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Barak: a forerunner

By and large, it was not until well into the twentieth century that most non-Aboriginal Australians recognised the creative or artistic dimension that was present in the visual expressions of Aboriginal culture. However, a number of Aboriginal people established themselves as ‘legitimate’ artists during the nineteenth century.

Perhaps the most notable of these artists is Barak. A Woiwurrung Elder, Barak’s country included land around the Yarra River in Victoria, including the present-day site of Melbourne. His work as an artist foreshadows much of what has taken place in Aboriginal art in the last few decades, because he worked in ways that had a commercial basis in the non-Aboriginal market while remaining concerned with exploring and retelling the ideas and meanings of his culture.

Barak’s images portray ceremonial activities and traditional life. Born in the early 1820s, his life extended from a period before any significant contact with Europeans to his time of residence at Coranderrk Aboriginal Station where his house contained a print of Queen Victoria, hung over the fireplace. Importantly, however, Coranderrk stood on Barak’s traditional lands; this allowed him to maintain a strong connection to his heritage.

One of the most significant aspects of Barak’s work is that he transcribed images that had been developed in other contexts onto art board - a process that is characteristic of much contemporary Aboriginal art. In particular, Barak’s drawings represented the intricate designs that were etched into possum-skin cloaks by his people. In doing so, he exercised an artistic proprietorship over these designs - the sort of proprietorship that Aboriginal artists are now calling for to protect images that belong to particular people and their regions.

The materials Barak used indicate the remarkable transitions and the enduring heritage that characterised his life. He continued to use resources that were naturally available - earth pigments and charcoal - freely mingling these with pencil and watercolours (Sayers, 1994). His manner of representation is also a mixture of older and newer learnings: while the influences of European figure drawing are evident, the works integrate the animal world and combine different points of view rather than use perspective conventions such as foreground and background.

It was during the period of Barak’s artistic output, late in the 1880s, that Adelaide hosted Australia’s first exhibition of Aboriginal art, Dawn of Art. It featured drawings on paper by Aboriginal prisoners at the Northern Territory’s Palmerston gaol. The images were mainly animals, rendered in a naturalistic style and incorporating decorations that reflected elements of northern Australian rock art. Here, too, was evidence of a synthesis of older and newer modes of artistic representation.

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