Could we fully understand the colonisation of Australia if there was no Indigenous oeuvre of artwork? The major goal of this essay is to discuss the significance of Indigenous artworks of William Barak (1824-1903), Tommy McRae (1835-1901) and Oscar of Cooktown (birth / death unidentified) and explain its relation to the contemporary understanding of colonisation. It will explore how each artist's works depicted the lived Indigenous experience 1850 to 1900 while colonisation took effect. The essay begins with the themes of Barak, McRae and Oscar's artworks. Next, a deeper exploration of each artist and selected artworks which leads to a link between Barak and McRae to contemporary artist Vernon Ah Kee. Following on, a discussion concerning Vernon Ah Kee's work, If I was White (2002). After that, an exploration of the artwork's significance to the contemporary understanding of colonisation. Finally, a brief statement of how these works affect the art practice of a developing photographer. The artworks chosen for discussion throughout this essay are: Ceremony (1898), Untitled (Corroboree) (c.1900) and Figures in possum skin cloaks (1898), by Barak, Hunting Birds and Hunting Emu in Sketchbook (c.1891) and Ceremony with Buckley and sailing-ship (1875) by McRae and No. 25 Police boys doing duty (Lynch law) and No. 26 Dispersing usual way. some good shooting (c.1899) by Oscar. Overall, this essay will argue the artworks of Barak, McRae and Oscar are active in presenting an alternative Aboriginal perspective of Australian colonial history that informs our contemporary understanding of colonisation.
These artists' images are like a window to our colonial past. The common theme between Barak, McRae and Oscar’s art was to preserve Aboriginal traditions and customs through drawing.. McRae and Oscar's artwork took on a social documentary role. Andrew Sayers (1994, 69) articulates that the drawings were created as evidence and different types of information about Aborigines.
The artworks demonstrate the varied experiences the men witnessed during European colonisation. These experiences highlighted the process of colonisation and the marginalisation of the Aboriginal people, but also some positive aspects. Barak focused on ceremony and McRae documented William Buckley's acceptance into an Aboriginal clan. Oscar tells stories of the treatment of Aboriginal people in this new society. His images range from the law handed out by the Queensland Native Police to the mixing with the colonisers. Interestingly, each artist incorporated art materials from the colonisers into their work. A closer examination of artists’ artwork and their importance to the contemporary understanding of colonisation through their own lived experience will be discussed.
William Barak was an Aboriginal leader, diplomat, wonderful communicator, defender and land right activist but as an artist, provided a significant insight into his clan's customs and traditions at Coranderrk reserve. Auntie Joy Murphy Wandin (Barak, et.al 2003, 15) great, great niece of Barak, suggests that Barak tried to integrate and promote his culture through various performances to highlight the positive aspects of Aboriginal culture. Barak's images recalls stories and memories of the past. Barak drew traditional Aboriginal motifs. He used a variety of mediums to create his art: gouache, charcoal, pencil, watercolour, earth pigments, and paper. Barak wanted everyone to understand genuinely, Aboriginal culture. Vernon Ah Kee (YouTube, 2014) acknowledges Barak’s motivation as "He wanted to show ceremony, dancing, custom, the marks, he was showing action. ... These were scenes that he was making because he was there."
Viewing a Barak drawing presents the audience with an immersive experience. The ceremonial area is the setting which is extended through the use of a single tree or a line of trees at the top of the image. He uses very specific ideas to illustrate relationships in his compositions. For example, clap sticks or boomerangs with leaders of the dance who are standing, initiated males cloaked and dancing with their decorations. These cloaks are made of possum skin, which denotes traditional clothing and is a repeating motif in Barak's artworks. Recurring patterns give the image a sense of order. Animal totems would also appear. Barak uses abstraction of form in Ceremony (1898) (Fig. 1), where the audience looks like a wave, which may mirror the character of the patterns on the possum-skin cloaks. In other artworks, the audience can be observed as patterned ovals with heads as seen in and Untitled (Corroboree) and Figures in possum-skin cloaks (Fig. 2 and 3). According to Carol Cooper (2014), Barak's compositions are highly sophisticated and draws a link to traditional art. Barak's artwork was one method of storytelling to carry on his knowledge to future generations.
Fig. 1. William Barak, Ceremony (1898).
Fig. 2. William Barak, Untitled (Ceremony) (1900).
Fig. 3. William Barak, Figures in possum skin cloaks (1898).
Like Barak, McRae’s principal subject depicts many ceremonial dances of his own clan and other clans. He also depicts scenes of hunting like Hunting Kangaroo (Fig. 4) and Hunting Emu (Fig. 5) which appear in Sketchbook. Sayers (1994. 27) describes the changes experienced by McRae especially with the arrival of pastoralists, during the 1850's, the gold-diggers and speculators who attempted to become rich. With the arrival of each group of new occupiers, McRae had to negotiate and adapt to the most recent conditions. One way that McRae had adapted to this new circumstance was to use different coloured inks and sketchpads. Ian McLean (2015, 80) suggests as “… equally significant – not so much because it is evidence of McRae’s acculturation, but because of its potential as a medium of resistance.”
Fig. 4. Tommy McRae, Hunting Kangaroo (c.1891).
Fig. 5. Tommy McRae, Hunting Emu (c.1891).
McRae embraces the experience of the new occupiers into his work, especially William Buckley (an escaped convict) which demonstrates not all experiences were negative. Morgan (cited in Sayers 1994,40) accounts that Buckley discovered a “mound of earth, with part of a native’s spear stuck upright on top of it, to indicate its being a native grave". Buckley used the spear as a walking stick. He came across a group of Aborigines who fed him. McRae chose to draw this meeting at least three different times. Sayers (1994, 41) outlines two important points about Buckley’s meeting with the Aboriginal clan. The first point explains that the meeting with Buckley may signify the moment that the dislocation of Aboriginal society commenced. The second point is how ironic Buckley’s experience was contrary to McRae's, that an escaped white man, living in an Aboriginal society was involved in a corroboree as illustrated by McRae in Ceremony with Buckley and sailing-ship (Fig. 6).
Fig. 6. Tommy McRae, Ceremony with Buckley and sailing-ship (1875).
It is possible that McRae's art (a bark drawing) found its way to Europe at the 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris. McLean (2015, 80) alleges that Willis believes that McRae's style comes from bark drawings due to the subject matter (a squatter's hut, dancers and trees), composition and the materials employed in the artwork.
Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll outlines key elements within McRae’s drawings. She highlights the fact that time is of no concern. The composition is not direct and borderless, but it does suggest a selected space not just for ceremony. McRae employs vast amounts of negative space. Carroll (2014, 224-225) suggests that, it is about knowing how the story occurred is more important than when an event occurred. An interesting fact raised by Carroll alludes to McRae’s drawings being drawn from memory. This raises an issue relating to the quality of McRae’s memories. McRae's artworks came into being towards the end of his life. McRae illustrated how hospitable the Aboriginal people were to the Europeans, especially in Ceremony with Buckley and sailing-ship.
Oscar of Cooktown creates a different picture of colonisation during the 1890’s. He presents imagery that combines memories and details to create challenging images of the process of colonisation. His style was child-like, but perspective and scale played a crucial role in his work. Oscar used a variety of materials like charcoal, chalk, books and coloured pencils. The subject of his work, like Tommy McRae's, was traditional life, especially ceremonies and fight scenes but also mixing with the Europeans. Oscar adapted to a new way of life after relocation from his tribal lands to Rocklands Station near Camooweal in far-west Queensland.
In a letter dated 30th March 1899, Augustus Glissan (Property Manager), discusses Oscar's artistic potential with his friend Dr. Charles Bage:
"... Ever since the boy came here he has had a liking for drawing & some of his Etchings (performances) on stone with charcoal & chalk etc were so really well done, that I thought some day I would get him a book & some coloured pencils & let him have a good try at it. I now enclose you the book under separate cover & I am sure you will all have a good laugh over the pictures I tried to make him keep the book as clean as I could, but the result was only so so. The index will give you all the information, this the boy gave me in his own way & I have put it as well as I saw − ..." (National Gallery Australia, 2011)
His memories of the Native Police activities as depicted in Dispersal usual way. Some good shooting (Fig. 7) and Police boys doing Duty (Lynch Law) (Fig. 8) is a powerful reminder of the process of colonisation. Police boys doing Duty (Lynch Law), illustrates the troopers (Queensland Native Police) who have chained men to a tree ready for a flogging. Oscar's drawings best portray the frontier violence in Queensland. Sayers (1994, 61) suggests that:
“…the brutality of the Native Police is fully bought out. Composed of the black troopers under the command of white officers, the Native Police operated in Queensland between 1849 and 1897, killing an estimated 5000 Aborigines in the process of ‘dispersal’. ‘Dispersal’, which most often amounted to nothing less than the indiscriminate shooting down of groups of Aboriginal people camped in the bush …”
Fig 7. Oscar, No. 26 Dispersing usual way. some good shooting (c.1899).
Fig. 8. Oscar, No. 25 Police boys doing duty (Lynch law) (c.1899).
Oscar has demonstrated the colonial ideologies within these two works. William Platz (2014) explains colonial ideologies in a lecture as "ways of separating those who have power, exercise power (powerful) and those who are acted upon (powerless)". By drawing the Aboriginal people in a different proportion to the Police, this illustrates this difference between the coloniser and colonised. These artworks demonstrate the process, how the most powerful people of the land were negated.
Looking to the past is Aboriginal artist Vernon Ah Kee. He creates a direct connection to Barak. Ah Kee identifies key elements of Barak's art. He acknowledges that due to Barak's position of leader at Coranderrk, his art has quality and self-assurance. Ah Kee explores Barak as a person through an installation titled "Ideas of Barak" (2010-2011) (Fig. 9). The main feature is a 1.8 by 2.4m portrait of Barak, using compressed charcoal, white conte crayon on a primed acrylic canvas. Explaining the portrait, Ah Kee describes Barak as:
"He seems always to be this physical, imposing and impressive presence so that was something that I could draw on. I wanted to really give the sense that he was a man of action and there was a physical presence to him and there was an intensity to his thinking, there a purpose to his life and everything he did. I wanted to give a sense of that and for people to react to the drawing in that way."
Fig.9. Vernon Ah Kee, Ideas of Barak (2010-2011).
According to Carroll, Ah Kee, is one contemporary artist who has referenced McRae’s artwork to illustrate the dismissive approach towards Aboriginal artists by art consumers in the nineteenth century. In a reaction to this approach, Ah Kee presents himself as a reflection of the bodies that function in McRae’s drawings. Within his own artwork, Ah Kee blurs the boundary between the description and the described. Carroll (2014, 226) explains that Ah Kee describes:
“himself as one who does not assimilate well into other cultures very well, the Kuku Yalanji/Yidinyi/Waanyi-born Kee uses the visual language of text-based art to show how well he (and precursors like McRae) understand the terms by which one ‘possesses the attribute of an artist’.”
It is the colonising history and ideology that feeds Ah Kee's contemporary artworks. A powerful text-based work titled If I Was White (2002) (Fig. 10) discusses the dichotomy of indigenous and non-indigenous relationships in this country. The artwork is about challenging the normality and privilege of whiteness in this country since colonisation. Garry Jones (2010, 48) clarifies Ah Kee's objective, by mentioning that "By turning the tables on his audiences and switching the subjective positions between the viewer and viewed, Ah Kee seeks to make the ‘coloniser’ feel colonised."
Fig. 10. Vernon Ah Kee, If I was White (2002).
Ah Kee discusses the portrayal of Aboriginal people as very sad or extremely happy, at a panel discussion titled Ambivalence and The Archival Turn. Ah Kee aspires to fill the void of emotions that are not afforded in depictions of Aboriginal people. His drawings are about family and every family is normal. Through his drawings, Ah Kee wants to tear away colonisation labels (exotic, savage etc) associated with Aboriginal people. Discussing his collaboration with Michael Aird (also present) called Transforming Tindale (2012), both artists agreed that Aboriginal people are not victims but were in a situation that caused them to be victimised (Ah Kee et.al, 2016). To support this position, in John Pilger's documentary, The Secret Country (YouTube, 2013), he interviews Marcia Langton. She explains that hanging on to humanity is Aboriginal people's victory despite the dehumanisation through colonisation.
By employing Barak, McRae and Oscar's artworks, we observe people who were living in this country before the arrival of the colonisers. The Aboriginal people have a very strong culture and traditions that were recorded by people like Barak and McRae et.al. The Aboriginal people were accommodating as McRae clearly communicates. Oscar demonstrates the process of colonisation through physical force in his confronting images. This illustrates how the balance of power shifted during colonisation. The land taken by force (like Africa), its resources exploited and white-man's ways imposed. Today, we acknowledge the traditional owners through Welcome or Acknowledgement of Country, but tend not to acknowledge the full impact of colonisation on this country. These artworks are a powerful reminder of our shared history. The government must demonstrate leadership and make Reconciliation and Treaty a reality.
Actively researching this essay has provided the opportunity to create artworks for an Individual Project in Photographic Art Practice. The main idea of the project is to demonstrate Australia's colonisation history through a unique, personal perspective and collaboration. This fresh perspective and research will culminate in an exhibition piece exploring this new appreciation of the Australian construct. The project will consist of a Colonisation Comic, an album of protest songs, Images of Brisbane (Now and Then) and a personal response to If I was White by Vernon Ah Kee. The goal of this exhibition work is to challenge the grand narrative of Australia's colonial past. For the artist, it is about coming to terms with this powerful knowledge while developing a strong voice as a practising artist.
In conclusion, this essay has demonstrated the importance of Barak, McRae and Oscar's artworks to the contemporary understanding of colonisation. It has acknowledged that each artist contributed different stories of the period through their artwork. This essay has equally demonstrated that with the stories from the past, contemporary artist, Vernon Ah Kee, has a direct connection to Barak and McRae and has simultaneously employed this history to create powerful art that critiques the colonial ideologies still haunting this country. Although each artist has used drawing to create artworks focussing on diverse topics regarding Aboriginal life in colonial times, these works cooperate to provide contemporary society with an overall perspective of The First People's experience of colonisation.
List of Illustrations
Fig. 1. William Barak, Ceremony (1898), pencil, wash, ground wash, charcoal solution, gouache and earth pigments on paper, 57.0 × 88.8 cm (image and sheet). National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. accessed 30 May 2016.
Fig. 2. William Barak, Untitled (Ceremony) (1900), earth pigments, watercolour and pencil on paper, 50.5 × 63.0 cm (image and sheet). National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. accessed 14 May 2016.
Fig. 3. William Barak, Figures in possum skin cloaks (1898), pencil, wash, charcoal solution, gouache and earth pigments on paper, 57.0 x 88.8 cm (image and sheet). National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. accessed 14 May 2016.
Fig. 4. Tommy McRae, Hunting Kangaroo, drawing 2 from Sketchbook (c.1891), pen and blue ink on paper, 24.4 × 31.2 cm (image and sheet) 24.4 × 31.2 cm (page). National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. accessed 20 May 2016.
Fig. 5. Tommy McRae, Hunting Emu, drawing 9 from Sketchbook (c.1891), pen and blue ink on paper, 24.4 × 31.2 cm (image and sheet) 24.4 × 31.2 cm (page). National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. accessed 20 May 2016.
Fig. 6. Tommy McRae, Ceremony with Buckley and sailing-ship (1875), (size not identified). Private Collection.
accessed: 14 May 2016.
Fig 7. Oscar, No. 26 Dispersing usual way. some good shooting from Oscar's Sketchbook (c.1899), pencil, coloured pencil, 16 x 20.4cm. National Museum Australia, Canberra.
http://www.nma.gov.au/collections/collection_interactives/oscars/oscars_sketchbook/oscars_sketchbook_drawings?result_6095_result_page=5#slideshow-gallery> accessed: 14 May 2016.
Fig. 8. Oscar, No. 25 Police boys doing duty (Lynch law)from Oscar's Sketchbook (c.1899), pencil, coloured pencil, 16 x 20.4cm. National Museum Australia, Canberra.
accessed: 14 May 2016.
Fig.9. Vernon Ah Kee, Ideas of Barak (2010-2011), charcoal on canvas, 5 channel colour video transferred to media player, 25 min 45 sec, sound, (a-b) 251.5 × 806.0 cm (installation). National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. accessed 14 May 2016.
Fig. 10. Vernon Ah Kee, If I was White (2002), Inkjet print on polystyrene board on polyvinyl chloride, 238.5 × 137.5 cm (image) (variable) (overall) 252.5 × 151.5 cm (sheet) (variable) (overall). National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
accessed 18 April 2016.
Ah Kee, Vernon, Fiona Pardington, Michael Aird, and Susan Best. 2016. "Ambivalence And The Archival Turn". Presentation, Queensland College of Art, Brisbane.
Barak, William, Judith Ryan, and Carol Cooper. 2003. Remembering Barak. Australia: National Gallery of Victoria.
Jones, Garry. Vernon ah Kee - Sovereign Warrior [online]. Artlink, Vol. 30, No. 1, Mar 2010: 46-53. Accessed 9 May 2016. https://www.artlink.com.au/articles/3361/vernon-ah-kee-sovereign-warrior/
McLean, Ian. 2013. "Mysterious Correspondences between Charles Baudelaire and Tommy McRae: Reimagining Modernism in Australia as a Contact Zone". Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art 13, no. 1:70–89.
National Museum Australia. 2011. "Glissan Covering Letter." Accessed 21 May. http://www.nma.gov.au/collections/collection_interactives/oscars/oscars_sketchbook/glissan_covering_letter
National Museum Australia. 2014. "Word Stories: cultural stories by William Barak." Accessed 30 May. http://www.nma.gov.au/audio/detail/word-pictures-cultural-stories-by-william-barak
Platz, William. 2014. "Post Colonialism." Online lecture, Griffith University, Brisbane, 2 November.
Sayers, Andrew, Carol Cooper, and Lin Onus. 1994. Aboriginal Artists of the Nineteenth Century. Australia: OUP Australia and New Zealand.
‘John Pilger - the Secret Country - the First Australians Fight Back .’John Pilger. Accessed 9 May 2016. https://youtube.com/watch?v=-j_r0Wgg0T0.
YouTube. 2014. ‘Vernon Ah Kee: Investigating “Ideas of Barak.”' NGV Melbourne. Accessed 18 April 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4QndAVPaEnQ.
Von Zinnenburg Carroll, Khadija. "The Presence of Absence: Tommy McRae and Judy Watson in Australia, the Imaginary Grandstand at the Royal Academy in London." World Art, Vol 4, no. 2:209–235.