This is one of the largest and most impressive drawings produced by William Barak as a way of passing on his knowledge of traditional culture. In the top half of the composition, six Aboriginal men with traditional body painting perform a dance—the repetition of their forms, with arms and legs widely spread and bent, is frieze-like. The lower half of the drawing shows a group of people in elaborately decorated possum-skin cloaks sitting and clapping. A lone man standing at the centre of the composition is the focus of their attention as he dictates the rhythm for the dance by clapping together two boomerangs.

Andrew Sayers, who published the first study of drawings by Aboriginal people in the nineteenth century,[1] explains Barak’s importance. During his lifetime, Barak experienced enormous cultural change. He was a child when Europeans began to make pastoral incursions into the Port Phillip district of Victoria in the mid 1830s. In 1863, he was one of the first people who resettled at the Aboriginal Station at Coranderrk, outside Melbourne. Barak had hereditary status as clan elder of his people (the Wurundjeri) and was one of the leaders of the Coranderrk community. When the settlement was threatened by competing pastoral interests, Barak led a determined opposition to any move: ‘Yarra,’ he said, ‘my father’s country’.[2] He lived at Coranderrk until his death in 1903, by which time he was one of the few people in Victoria with a firsthand knowledge of the traditional language, songs and religious law of the original inhabitants of the Yarra Valley.

Roger Butler

[1] A Sayers, Aboriginal artists of the nineteenth century, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1994, p 15.

[2] ibid.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010

From: Franchesca Cubillo and Wally Caruana (eds) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art: collection highlights National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010


  • Title: Corroboree
  • Creator: William BARAK - Wurundjeri people
  • Creator Lifespan: 1824 - 1903
  • Creator Death Place: Victoria, Australia
  • Creator Birth Place: Victoria, Australia
  • Date Created: 1895
  • Location: Coranderrk, Victoria, Australia
  • Physical Dimensions: w764 x h600 cm
  • Type: Drawing,charcoal and natural earth pigments, over pencil
  • Rights: Purchased 2009
  • External Link: National Gallery of Australia

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