Wurundjeri Ngurungaeta (headman) and artist, William Barak created over fifty distinctive charcoal drawings with natural ochres and water colour of purely Aboriginal subjects. A politician and leader of his people at the Victorian settlement of Corranderrk, Barak was descended from the Aboriginal 'Chiefs' from whom the Port Phillip Association 'purchased' 600,000 acres of tribal lands in June 1835.
William Barak, Wurundjeri Ngurungaeta (headman) and artist, remembered the arrival of John Batman and other members of the Port Phillip Association in 1835 and its 'treaty’ with his people. Barak was about eleven years old at the time. His father Bebejan was the leader of Wurunjeri clan of Woiwurung speakers who lived around the Yarra River area near present day Melbourne. With four other clan groups the Wurundjeri formed the Kulin nation. Barak’s mother, Tooterrie, came from the Ngurailum balluk clan on the Goulburn River.
In 1837 Barak attended the new government’s Yarra Mission School, begun by George Langhorne, and in 1844 he joined the Port Phillip Native Police. In 1845 he accompanied Chief Protector, GA Robinson, on an expedition from Melbourne to Lake Hindmarsh in western Victoria. Barak stayed with the Native Police until it was disbanded in 1853.
By the early 1840s, the situation for Aboriginal people in Victoria was desperate. Police Magistrate and amateur anthropologist AW Howitt, who later became a confidant of Barak, described the advancement of European settlement as being “marked by a line of blood”. Surviving Aboriginal groups were also devastated by increasing alienation from their food resources and susceptibility to exotic diseases introduced by the colonists.
From 1860 Barak became associated with the Coranderrk Aboriginal reserve situated on Badger Creek near the Yarra River. He worked closely with both ex-Protector and 'Guardian’ for the local Aboriginal people, William Thomas, and with John Green, the first superintendent of Coranderrk, to make the small farming community a success. At its peak in 1870 the settlement comprised of thirty-two cottages, five other buildings, three hundred hectares of fenced grazing land with a further sixty hectares under cultivation.
By1875, however, the Central Board for the Protection of Aborigines began to actively reverse this success. They dismissed Green and appointed a succession of bad managers who eroded the former goodwill and relationships that had developed at Coranderrk. Fortunately for the settlement, this was also the year that Barak became Ngurungaeta or headman of his people, and over the next seven years Barak fought to retain Coranderrk as a home for his people. Through his diplomacy and network of influential connections, Barak was successful in lobbying for a board of inquiry to investigate the continuing problems at the settlement. In 1884 the inquiry resulted in the gazetting of Coranderrk as a permanent reserve, revocable only by an act of Parliament.
During this struggle, Barak met AW Howitt when he was appointed as a member of the Royal Commission into Coranderrk Station in 1877. Twice in the early 1880s, first in 1882 and then again in 1884, Barak journeyed to Gippsland on Howitt’s invitation in order to personally explain the customs of tribes from the Melbourne area. Their first encounter produced seventy-three foolscap pages of notes (now in the National Museum of Victoria), and the second visit included Barak’s attendance at an initiation ceremony sponsored by Howitt for the Kurnai people at Lake Victoria.
It was likely around the mid-1880s, stimulated by Howitt’s interest in past Wurundjeri traditions, when other aspects of Barak’s creativity emerged. Barak is one of a very few talented nineteenth-century Aboriginal artists who was able to produce a corpus of works which have been valued and consequently have survived in both public and private collections. He created over fifty charcoal drawings with natural ochres and watercolour of purely Aboriginal subjects, while experimenting with European techniques and manufactured paints. Barak’s style is incredibly distinctive and his vigorous compositions, often with striking internal patterning and several juxtaposed scenes, fill the entire space of his works. His subject matter is also distinctive. Unlike other well-known nineteenth-century Aboriginal artists such as Tommy McRae, Ulladulla Mickey and Oscar of Cooktown who all commented on the arrival and activities of Europeans and other cultures, such as Chinese on the goldfields, Barak’s art is concerned exclusively with the world of the Wurundjeri, and there is a strong reason for this.
Research undertaken for the National Gallery of Victoria’s 'Remembering Barak’ exhibition in 2003 by Carol Cooper, established that Barak’s drawings were not simply a schema by which he recounted the same 'Coroboree’, 'Ceremony’ or 'hunting’ story. By comparing the stories featured in AW Howitt’s 1904 compendium, The Native Tribes of Southeast Australia , Cooper was able to demonstrate that many of Barak’s drawings vividly illustrated the stories that Barak had recounted to Howitt. These stories were all in answer to Howitt’s questions, which in turn were all directed to finding out about the 'traditional’ cultural life of the Wurundjeri.
Early in TheNative Tribes of South-East Australia , when he first mentions Barak, Howitt recounts that, “he [Barak] was an extraordinary repository of information as to his tribe”. Although his name is not listed in the index, Howitt quotes Barak’s knowledge of 'traditional’ Wurundjeri society at least thirty-five times in the book, and often includes a transcription of the actual phrases used by Barak in his Aboriginal language (Woiworung). Howitt often preferred to quote Barak 'in his own words’, rather than paraphrase his meanings. The surviving paintings are more direct than his quoted words, but like his words, they are central to an understanding of Kulin Aboriginal Culture. Because Barak’s drawings are entirely his own creations, they stand as his personal interpretations or documents of Wurundjeri life and culture and thus have a special and rare significance.
Barak passed away at his beloved Coranderrk on 15 August 1903. He had achieved much in his life, especially for his people, and had unfailingly tried to secure and protect rights to the land for which his forbearers had cared for and owned. Barak was a great diplomat and made every effort to reconcile with the new world order that had been forced upon him. His great, great niece Joy Murphy Wandin has insightfully called him one of “the forerunners of reconciliation”. Barak led many delegations to senior politicians in Melbourne and even wrote to Queen Victoria seeking her intervention in the struggle for Coranderrk residents to retain their land.
The 'Remembering Barak’ exhibition in 2003 commemorated the one-hundredth anniversary of Barak’s death. Joy Murphy-Wandin concluded her valedictory introduction to the catalogue with the following tribute:
Thank you Uncle for keeping the fire burning and keeping our culture alive. Your paintings are our ancient treasures. In the modern world you remind us of our place of belonging. We should never forget who we are and where we come from. Today I walk this land in recognition and with the utmost respect for those who walked before me. Search no more Uncle, it is your time to be reunited and to rest peacefully in your place with your family .