A very old dance was drawn in 1897 by a very old man named William Barak whose descendants describe his artwork as “our Bible.”
Earlier this week the artwork titled 'Ceremony', was auctioned and bought by an anonymous buyer for over half a million dollars, setting a new record for this artist’s work, but leaving his descendants the Wurundjeri people “shattered and gutted” at the loss of such critically important cultural heritage.
“I would have liked to have shown this to my children," said Wurundjeri Elder Annette Xiberras.
"I never really knew how we painted ourselves for ceremony. That painting there showed you how we painted ourselves, it showed you the clothes we wore, it showed possum skin drums. How many people knew our women played possum skin drums? It was so important the stories there. It’s just another little bit of my culture, another little bit of my people that someone has taken from me.”
'I’m sorry we didn’t get enough money'
The Wurundjeri Elders tried crowd funding to buy the artwork and managed to raise $45,337 which was well short of success.
The drawing sold on Tuesday evening for $512,400, more than double the expected sale price.
“I think it was made clear to him [the new owner] at the auction by phone or internet, how important it was to Traditional Owners this painting and he was actually bidding against the Traditional Owners for this," said Wurundjeri Elder, Colin Hunter Jr.
"It’s just another example of coming through Reconciliation Week, Sorry Day, and the Victorian Government wanting to talk about Treaty but we got a long way to go.”
“I thought the Victorian Government might put up the money to buy this art but we had crowd raising and I want to acknowledge the people who committed to that, I’m sorry we didn’t get enough. We had around $50,000 but it still wasn’t enough. That’ll be put into trust for future artworks, the money won’t be squandered.”
Aboriginal art critic and curator, Djon Mundine was also shocked at the auction outcome.
“To think that the community had raised that money is a really great statement from them, how they feel about it”.
Mundine believes this artwork holds national significance which should not be under-valued.
“It’s just weird that some national institution didn’t take this on and buy the work, it should be in a national institution. Other countries collect their own stories and considering it’s of the Yarra, the images talk about a place just outside of Melbourne, it’s amazing. Art like this doesn’t come by every day. They are very special to the South East. Art by South East Aboriginal people wasn’t produced in great numbers pre-1900, so they are very valuable in that sense.”
Who was William Barak?
William Barak was born in Melbourne at the same time Europeans first started arriving on his people lands.
Barak witnessed the signing of the Batman Treaty between his Elders and farmer John Batman - a groundbreaking land use agreement which was declared void by the Governor who went on to declare any person on Crown Land without authorisation was a trespasser.
Today, Barak is such an important figure in Melbourne’s history he is now part of the city skyline, his face etched onto one of the city’s most iconic new buildings - Swanston Square.
Barak’s artwork is a time capsule of life in Melbourne when Aboriginal people were free to do as they pleased. The vitality of their culture is what makes Barak’s art special today.
Aboriginal art critic and curator, Djon Mundine explains: “Barak’s drawings have a lot of life in them, a lot of character. They’re very individual and even from this distance you can see it’s an Australian landscape. They’re very actively involved, they’re not starving, they’re not dying, they’re all attired in certain ways. They are people in action, living.”
'It was out of our control'
One of the William Barak’s descendants Colin Hunter Jr, explained their desperate attempt to retrieve their cultural heritage: “The first I heard about this was eight days ago. It was out of our control really. Once I got the text it was sold and bought by someone outside of Wurundjeri it was like Sorry Business. I had a very, very hollow feeling.”
“In Victoria we have legislation that requires you to get a permit to sell Aboriginal artefacts and I think that’s why they took it to Sydney, because once it left here you no longer require a permit to sell it, which just let it go to open slather," said Ms Xiberras.
"And they do that a lot, they move our artefacts, our history, our jigsaw puzzle around the states just so the legislation which is there to protect them, can't.”