The artist Yakaduna, better known as Tommy McCrae, through his art and actions, involved his community in the entrepreneurial management of indigenous-settler affairs. Looking back, it seems as if his career was a major crossing-place between the previous era of Aboriginal visual expression and the post 1970s era of Aboriginal art in a global context. His art was not locked in the past but reviewed past events with present ideologies and events in mind. This became very apparent when, at the centenary of colonisation, indigenes and settlers gave thought to the future. Colonists envisaged a wholly white future whereas McCrae, with truth and prescience, told the story of William Buckley, a white blackfellow. McCrae was born c.1842 at Albury, NSW. One of his parents was from the Albury district and the other was from Yarrawonga, eighty kilometres downstream. His 'nationality’ was Wiradjuri, judging from a vocabulary recorded by a patron, and from information supplied by his brother Billy. His clan was the Warra-euea, or Whroo, of the southernmost Wiradjuri, sometimes referred to collectively as the Waveroo. His father may have been Berinmberinm, alias 'Old McCrae’, born c.1806, who, with Billy (native name Tarranill), was listed among the Aborigines gathered at the Acheron, and later at the Coranderrk Aboriginal Stations (VIC) in the 1860s. Unlike his brother Billy (ten years younger) Tommy remained close to home throughout his lifetime. From birth to the mid 1860s he alternated between Albury and the Yackandandah River south of his birthplace. The Aboriginal name by which he was known in his youth was Yakaduna and his European name, McCrae, was that of an early settler on the western side of the Yackandandah River, for whom he worked as a youth, or on whose land he lived. In 1862 the land on the other side of the river from McCrae and Cobham’s Murra-Murran-bong station became the Aboriginal Reserve of Tangambalanga. While living on the Yackandandah, young McCrae produced the handful of drawings, collected by an artist neighbour Theresa Walker (Mrs Poole) by which he made a first impact on European audiences. By 1866 he had moved to Lake Moodemere in Victoria near Wahgunyah, on the Murray between Albury and Yarrawonga, where he remained until he died. A traditional camping place, Lake Moodemere had been recorded in 1849 as flourishing and in 1861 numbered around 30 Aboriginals. McCrae’s first wife, Tilly (Matilda) was first recorded at Wahgunyah in 1866. His second wife, Lily Davis, was a Wiradjuri from Tubbo station on the south bank of the Murrumbidgee, due north of Wahgunyah; her presence at Wahgunyah was first recorded in 1877. Unlike Tommy, Lily had a western education and could read and write. Though no children are recorded from McCrae’s first marriage, he and Lily had two by 1885, of whom the elder, Sarah (named after the wife of Roderick Kilborn, a neighbour and staunch patron) was born c.1883, and the younger, named Alexander (after Kilborn’s eldest son) was born c.1885. A third child, Henry, was born in 1888 and a fourth, George (after Kilborn’s son George) died on 22 April 1898. (Note that the spelling of McCrae changed to McRae in the next generation). McCrae’s art and actions make clear that he was aware of the three-way politics between the regions’ three peoples: Europeans, Chinese, and Aborigines. If through his community he was closely involved in the politics of living adjacent to two other culturally distinct communities, he was equally well informed about Aboriginal affairs across the southeast of Australia. During the later decades of the nineteenth-century, Aboriginal messengers including Tommy Smyth, Tommy 'Punch’ Banfield, John Friday and Neddy Wheeler came and went from McCrae’s camp, bringing indigenous news from other parts of Victoria and southern New South Wales, proffering advice and, on their own authority, extending the patronage of the Victorian Board for the Protection of Aborigines (BPA). McCrae assessed the merits of their advice, and quietly deflected some over-enthusiastic intervention on his behalf. When threatened by unprincipled settlers, he took the step of using white man’s law. His successful defence of Lily Davis in court in 1896; the court action he and John Friday brought against photographer Thomas Cleary; and his success in 1892 in avoiding entrapment by the policemen deputed to remove his children show that he had a shrewd grasp of tactics. His patrons Kilborn and Lang (who were magistrates) and a sympathetic policeman, John Hewitt, supported his efforts to maintain a family way of life independent of government interference. They did so presumably because McCrae persuaded them of the rightfulness of his cause and his ability to care for and protect his family. McCrae, a shrewd tactician, asked no more than would pass unnoticed by those able to benefit him. The granting of Lake Moodemere as an Aboriginal reserve is one instance of his tact. The idea of the reserve was at first opposed by local residents, however the piece of land was, at eight acres, too small to attract subsequent attention from greedy neighbours; and in later years Lake Moodemere was the only reserve that was not targeted for closure by the penny-pinching member of the BPA. In his drawings McCrae revealed himself on the subject of race relations; he showed Aboriginal people in charge of events, their every action graceful and assured, by comparison with which the colonists and the Chinese were inferior, slightly comic types. Remarkably for an artist who was well acquainted with western culture and supplied works of art to a settler audience, the European influence on his art was minimal, confined to the materials of his art – store bought ink (black or blue, and sometimes he included details drawn in red ink), pen and sketchbook – and a few European motifs. The borrowings included a sailing ship (taken from the sign at the head of a newspaper’s daily sailing news), a courting scene of a man proffering a bunch of flowers to a young woman (McCrae made this an occasion for cross-cultural ribaldry), and the caricature of a Chinese man as pigtailed, pyjama-suited and shouldering a pole with a bucket suspended at either end. Although dependent on a white market, McCrae ignored all efforts to influence his choice of subject matter. When, for instance, the Corowa doctor, William Lang, commissioned him to make drawings of birds in 1886, only four of the completed drawings included birds (admittedly of various kinds) and they were incorporated into usual hunting scenes. Corroboree, the subject most popular with McCrae, is the theme of one of the region’s few surviving rock paintings; and designs similar to those that adorned the bodies of his dancers were carved on trees for Wiradjuri ceremonies. McCrae’s subjects were predominantly Aboriginal. Likewise his compositions, patterned manner of drawing and limited vocabulary of motifs were Aboriginal. Composition is perhaps the most culture-bound aspect of visual language. Unlike much European art, a drawing in a sketchbook by McCrae is not independent of other drawings in the book. Some pages have more than one drawing; others have one narrative that is split into two stages, one above the other; and a majority of images occur in several variations across the pages of a sketchbook, so that the sum of any one drawing is more than a single page but, instead, resonates across the sketchbook in the manner of drawings on a rock wall. McCrae was observed to earn a reasonable living through his entrepreneurial activities, sufficient to have a cart and horse, and pay doctor’s fees. Drawing was but one aspect of his work of selling produce and entertainments. His family participated in making and selling artefacts such as painted emu-eggs and gum-leaves, which were traded about the region from McCrae’s spring van. The wider Aboriginal community was brought together for commercial corroboree entertainments and displays of martial arts. McCrae and the other men at Lake Moodemere made weapons for sale and, at local public events, for a fee, demonstrated how to throw a boomerang. Lily made possum skin rugs. In 1897 the camp as a whole engaged in a major photography project arranged with an itinerant photographer, Thomas Cleary, and a local patron by the name of Gourlay. The scale and pace of these shared activities increased after the early 1890s as McCrae’s artistic talent became more widely known within Victoria and NSW. One indication of the growing appreciation for his art was a letter published in the Bulletin in 1893: 'Why don’t the Australian Art Exhibitions get hold of some of the works of “Tommy McCrae”, the aboriginal artist, well-known to all Riverine people.’ Three years later a sketchbook sent by Dr Lang to his brother in Great Britain was used to illustrate a volume in a famous series of 'fairy’ books – Langloh Parker’s Australian Legendary Tales (London: David Nutt, 1896). The said Andrew Lang was both a well-known British folklorist and something of a style leader. In the range of his ideas, dress, personal mannerisms and provocative style of writing, he was an aesthete of the Aesthetic 1880s, consequently in a good position to recognise the contemporaneous stylishness of McCrae’s black and white art. Mark Twain was only slightly facetious when he claimed two years later that the corroboree drawings were high art: 'To be exact, his place is between Botticelli and Du Maurier. That is to say, he could not draw as well as Du Maurier, but better than Botticelli. In feeling he resembles both; also in grouping, and in his preferences in the matter of subject. His “corroboree” of the Australian wilds reappears in Du Maurier’s Belgravian ballrooms, with clothes and the smirk of civilization added; Botticelli’s “Spring” is the corroboree further idealised, but with fewer clothes and more smirk.’
In March 1899, two years before McCrae’s death, an exhibition of four of his drawings went on display in the window of a Rutherglen shop in Victoria. Supported by his two local communities, McCrae was one prophet who was honoured in his own country.