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Sunday, August 21, 2016

William Barak

The William Barak Bridge, Melbourne, Australia
When we think about the art of a country foreign to us, most of us have a tendency to think only about that of the current culture and population. Very often, of course, that body of work may extend back several centuries. Yet most countries have within their art museums many examples of the artistic cultural remnants extending into the past a thousand years or more. For instance, when we consider "American" art often we think of the beginning of the European presence on this continent starting around 1600. I guess we know in the back of our minds of Native American art before that, but given the fact that there is so little of it still existing, and it seems to bear no direct connection to our own art, we tend to leave all thoughts of it at the museum in which it resides. However, that's not the case in Australia or when discussing the art of Wurundjeri painter, William (King Billy) Barak.
"Ngurungaeta" means elder, by the way.
Although William Barak is mostly remembered today as an artist, he was actually in his mid-fifties when he first began to paint. Barak was born along Brushy Creek near Croydon, which is near Adelaide, South Australia (before any of those places were founded), around 1825. He was a member of the Wurundjeri clan. He died in 1903, thus his seventy-eight-year lifespan embraced much of the founding history of Australia. Barak was said to have been present when John Batman met with the tribal elders to purchase the Melbourne area in 1835. The Batman Treaty actually didn't so much purchase the Melbourne landscape as to "borrow" it for a few centuries. In this regard, the dealings with the Australian Aborigines, though less violent, parallels that of the U.S. government's repeated incursions into Native American ancestral lands.
The sculptor's name seems to have been long forgotten.
Barak attended the government’s Yarra Mission School for two years starting in 1837. After that he joined the Native Mounted Police around 1844. It was about this time that he acquired his Christian religion and a Christian name to go with it--William Barak. In early 1863, Barak moved to Coranderrk Station, near Healesville, Victoria, with about thirty others. Upon the death of their leader in 1875, Barak became the Ngurungaeta (elder) of the clan. He worked tirelessly for his people and was a successful negotiator on their behalf. He was a highly respected by indigenous people as well as the European settlers. Today, there stands a bronze statue of the man titled Between Two Worlds in a shaded nook of a park near where Barak spent much of his life.

Traditional culture before it could be overwhelmed
by modern-day art.
As might be expected, William Barak's artworks, record traditional Aboriginal life, but they also depict encounters with Europeans. Most of Barak's drawings were completed at Coranderrk during the 1880s and 1890s. Most also record traditional Wurundjeri ceremonies (above), often in exceptional detail. In some cases, his color drawings and paintings represent the only such records. Barak was adept at adapting his own life to the changing conditions, yet he maintained balanced ties with his own culture. He was an accomplished painter in ochre and charcoal and a source on Aboriginal customs for both tourists and serious anthropologists. He was the chief informant for central and south-west Victoria and elsewhere. Writers such as Lorimer Fison and Alfred Howitt drew heavily on Barak's knowledge and opinion. Howitt's notes cover a wide range of customs, beliefs and kinship patterns, related by Barak with deep respect and feeling while reflecting maturely his Christian faith.

Americans carve mountains to commemorate their great
leaders while Australians embed theirs on the side of buildings.
Perhaps because their ties to the land are considerably shorter than that of Americans, Australians seem to have a deeper respect for the leaders of the natives they encountered. Barak's paintings and drawings are highly prized and exhibited in leading public galleries in Australia. His work is on permanent display in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. In 2005 a 1,700-foot-long footbridge designated the "William Barak bridge" (top), was constructed stretching from Birrarung Marr (a park) to the Melbourne Cricket Grounds, improving the link between some of Melbourne's biggest sports and entertainment venues and the heart of the central business district. Moreover, in 2015 a 279-foot-tall image of William Barak was used to form the facade of a luxury apartment building called Swanston Square (above) in Melbourne. The image of William Barak is a part of the building's form. Using halftone line-art reduction (much like the lines on an old black and white TV), the builders have configured the balcony profile to render the image discernable at a distance. The portrait is formed by white concrete and glass balcony railings seen against a black wall. However, Swanston Square is more than a landmark piece of architecture. Anchoring the northern end of the Swanston Street axis, it marks the strong presence of a shared identity and heritage--an homage to the first Australians as well as those of today.


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