Willam Barak artworks return to Wurundjeri land

The State Library of Victoria opened the 'beruk' exhibition featuring the story and works of Wurundjeri man William Barak. Picture: James Braund, beruk, State Library Victoria.

Two culturally significant artefacts created by renowned Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung artist William Barak returned to his descendants after they were purchased at a New York auction by Elders at the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation.

Members of the Wurundjeri community were the first to see the precious works of art at a special event at the State Library of Victoria on 9 December. The following day an event to thank those who contributed to the return of the artefacts took place.

The pieces, Ceremony (Women in Possum Skin Cloaks) and a carved Parrying Shield both created by Barak in 1897, were purchased last year at a Sotheby’s auction in New York for more $600,000.

The successful bids by were led by Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Elder Ron Jones and a team of dedicated staff, who worked through the night to ensure the return of the artworks. A crowdfunding campaign was set up by Elders to help purchase the precious items – made possible through hundreds of individual donations, along with funding from the Victorian State Government.

Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation Elder Ron Jones said the winning auction was a moment he would remember forever.

“That would have to be the best thing I could ever say that’s happened in my life. It felt to me like I was bringing my great, great grand uncle’s spirit back home to Australia,” Ron said.

“I was pumped, I tell you. It’s like we brought our Ancestor’s relic back to Australia, where it belongs.

“Uncle William was revered right through colonial Victoria by both black and white. He was a great negotiator for the rights of his people.

“Uncle’s artwork is a great learning tool to show that we didn’t have a written language. Uncle William’s paintings were depicting our Culture and the history, and that’s how people told it through drawings.

“We acknowledge all the beautiful people who contributed to the campaign to get Uncle William’s treasures back.

“These generous contributions demonstrated to the Victorian Government the importance of the Barak artworks to Wurundjeri and to the Victorian people.”

Victoria’s Assistant Treasurer Danny Pearson said, “It’s an honour to be part of such an important celebration, marking the rightful return of William Barak’s works to Wurundjeri Country.

“We’re proud to support bringing these historic art works home and congratulate the Wurundjeri Corporation, together with the many members of the Victorian community who supported their campaign.”

This is a proud moment for the Wurundjeri community, given the cultural importance of Barak’s artworks. Wurundjeri Elders also see this occasion as an opportunity to remind people that Barak’s works belong to community and its rightful place back on Wurundjeri Country.

Barak used his paintings as a way to preserve Wurundjeri Culture for future generations, after cultural practices were banned on Aboriginal missions across Victoria.

Following the return to community, the works will take centre-stage at an exhibition celebrating the life and legacy of William Barak at the State Library Victoria.

“We honour the determination of the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation to make sure that these important works were returned to Country and, in doing so, State Library Victoria commits to providing a safe resting place and ensuring safe care for William Barak’s recording of culture,” State Library Victoria CEO Paul Duldig said.

The exhibition, titled Beruk after his Woi-wurrung language birth name, was led by a team of Barak’s descendants, Wurundjeri artists and curators, and will feature prominent works by Barak and portraits of him by other influential artists.