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The recent record sale of a previously unknown piece by renowned 19th century artist William Barak has astounded the Australian community, highlighting the enduring legacy of Aboriginal art for a new generation. The painting — entitled Ceremony (1897) — holds great significance for the Aboriginal people of Victoria today, who raised funds in hopes of winning it at a Bonhams auction, only to be outbid by an anonymous buyer for $512,400 AUD. The significance of this sale — and its ramifications for the future market of Aboriginal art — beg a closer look.
English glass engraver Frank Piggott Webb first acquired the painting directly from Barak in the 1890s (in exchange for one of his glass works), and the painting has since remained within the collection of the Webb family. Once unveiled to the art world, Ceremony had to be removed from Victoria as per government legislation, which requires sellers of Aboriginal artefacts to hold a special permit. Sydney requires no such permit, explaining why Ceremony was transferred there to be sold at the Bonhams auction.
Barak’s descendants in the Wurundjeri Council had hoped to purchase the painting, launching a crowdsourced donation campaign to return this significant artwork to its original home. Although they did not succeed in their efforts to buy the painting over an anonymous bidder — who was aware of Barak’s family’s desire to purchase the piece — the council will use the funds raised to bring other significant cultural objects home in the future. Wurundjeri Elder Annette Xiberras explains the importance of Ceremony,
‘That painting there showed you how we painted ourselves, it showed you the clothes we wore, it showed possum skin drums. How many people knew our women played possum skin drums? It was so important the stories there. It’s just another little bit of my culture, another little bit of my people that someone has taken from me.’
William Barak (1824-1903) is remembered as Uncle William and also ‘Grandfather’ to the Wurundjeri community, and to this day he is recognised as ‘one of the great cultural leaders, diplomats, visionaries and social justice advocates of the 19th century’.
At a young age, Barak witnessed the signing of the Batman Treaty and lived through the pre- and post- European settlement eras of Australia. Having grown up in tribal dislocation, he was not properly initiated into manhood – though he was handed a possum shawl, a reed necklace, a nose-peg and an apron worn to cover his genitals as is custom, the remainder of the ceremony was left to be picked up informally. Despite this, he carried on to become a highly respected man and leader in his community, having attended the government Yarra Mission School in the late 1830s, and later joined the Native Mounted Police in 1844 where the name William Barak was given to him.
Barak was the last traditional ngurungaeta (tribal leader / elder) amongst the Wurundjeri people, who were the first inhabitants of ‘present-day Melbourne’. In addition to his role as a leader, he was also a prolific artist and activist, working on behalf of his tribe to fight injustices against his people. In this latter role, he was acknowledged for making a documented plea to Queen Victoria stating (what is believed to be along the lines of): ‘We are the people of Coranderrk, why do you keep taking things away from us? Please leave us alone. We are dying away by degrees. All we want to do is live and die at Coranderrk.’
As an important figure in the Aboriginal community but also greater Melbourne’s history, Barak’s legacy looms formidably even today. In 2005, a 525m footbridge was named ‘William Barak Bridge’ in his honour, constructed to join Birrarung Marr and the MCG together. The following year saw a permanent sound installation put into place at the bridge’s centre by David Chesworth and Sonia Lebel; entitled Woiwurrung, it is a welcome song sung by the Wurundjeri Elder, and Barak’s descendant, Joy Murphy Wandin. In 2011, Barak was inducted into the Victorian Aboriginal Honour Roll, and in 2015 he was etched into the city skyline, as his face formed the facade of a new building known as Swanston Square.
Although Barak’s artworks are known as paintings they can also be described as drawings due to the range of materials and pigments used during their creation; each range in size from smaller than an A4 piece of paper to almost a metre in length. From the 1880s until the turn of the century, Barak dedicated his time to producing 52 artworks at Coranderrk — a government reserve for Australian Aborigines from 1863 until early 1900s — with each holding significance within the Aboriginal community. Despite creating so many pieces, it is believed that only two of these paintings are held by Indigenous-run organisations, whilst the rest are held in galleries, museums, libraries and private collections across Australia and some in overseas museums in Switzerland and Germany for example.
The figures seen in Ceremony are all very striking, introducing the viewer to what could possibly be a tribal initiation with six men posed in a line with a shorter, younger male in the middle lacking a beard. Each holding boomerangs and shields, there is also a group of women and children ‘keeping time on possum skin drums’, whilst the ceremony leader does so with clap sticks. This unique painting holds great detail in the cloaks and weaponry markings, and a variety of Australian animals make their debut in the remaining spaces – from an emu to a kangaroo and goanna.
Along the right hand side of the artwork, an inscription claims it was ‘drawn by Barak the last of the Yarra Tribe, Xmas 1897’. His descendants have described this artwork as their ‘Bible’ as the Aboriginal culture is one of the oldest continuing culture with no written language; rather they ‘speak’ through their artworks. This painting also stands as testament of a time when Aboriginal people were free to live the life they had lived for hundreds of years.
Barak’s other artworks vary from displaying the traditional Indigenous life to encounters with the Europeans. All of his paintings today are now highly prized and accepted as a crucially important part of the history of Melbourne and the Wurundjeri tribe.