Carol Cooper – Shared stories: the words and drawings of William Barak

Writing the Empire: Scribblings from Below

An international & interdisciplinary conference

Phillipe de Vigors, ‘Convicts letter writing at Cockatoo Island, New South Wales, 1849’
Reproduced by kind permission of the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney


Event Dates: 25 June 2010
Bristol, UK

Carol Cooper (National Museum of Australia) – Shared stories: the words and drawings of William Barak

This paper considers the relationship between the ‘words’ of the nineteenth century Wurundjeri Ngurungaeta (headman) and Aboriginal artist William Barak, as recounted by ethnographer AW Howitt in his Native Tribes of Southeast Australia (London: 1904), and the singular drawings in pencil, ochres and watercolour that Barak later made as presents and for sale to Europeans.

Previously, Barak’s genre (about 50 works dating from the 1880’s to the early 1900’s survive in public institutions and private collections) has been interpreted as exclusively the portrayal of variations of corroboree scenes including warfare and totemic animals. A closer reading of AW Howitt’s 1904 classic, The Native Tribes of Southeast Australia, records the stories of Barak as a major source for this work, while a closer reading of Barak’ surviving drawings, reveals that they often graphically depict the same stories.

Born in 1824, a young witness to the signing of the infamous Batman Treaty, Barak was never fluent in English, but he was a proficient singer and gifted orator in his own Woiwurrong language. As Ngurungaeta, he also possessed a great ability to communicate, both to his own people and to the newcomers who had taken over his country and his future.  Barak used written English to promote the interests of Aborigines, especially to communicate with authorities in Melbourne in his attempt to secure land rights over the mission station at Coranderrk.

He also used the English language with AW Howitt as his scribe (Howitt could not speak Woiwurrong), to communicate his knowledge about traditional Aboriginal culture to Europeans. He obviously saw this communication as important, for he twice in the 1880’s made the long journeys from Coranderrk to Howitt’s home in Gippsland to answer Howitt’s questions on relationships and social organisation, and advise him on ceremonies.

When Barak recounted stories to Howitt to illustrate his answers, he was able to communicate Aboriginal concepts of life in a uniquely powerful and individual way. His language is full of the same quality and striking imagery as his drawings, which can now be seen as narratives, either personal, or retold stories, which illustrate aspects of Wurundjeri life and culture. The knowledge that we have today about traditional culture in south-east Australia would not be as rich if Barak had not shared his stories with Howitt, and ultimately, through his art, with so many others.

Carol Cooper, National Museum of Australia, email
Carol Cooper is a Research Fellow at the National Museum of Australia. Before taking up this position in January 2009, she was Manager of Registration at the Museum between 1998 and 2008. Earlier in her career Carol worked in collecting institutions as an audiovisual archivist, curator and collections manager. In 1981 she was co-curator for the Arts Exhibitions Australia exhibition, Aboriginal Australia, which opened at the National Gallery of Victoria. Following this experience, she joined the staff at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, where she held various positions from 1985 to 1997. Highlights of her time at the AIATSIS included research for the Report Series publication on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Collections in Overseas Museums (1989), establishing the Perfect Pictures database for the Pictorial Collection (1993), the Groote Eylandt Archives Council Project (1995) and CJ Hackett Collection Project, London (1996) and curatorial roles in the exhibitions: It’s about Friendship, Rom: a Ceremony from Arnhem land (1994/5) with Roslyn Poignant; and Aboriginal Artists of the Nineteenth Century with Andrew Sayers and Joy Murphy, 1994/5.Carol has an honours degree in archaeology and anthropology from the Australian National University and is currently working towards the finalisation of her doctorate degree within the Research School of Humanities entitled ‘Encountering Aboriginal Art in nineteenth century south-east Australia’.








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