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Figures in possum skin cloaks

William Barak1898

National Gallery of Victoria

National Gallery of Victoria

Barak's drawing style, as exemplified by this composition, which is unique in his oeuvre, is vigorous, eloquent and reliant upon strong, textural outline. The drawing, which unusually retains almost all of the original pigments (a mixture of ochres, watercolour and crusty, carbon-based pigment), has no background wash but includes a line of trees with exposed roots in lateral perspective, the foliage of which is painted using a dry brush . These trees are placed at regular intervals between each pair of bearded male elders, their cloaks patterned alternately with parallel vertical lines and meandering horizontals. The emphatic markings on the cloaks, intensified with black, are emblematic of his identity and strong attachment to the paen (freshwater) of his father’s Yarra country. These bearers of sanctity derive from the red ochre motifs and markings on broad shields from Victoria, Australia, the sgraffito incisions on blackened sheets of bark and the linear marks engraved and inlaid with red ochre on voluminous possum-skin cloaks.

Some elements of the composition remain enigmatic, notably the long reptilian form that separates the two lines of cloaked elders, with backs to the viewer but beards visible. Furthermore, the upper figures hold hands and appear to be swaying, whereas the lower figures stand apart with right arms raised. Based on a story told by Assistant Protector Parker to R. Brough Smyth, Carol Cooper suggests that the central motif may represent the evil spirit Mindi, a mighty serpent several miles long, who would be propitiated in a particular ceremony held in a secluded place during which an image of Mindi was placated by long lines of men walking in single file (Carol Cooper, ‘Remembering Barak’, in Remembering Barak, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p.29). This covert depiction of men’s business differs from Barak’s representation of public corroborees wherein dancers openly face the viewer. In common with other mature compositions, the figures and the designs that boldly embellish their cloaks – worn as badges of their identity in the land –dominate nearly all of the pictorial space, revealing Barak’s unique ability to convey ideas using schema absorbed from within his culture that he had articulated and refined in previous works.

Text by Judith Ryan © National Gallery of Victoria, Australia

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Details

  • Title: Figures in possum skin cloaks
  • Creator: William Barak
  • Date Created: 1898
  • Unknown: Unknown, Unknown
  • Place Part Of: Unknown
  • Physical Dimensions: w888 x h570 cm (Image and sheet)
  • Type: Drawings
  • Rights: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased, 1962, =A9 National Gallery of Victoria
  • External Link: National Gallery of Victoria
  • Medium: pencil, wash, charcoal solution, gouache and earth pigments on paper

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