William (King Billy) Barak
William (King Billy) Barak
1824 - 1903
William Barak was one of the seminal Indigenous artists of Australia’s early colonial period. His life and art were characterised by the duality inherent in his strong tribal identity and his status as an important intermediary in the cultural dialogue that took place between the black and white inhabitants of the early Victorian settlement. While he was renowned amongst early historians and anthropologists for his stories of Aboriginal life, his art became the vehicle he used toward the end of his life to express his continued sense of connection with traditional life. His paintings, principally created during the 1880s and 1890s, are essentially nostalgic in that his subject remained exclusively the life he had experienced prior to integration into colonial society. In 1835, at just 11 years of age, Barak attended the signing of John Batman’s treaty with his Wurundjeri clansmen, which led to the establishment of Melbourne. As a young man, he joined the Native Mounted Police, having left his community in 1844. At this time the plight of Aboriginal people in colonial Australia had become parlous. 'The Noble Savage myth had collapsed,' wrote Robert Hughes in his first book, The Art of Australia 'and the native had become the butt of every colonial joke' (1966: 42). It had improved, though only marginally, by the time Barak was painting almost half a decade later. In the latter decades of the eighteenth century, Barak did not have a traditional society to return to. His people, the Wurundjeri, had suffered food deprivation and introduced diseases as a consequence of the pastorialisation of Port Phillip land. While Barak was perceived as a figure of successful Aboriginal integration, he used his position to the advantage of the surviving Aboriginal community of the time. Throughout his life, he was a seminal figure in the fight for land rights around the Port Phillip region – remarkable as one of the earliest formal claims to land rights in Australia. His argument to institute viable agricultural reserves was taken seriously by the local government in Melbourne, resulting in the establishment of the Corranderk Aboriginal Reserve on Badger Creek. Later, Barak instigated an investigation into the continuing problems in the region through the Corranderk inquiry of 1881, prompted by a proposal to remove the Aboriginal station in the area. Barak found himself accepted into a particularly high ranking white community at Corranderk, where he lived and painted in his later life. For a time, he lived with the De Pur family, and later the widow Ann Bon, both high ranking society names. Bon was crucial to the promotion of Barak’s art in Australia and overseas, sending several of his drawings back to England where they attracted some attention. What fascinated the public and buyers of the late nineteenth century was the anthropological aspect of Barak’s drawings, in line with the then prevailing interest in ‘primitivism’ and pre-colonial life. While it seems that Bon and the Dr Purs were motivated by genuine altruism, the envisaged 'promoter-protector' role of Bon sits somewhat awkwardly now; it is impossible to escape the fact that Barak lived with the De Purs out of some necessity. Despite his ongoing activism, the cast of Barak as a remnant of the traditional Aboriginal society of South-Eastern Australia, the last ‘noble savage’ even, continued to dominate his art. His painting of ceremony as a primary subject matter is inherently related to his personal struggle as an Aboriginal person estranged from his people. It is a story, which may be located, more generally, in the fight for land rights of the time. And yet, no explanation accompanies Barak’s drawings – he himself declined to elaborate on them – and, as a consequence, the deeper significance of his drawings has never been fully understood. It was only in the latter part of the twentieth century that their artistic merit was really recognised. Unlike the meanings inherent in the work of the contemporary Papunya Tula artists of the early 1970s, there was no Geoff Bardon to draw accompanying sketches illustrating the story behind their art; with Barak, meaning is often ambiguous, and the symbolism of his work varies greatly. However, in common with the Papunya artists a century later, Barak never painted his contemporary context. His entire oeuvre depicts the past as he looks back into pre-colonial times. The repetition of his subject matter, ceremony, as a recurring motif, is an expression of a culture that Barak had by then lost. It was accompanied by a deep feeling of longing and yearning. In Remembering Barak, his niece, Joy Murphy-Wandin wrote, ‘I see scars so deep they bring tears to my eyes and a crushing pain within my heart – a lonely, heartbroken man desperate for the return of his family, his people, and his culture’ (2003: 6). Despite the loss of their specific meaning from a contemporary perspective, Barak’s paintings are a direct visual translation of his traditional culture. They speak a complex visual language. Barak drew stylistically from the traditional visual art of South-eastern Australia. His composition is typically geometric, as human figures and animals are arranged in patterns so dense as to be evocative of chiaroscuro designs. The natural world is drawn as rather more a feature than a background to the composition – each item, flora or fauna, is totemic and bears significance, often in direct relation to the human figures. Aboriginal figures wearing possum skin cloaks are each imbued with an individual personality, such that no two figures are the same. Indeed, the small idiosyncrasies drawn into the figures and objects that appear in Barak’s work may be understood in terms of a symbolism grounded in traditional forms of representation. The designs that appear on the possum skin cloaks and carved weapons are characteristic of certain regions. Body markings are painted in the fashion of miny’ti (sacred designs) demarcating identity and place. Meaning is often ambiguous, where artefacts commonly hold multiple meanings that vary depending on the context and depicted usage. Barak worked with naturally occurring pigments, - charcoal, and red and yellow ochres - combining these with European colourants. Natural pigments mixed in a wash with barium sulphate and ivory black allowed for a greater range of tone and intensity. The green and blue hues, which appear in several of Barak’s drawings, are probably European watercolours. Andrew Sayers (1994) draws an analogy between Barak’s method of combining these materials and the position of Barak himself, situated between his traditional life and European society. However, his use of colour is overwhelmingly restrained and, most commonly, executed in materials either from the earth or strongly related to it. Although largely forgotten or overlooked for almost a century, the figure of William Barak, the artist, has taken on an almost mythical status over the past decade. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, William Barak’s artworks were largely entered into museum collections in Europe, with the largest concentrations in the ethnographic museums of Neuchatel, Berlin and Dresden. In 2003 the National Gallery of Victoria staged the important exhibition, Remembering Barak, at the Ian Potter Centre, no doubt prompted by the recent surge of interest in Barak as a person of cultural significance in Australian art history, and the exponential increase in market demand for his work. However, those paintings and drawings still in private hands are rare indeed and it will only be the luckiest of collectors that will be fortunate to personally own one.
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