Aboriginal Art

Aboriginal Art

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William Barak

Corroboree (Women in possum skin cloaks), 1897

Auction Closed

May 25, 09:41 PM GMT


300,000 - 400,000 USD

Lot Details


William Barak

Circa 1824 - 1903

Corroboree (Women in possum skin cloaks), 1897

Earth pigments and charcoal on paper

Inscribed in French:

Corroboree peint par Berak, roi et

dernier survivant de la tribu des Yarras Yarras

(née en 1825, mort en 1903)    1897 

[Corroboree painted by Barak, King and

last survivor of the Yarra Yarra tribe

(Born in 1825, died in 1903)    1897]

19 ¾ in by 26 ¾ in (50.5 by 68 cm)

Executed at Coranderrk Aboriginal Reserve, near Healesville, Victoria, circa 1897
Jules de Pury, Neuchâtel
Roland de Pury, Neuchâtel
Pascal de Pury, Neuchâtel
And thence by descent

This painting depicts three lines of women dancing at ceremony, wearing possum skin cloaks and carrying spears. The top line with babies carried on their backs, the middle line with string bags hanging from their heads and backs, and the bottom line wearing wooden Coolomons (carry dishes) upon their heads with string bags suspended behind. Such an image is unique in the artist’s oeuvre.

Cf. C. Keeler and V. Couzens, Meerreeng-An Here Is My Country: The story of Aboriginal Victoria Told Through Art, Melbourne, 2010, p. 164, for a closely related example made by Barak in 1897 now in the collection of the Koorie Heritage Trust.

William Barak and the de Pury family

William Barak’s two- and three-dimensional artworks document Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung culture and speak to the survival of First Nations’ traditions in defiance of colonisation. Many of Barak’s paintings, drawings, carved weapons, and tools survive today because of his strong friendships with settlers who arrived in Kulin Country in the second half of the nineteenth century. Corroboree (Women in possum skin cloaks) and Parrying Shield are no different, as they were acquired from the artist in the 1890s by Jules de Pury, a member of a local Swiss family with whom Barak established a strong friendship. 

Barak was born circa 1824 into the Wurundjeri-Willam clan group of the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people, of the larger Kulin nation. His parents Bebejan and Tooterrie named him Beruk (or Baruk), later anglicised as his surname; William became his first name. Barak was a young man when he watched his father and uncles sign John Batman’s ‘treaty’ to purchase land that would become the cities of Melbourne and Geelong. Though disavowed by Governor Bourke in Sydney, the treaty is simultaneously seen as an important moment recognising Kulin sovereignty and part of the process of Aboriginal dispossession. Pastoralists, purchasing large tracts of Kulin Country from the Crown, exacerbated this process. As he entered adulthood, the world Barak had known as a boy was transformed by colonisation; new animals, diseases, a gold rush and European agriculture radically altered Kulin lifeways.

Following his cousin Simon Wonga (1820s-1875), who was Ngurungaeta (leader), Barak learned the arts of diplomacy as a young man during what historians call the protectorate era. During the Port Phillip Protectorate, from 1839 to 1849, Aboriginal people negotiated with the new and evolving European governance. In the regions surrounding Melbourne a compassionate government employee named William Thomas (1793-1867) took on the concerns of many of the Kulin people. Thomas began advocating on their behalf to secure ‘A block of land in the country where they may sit down, plant corn, potatoes … and work like white men.’i

Responding to these challenges became an important part of Barak’s life when, in his fifties, he took on the hereditary role of Ngurungaeta. With Simon Wonga’s leadership and the support of Thomas, the Kulin community secured 2,300 acres at the confluence of the Yarra River and Badger Creek and named it Coranderrk. As a farming community 50 kilometres from Melbourne, they grew vegetables and hops while also manufacturing cultural objects like shields and baskets. These activities brought in enough income to make Coranderrk almost self-supporting. However, their hard-won prosperity was not to last. Local settlers undermined their successes and attempted to have the reserve closed, and the residents moved.

As Ngurungaeta, Barak commenced a persuasive and peaceful campaign of letters and deputations, making use of the settler press and drawing upon connections formed with colonial elites. Known as the ‘Coranderrk Rebellion’, this period has been detailed in a book of the same name by Diane Barwick.ii Anne Fraser Bon (1838-1936), a Scottish widow and long-time friend, supported Barak and became an early collector of his paintings and drawings. Before her death, Bon donated one painting to the Royal Historical Society of Victoria and one to the Ballarat Art Gallery - the latter being the first Aboriginal artwork donated to a major public art gallery.  Governors including Brougham Loch and Albert Brassey, politicians including Alfred Deakin and Graham Berry, and anthropologists including Alfred Howitt, were among Barak’s network of contacts. But it was Bon who consistently supported the community, providing a place for the men to stay when they walked to Melbourne to present petitions to the Aboriginal Protection Board.

The ‘Coranderrk Rebellion’ resulted in a parliamentary inquiry in 1881, the first of its kind to hear Aboriginal testimony. In 1884, Chief Secretary Graham Berry declared Coranderrk ‘a site for use of the Aborigines.’iii It was in the years following that Barak began painting. Against the backdrop of the loss of his wife and son to consumption (tuberculosis) and the removal of Coranderrk residents of mixed heritage under new legislation, this marked the beginning of an important phase in Barak’s life as the leader of his people.

In addition to Bon and other local settlers, a diverse array of tourists day-tripped to Coranderrk and its surrounds to enjoy a rural idyll. They often purchased artworks as souvenirs. Barak found an important audience for his paintings, drawings, carved weapons, and tools among settler supporters and even formed relationships with non-Indigenous artists in the Victorian colony. This interaction was prolific enough that art historian Andrew Sayers described Coranderrk as a place where Aboriginal artists worked, exemplifying an important early proto-Indigenous art centre. Though the names of many of the men and women who wove baskets and carved tools and weapons for the tourist market were not recorded, pieces by Coranderrk residents Jack Narrowan and Timothy can be seen in the State Ethnographic Collections of Saxony (Dresden) and Museums Victoria respectively. 

Barak’s paintings were first exhibited in 1943 at the National Gallery and National Museum of Victoria (now the State Library Victoria) in an exhibition titled ‘Primitive Art’. This exhibition was somewhat of an anomaly. It was not until the 1980s, after decades of neglect that Barak’s paintings and drawings began to be regularly exhibited in Australia, gaining recognition outside of an ethnographic or primitive art framework. Barak’s artworks are now present in all major Australian museum and gallery collections, as well as private and international collections. Some pieces travelled long distances after being bought and sold by international visitors to Victoria, then donated to the Musée d’ethnographie in Neuchâtel, Ethnological Museum of Berlin, Völkerkundemuseum Herrnhut, and the State Ethnographic Collections of Saxony. These destinations represent both the Elder’s relationships with collectors in the colonial era, some of whom he befriended, and the consequences of now-denigrated collecting practices, where provenance is still to be revealed.

The Parrying Shield is long and pointed; the front-facing section has been incised with concentric diamond patterns and a central curved motif. A square grip sits midway along the length of the weapon. Like other parrying shields from Australia's southeast, Barak has reserved the patterned carving, sometimes called a lozenge pattern, to one section. The geometric designs resemble many shields in Australian gallery collections (for example, the National Gallery of Victoria). Shields with a clear provenance to the artist are rare, as many cultural objects were acquired during the colonial era without clear attribution and the makers' names have been lost. This shield resembles an example in the Koorie Heritage Trust collection, carved by Barak in 1897 with a similar lozenge design on one side. This parrying shield has not seen the wear or gained the patina of heavy use, and despite its age, the carving looks as fresh as the day Barak presented it to Jules de Pury.

Barak’s subjects reflect important cultural memory. The majority of his 52 known paintings and drawings depict ceremony and ceremonial gatherings. Barak’s artworks were produced predominantly during the 1880s and 1890s and formed an important part of how he communicated culture and fulfilled his inherited role as leader. He completed two landscapes, and often included animals and cultural objects in his compositions. Infrequently he added trees and a horizon line, markers of his reference to the European landscape genre. Echidna, kangaroos, emus, lyrebirds and reptiles often feature among the male dancers. Seated women and children are represented wrapped in possum skin cloaks, singing and keeping time on skin drums. Occasionally we see a baby’s head peeping over its mother’s shoulder as she sits in the ceremony or, as in Corroboree (Women in possum skin cloaks), walks with her hunting tools. Such details reveal significant Kulin practices preserved in Barak’s unique visual schema.

Corroboree (Women in possum skin cloaks) depicts a group of women clad in possum skin cloaks, carrying their babies, digging sticks and woven baskets on their backs. In three rows across the whole page, the cloaked women appear, walking purposefully. Barak has individuated each woman’s cloak, as he frequently did in other paintings, using curved sections to represent the possum pelts making up each garment. An individual’s possum cloak grew incrementally with new pelts added as needed, the garment becoming as unique as its wearer. Thick charcoal lines demarcate these cloaks, which have been in-filled with light red or dark red ochre. An inscription has been added to the top reading:

Corroboree peint par Berak, roi et

dernier survivant de la tribu des Yarras Yarras

(née en 1825, mort en 1903)    1897 

[Corroboree painted by Barak, King and

last survivor of the Yarra Yarra tribe

(Born in 1825, died in 1903)    1897]

Such descriptions often feature on the front or reverse of Barak’s paintings and drawings. Many visitors to Coranderrk who purchased artworks from Barak sought to commemorate the occasion by inscribing the date of their visit with a note of the subject of the artwork such as ‘Corroboree’. Designating Barak as the last leader of his tribe was a common but misguided practice. The role of Ngurungaeta was passed by Barak to his descendants who continue Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung cultural practices and the strong connection to Coranderrk established by forbears like him.

As a crowd scene in reds and black, Corroboree (Women in possum skin cloaks) stands out for its minimal colour scheme and uncommon composition. Though stylistically similar to Barak’s other paintings and drawings from the 1890s, which feature similar thick outlines and detailed cloak designs, his most frequent compositions feature ceremonies with two fires and male dancers assembled. Compositions with dancers across the top of the page, supported by one or two masters of ceremony, animals and women drumming across the bottom, have become Barak’s most recognisable style and subject matter. As a different type of gathering, Corroboree (Women in Possum skin cloaks) is similar to Figures in possum skin cloaks and lyrebird in the South Australian Museum collection. Here Barak depicts a similar grouping of red-cloaked individuals, this time a group of men, their beards and hair adornments distinguishing their age or rank. In rows across the page, men are gathered around a central lyrebird whose presence perhaps indicates the purpose of the gathering. The similarities between that painting and Corroboree (Women in possum skin cloaks) indicate important themes within Barak’s oeuvre, which are still being uncovered through research with his descendants.

Using recycled materials and experimenting with a mixture of traditional and introduced painting media, Barak’s practice embodies his other strategies as a leader bridging a cultural divide. His approach to art-making was highly syncretic, but his subject matter remained almost completely focused on his own culture. The paper on which he painted and drew was often appropriated or recycled. The National Gallery of Australia holds a painting in a similar colour scheme of red and black executed on the reverse page of a Pictorial Gospel Readings for Holy Week service. Barak would sketch the composition in black pencil, before applying natural earth pigments, watercolours, and charcoal. Visitors, like the wealthy German traveller and ethnologist Arthur Baessler, observed the artist drawing his figures in full, before drawing their garments over the top.iv

Highly significant among Barak’s network were a community of Swiss settlers, including the de Pury family from Neuchâtel through whom the Parrying Shield and Corroboree (Women in possum skin cloaks) are provenanced. During the 1860s, as Coranderrk was being established, Baron Frédéric Guillaume de Pury (1831-1890) and his brother Samuel (1836-1922) were buying land in the Yarra Valley and beginning what would become a successful winegrowing and grazing estate known as Yeringberg. As this was Barak’s hereditary land, his friendship with the Baron’s sons George and Victor is highly significant and reveals key ways that he stayed connected to Kulin Country. The trio went hunting together on many occasions. Such events were often recorded by their mother in letters or in the daily Farm Diary (held by the Yarra Ranges Regional Museum). Barak taught the two boys Kulin hunting skills while Coranderrk residents found employment at Yeringberg during the grape harvest.

The most striking embodiment of the connection between the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Elder and the de Pury family is Victor’s oil portrait of Barak. Completed in 1899 under the tutelage of Portuguese artist Artur Jose Loureiro (1853-1932), it depicts Barak in a patient and wise pose, and captures the friendship between him and the de Pury family. Loureiro and the young de Pury worked side by side and completed their portraits over two weeks in July 1899. Loureiro’s own portrait shows the Elder from a slightly different angle, as a soft light falls on his white hair, revealing how the easels were placed for the painting session.

Victor and Loureiro were among a small group of artists who painted Barak’s portrait during the Elder’s lifetime. Scottish-born John Mather (1848-1916) and South African-born Florence Fuller (1867-1946) were two others. Mather’s relationship with Barak extended to acquiring two paintings on cardboard whose provenance was recently confirmed by State Library Victoria. Fuller’s portrait of Barak, also in State Library Victoria, was commissioned by Anne Fraser Bon and represents some of the significant recognition Barak received during his lifetime. Victor de Pury joined these artists as a member of the Victorian Artists’ Society, exhibiting alongside them as an amateur.

The Victorian Artists’ Society included among its founders artists now regarded as the most significant proponents of Australian Impressionism. While Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder, among others, have headlined this movement, John Mather, Artur Jose Loureiro and Florence Fuller are among a cohort receiving growing recognition. Although Barak was excluded from exhibiting alongside the Australian Impressionists, he produced his work in the same pioneering plein air setting, while Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Country was being immortalised in many Heidelberg School landscapes.

The most significant relationship for Parrying Shield and Corroboree (Women in possum skin cloaks) was Barak’s friendship with Baron de Pury’s nephew Jules de Pury (1861-1927). Jules visited Yeringberg as a young man in the 1880s and 1890s. Their friendship can be observed in archives, particularly the Yarra Ranges Regional Museum collection, donated by members of the de Pury family at Yeringberg in 2013. Whilst Jules de Pury was in Australia in 1886, one of their numerous meetings was recorded. “Barak was here the other day,” the letter book reads, “but he did not stay long, he wanted an old dress for his niece, and of course helped himself plentifully to Jules’s tobacco.” Barak’s visits to Yeringberg were also recorded in photographs, such as one showing the artist standing with Jules de Pury and Ada and Guillaume de Pury, and their guests. Barak stands in the centre while Guillaume and Ada are seated in the front; they form a relaxed group posing in the Yeringberg gardens.

It was for the de Pury family too, that Barak painted one of only two landscapes in his known oeuvre. In the late 1890s Samuel de Pury was presented with an artwork depicting his vineyard, which was sent to him by Barak after he had returned permanently to Switzerland in 1868.v On the bottom Barak described the subject matter:

I send you two pictures

Native Name Gooring Nuring

The English name is Bald Hill

this is all your Vineyard

and trees this all belong to

you there your house above

with the vineyard where

you yous [used] to stop before this is

the picture of it what you see now

I send you this paper

I still remember you all the

time not forgetting yous at all

and your Uncle. I am getting very

old now I can’t walk about

now much

William Barak.

The painting records Barak’s close relationship with the de Pury family. Samuel. Herman de Pury, Samuel’s son, later donated the painting to the Musée d’ethnographie, Neuchâtel, alongside another painting by Barak. Each artwork represents a unique and important thread connecting Barak with the large de Pury family.

Jules de Pury returned to Switzerland in 1897 or 1898, likely taking the artworks with him. They have remained in the family ever since, passing down the generations to his son Roland de Pury (1907-1979), and then to Roland’s eldest son Pascal de Pury (1932-2017).

The existence of each of Barak’s artworks is due in part to the strong relationships he formed with those who acquired paintings, drawings, weapons, and tools from him at Coranderrk. He stands today as a monumental figure, described by Carol Cooper, senior curator at National Museum of Australia, as “a diplomat and communicator who tried to adjust to the world of the Europeans but was also a spokesperson for the rights of his own people.” vi Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin, Senior Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Elder, describes her great-great uncle’s paintings as “our ancient treasures”, noting that these images should not be ignored. “They are embedded with respect and integrity and represent the stories of the oldest living culture in the world.” vii


Dr Nikita Vanderbyl is an art historian and part-time lecturer in History at La Trobe University, Melbourne

i Simon Wonga cited in Giordano Nanni, and Andrea James. Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2013, p. 6

ii Diane Barwick, Rebellion at Coranderrk. Edited by Laura E. Barwick and Richard E. Barwick. Canberra: Aboriginal History Inc., 1998.

iii Nanni and James, p. 204.

iv Arthur Baessler cited in Ian Clark, A Peep at the Blacks’: A History of Tourism at Coranderrk Aboriginal Station, 1863-1924. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015, p. 185.

v Nikita Vanderbyl, "Artist and Statesman: William Barak and the Trans-Imperial Circulation of Aboriginal Cultural Objects." PhD Doctoral Thesis, La Trobe University, 2019, p. 155.

vi Carol Cooper, cited in Kelly Gellatly, ‘When the Wattles Bloom Again: The Barak Project’, Art Journal, 51, https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/essay/when-the-wattles-bloom-again-the-barak-project/

vii Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin cited in Ryan, Judith, Carol Cooper, and Joy Murphy-Wandin. Remembering Barak. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2003, p. 6.