William Barak‘s painting, the Corroboree, was sold for 504,000 AUD ($421,797) at Sotheby’s during the “Aboriginal Art” auction event. The whole auction brought in some 2,581,560 AUD and William Barak’s painting was sold for the highest price, for 2 times of the pre-auction estimate.
From the lot’s note:
Cf. For drawings of ceremonies featuring similar compositions and dating from the 1880s to 1900, in the collections of the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of South Australia, the State Library of Victoria, the National Gallery of Victoria, the National Gallery of Australia and the Queensland Art Gallery, see Ryan 2003, pls. 43, 44, 48, 50, 51, 53 and 54; and in the collections of the Musée d’Ethnographie, Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and the Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde, Dresden, Germany, see Sayers, 1994, p.17, pl.B11 and p.20, pl.B18, illus.
The drawing features Barak’s characteristic hierarchical composition with seated ritual participants clothed in elaborately decorated possum skin fur cloaks facing the dancing group where each figure wears traditional body painting designs, while a standing figure in the centre foreground claps boomerangs to keep a rhythm. The X formed by the crossed boomerangs acts as an anchor to the composition. The drawings is believed to be the second largest extant work by the artist and possesses an excellent provenance. The fact that the work bears a printed list of ‘Pictorial Gospel Readings…for Holy Week’ on the reverse adds a touch of poignancy, referring as it does, to two sets of religious belief systems. Carol Cooper notes that although Barak adopted the Christian faith, ‘he rose to become an influential spokesman for the rights of his people and a crucially important informant about their traditional culture.’ (C. Cooper et al, Aboriginal Australia, Sydney: Australian Gallery Directors Council, 1981, p.116)
Sayers writes with regard to Barak that ‘by the 1890s (Barak) was the most famous Aboriginal person in Victoria. Barak was regarded by Europeans and Aborigines as an extraordinary survivor, a man who had been born into Aboriginal society in the early 1820s, before his people had contact with Europeans and who as a boy, witnessed their first incursions into Victoria.’ (Sayers 1994:13)
Although by the 1890s Barak had adopted many things from European culture ‘he had kept his traditional knowledge and belief. It is this continuity which gives context to his practice as an artist. Drawing, for Barak, was one of the things that helped him to keep his traditional culture alive, not only for himself but for those around him. He drew Aboriginal subjects almost exclusively…Barak was ideally placed as a recorder and preserver of tradition. This manifested itself in many ways. The most important was his inherited position as elder of the Wurundjeri clan of the Woi-Worung, whose country encompasses the territory around the Yarra River.’ (ibid, pp.13-14)
In an era when the official government policy towards Aboriginal people was to ‘smooth the pillow of the dying race’ Barak and many of his illustrious contemporaries were referred to as ‘the last of the tribe.” As Sayers remarks, rather than Barak’s drawings indicating some form of ‘closure…in the context of Barak’s life at Coranderrk [the Aboriginal Station at Healesville, north of Melbourne, where he was resettled in 1863], and the lives of his people, his work can be seen as an expression of…continuity’. (ibid, p.25)
This drawing is sold with an accompanying note dated circa 1919, stating that “this was drawn by King Barak last of the Yarra Yarra tribe of Black [sic], and given by him to Mrs G.M. Davies, Healesville 28 December 1895”, together with a conservation report from Archer Fine Art Preservation Pty Ltd and an accompanying photograph of William Barak at Coranderrk in circa 1895.