More than Art

William Barak, Wurundjeri, and a sad tale of culture for sale

On June 7, 2016, a gouache and pencil painting called Ceremony by William Barak (1824–1903) sold at Bonhams auction house in Sydney for $512,400. This was a new record for the visual cultural archivist, diplomat, revered Elder and Ngurungaeta (head man) of the Wurundjeri people of the Melbourne region. (1) His work had previously reached $504,000 at auction in 2009. But while the next day Peter Fish wrote an article for the Australian Financial Review titled ‘Indigenous works shine at Bonhams’, the Wurundjeri Council released a statement that their community was devastated by the sale, and referred to Victoria’s ‘collective shame’ for allowing this to happen. The disparity between these two responses highlights the yawning gap between those who see art as a commodity and revel in the marketisation of culture and history, and those whose relationship to certain artefacts is so intrinsic as to be unquantifiable.

Wurundjeri Elders were unaware of Ceremony’s existence until it was announced for sale. It was news they describe as bittersweet, as finding out the existence of another Barak work (only 52 are known) was astounding, while its impending sale was unthinkable. Elder Allan Wandin commented that ‘it’s likely that galleries and museums across Australia, and beyond, would have been aware that Ceremony was on the market. We, the Traditional Owners, found out by chance. There is something very wrong with that.’ (2) With only a couple of week’s notice of the impending auction, Wurundjeri Council sprung into action to set about crowd sourcing funds to repatriate the artwork. The campaign was titled ‘Bring Barak’s legacy home to Wurundjeri Country’ and envisaged that Ceremony would be purchased by the Tribe and housed in an appropriate public institution in Melbourne. Within this short timeframe, 260 pledges raised a total of $45,337; heartening, but nowhere near enough. That this fundraising also took place during reconciliation week was ironic given the eventual outcome of the auction, which left Wurundjeri feeling disenfranchised. (3)

In addition to crowd funding, the Council made representations to public institutions such as the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Museum, the State Library, various philanthropic bodies and individual philanthropists, the corporate sector, as well as local councils and State Government. In all cases, institutions were sympathetic, but unable to locate emergency funding in what is surely a failure of forward planning in cultural heritage legislation. Before the auction, Wurundjeri attempted to reach out to the descendants of Frank Piggott Webb, the original owner of Ceremony, a glassmaker who had made a direct exchange with Barak of the painting for one of his glassworks. Wurunderji hoped to appeal to the bond between their revered Ancestor and Piggott Webb, but their overtures were rebuffed, and no communication was able to take place. With no way of knowing who bought the work, or where the work ended up, Wurundjeri Elder Aunty Alice Kolasa lamented, ‘I never got a chance to see Ceremony in person. My sons didn’t get to see it or my grandchildren. We may never ever get that chance now.’ (4)

Uncle William Barak has legendary status to Indigenous Australians from the South East. He was around 11 years old when he experienced the occupation of his people’s homelands and as the land we now know as Australia was changing irrevocably into a white colony. He witnessed the controversial signing of the Batman Treaty between local Elders and Tasmanian pastoralist John Batman. (5) Traversing two worlds, Barak achieved remarkable things under unimaginably challenging circumstances, and has been honoured in Melbourne with the William Barak Bridge (2005) and the imposing Swanston Square building (2015), in which white balconies over a black façade form the Elder’s face, 85 metres in height. But while Barak’s visage looms over the city, his work has been dispersed across Australia and the globe, including the unlikely location of Herrnhut, a small town near Dresden, which is the only place outside Australia where his work is on public display. (6) In Australia, his paintings are owned by numerous state galleries, museums and libraries, as well as private collections, but only two Indigenous-run organisations hold his work. (7)

Apart from Barak’s role as Ngurungaeta and diplomat, there is a clue to his profound importance to Wurundjeri in the inscription of Ceremony, which reads simply, ‘drawn by Barak the last of the Yarra Tribe, Xmas 1897’. Dispossession of land, introduced diseases and other ill effects of colonialism had so decimated the population, that all living Wurundjeri can trace their ancestry to Barak’s sister Annie Borate, simply because their numbers were so small. No wonder Elders describe Barak’s drawings as ‘more than art’ – they are songlines through time, at once encyclopedia, dictionary, DNA, family album, museum, church, library.

This is a concept almost impossible to grasp for those raised with a Western view of art. While the art world is vast and there are diverse opinions as to what constitutes art’s role, for most Australians, art remains something in excess of the necessities of life, an optional extra which vivifies the mental, emotional, and sensorial quality of life. Barak’s drawings, then, are ‘more than art’ because they are indispensible, they are ‘precious cultural documents’ which Wurundjeri refer to as ‘our bible’. Barak’s artwork ‘renders visible and tangible what matters most in his world’. (8)

The tragic outcome of the Ceremony sale speaks volumes about the two integral yet highly contested terms which give name to this Online journal: Art + Australia. When does an artwork exceed classification as a mere object? Must artefacts from different cultural systems be treated in the same flattening, commodified way? Does the person who can afford half a million dollars deserve to keep a work of art whose importance to the Elder’s descendants transcends monetary value?

Wurundjeri Council is not opposed to the Aboriginal Arts market; indeed they support all Indigenous communities’ right to cultural expression and economic participation. However, the Council believes that mandatory reporting should apply to private collections that include significant cultural documents such as Ceremony. Further to this, when such documents enter the market for sale, the relevant Traditional Owner group(s) should also be formally advised.

For Wurundjeri, Ceremony is not just a historical document, but a living treasure which is part of the Tribe’s ‘ongoing journey’. As Council employee Karmen Jobling put it, Barak’s works, more than any other, ‘should hold a privileged place in Australia’s identity and should not be peddled for sale as “Art”’. (9)


(1) While some people refer to William Barak as an artist, Wurundjeri Council are increasingly eschewing this term, precisely because it is open to misinterpretation and does little to convey the depth and importance of Barak’s cultural contribution to recording Victoria’s pre and post contact history.

(2) Wurundjeri Council, ‘Victoria’s collective shame as the auction of William Barak’s “Ceremony” [1897] devastates the Wurundjeri community’. Media Release, 10 June 2016.

(3) Around the same time that Wurundjeri was looking for support, the National Gallery of Victoria was doing its own crowd sourcing campaign, entreating visitors to ‘Help acquire a Neoclassical Goddess and enrich your NGV Collection’. The marble statue carved by the French sculptor Poncet in 1782 seems a strangely dated and Eurocentric choice for Melbourne’s art savvy public in 2016. Unlike Barak’s Ceremony, Poncet’s Venus has no relevance to the region, to the specificities of location and history, except as a hangover of colonisation.

(4) Wurundjeri Council, ‘Victoria’s collective shame’.

(5) Nimmo, Julie, ‘Wurundjeri people “shattered” after artwork they describe as their “Bible” sells at auction’, NITV News, 9 June 2016.

(6) Vanderbyl, Nikita, ‘The importance of William Barak’s Ceremony’, NITV,, 17 June 2016.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Judith Ryan, Senior Curator, Indigenous Art, National Gallery of Victoria, in a letter of support for Wurundjeri Council.

(9) Email correspondence with the author, September 15, 2016.


To see an image of the work under discussion, visit:

This article was written by Tessa Laird in consultation with Elders from the Wurundjeri Tribe Land Compensation and Cultural Heritage Council.


William Barak Aged 33.jpg

William Barak, age 33, photographed by Carl Walter in 1866. Photograph courtesy of the State Library of Victoria, reproduced with the support of Wurundjeri Council.

Tessa Laird is a writer, artist, and Lecturer in Critical and Theoretical Studies at VCA School of Art. In the late 1990s she co-founded and edited two important New Zealand art magazines: Monica Reviews Art and LOG Illustrated. Since then she has been a critic for various publications including the New Zealand Listener, Art New Zealand, and Art and Australia, and has written countless catalogue essays and chapters in artists’ monographs. Her speculative enquiry into colour A Rainbow Reader was published by Clouds in 2013, and her book Bat, as part of Reaktion’s celebrated Animal series, was released in 2018. Tessa was editor of Art + Australia Online from 2016 - 2019, and guest edited Art + Australia. 2021. Issue Eight (57.1): Multinaturalism.