New Indigenous Gallery in Melbourne honours William Barak

State Library Victoria Indigenous Gallery

State Library Victoria has introduced a new Indigenous Gallery, with its first exhibition beruk opening on December 13 last year celebrating the return to Country of two rare artworks by William Barak.

While known in the colonial world as William Barak, the exhibition is titled after the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung and last Ngurungaeta artist in the language of his people.

beruk will see two of his artworks welcomed home after being bought back for $600,000 in a New York auction in 2022, including a painting titled Corroboree (Women in possum skin cloaks), and a parrying shield.

“We have a responsibility as the caretakers of much of Victoria’s recorded history to tell the story of Victoria through the ages, and one of the most important aspects of that story is the place of Indigenous communities in our history,” president of the Library Board of Victoria, Christine Christian AO said.

“Being able to support the sharing of the Indigenous collection with a wider audience and acknowledge that history is a privilege – it’s also fitting that the gallery’s first exhibition is of the William Barak works, which are now in their rightful home on Wurundjeri land.”

As well as a culturally significant painter, William Barak was also an activist and leader in Coranderrk, a reserve for the Aboriginal people of south-central Victoria.

A trailblazer in his community, Barak was influential in fighting for the rights and freedom of his people, land, and the survival of Coranderrk in the post-colonial era.

In addition to the repatriated works, the exhibition will honour the life and legacy of William Barak through painted and photographic portraits of the Wurundjeri Ancestor and other residents of the Coranderrk Aboriginal Reserve.

The formation of the gallery has been made possible by a $1.25 million donation from the Hansen Little Foundation, which is its second major donation to the library.

“The vision for the gallery is for it to be a place of contemplation, reflection, listening and understanding – a tangible step in reconciliation and inclusion of our Indigenous peoples and their voices,” Hansen Little Foundation chair Jane Hansen AO said.

“Understanding and appreciating our Indigenous history is important for all of us, and we believe deserves a special and dedicated space in State Library Victoria.”

In partnership with the Victorian Indigenous Research Centre (VIRC), the new gallery is set to host a dynamic program of exhibitions and events in celebration of Indigenous Victorians.

“The VIRC plays a critical role in preserving and promoting the rich heritage and cultural traditions of Australian Aboriginal peoples, with a particular focus on Victoria’s own Indigenous language groups, ensuring that all activities of the library are undertaken with cultural integrity and authority,” VIRC manager Marcus Hughes said.

“We hope this beautiful new gallery will become a very special space for Indigenous Victorians, a place where they can have a stronger and more direct say in how their voices are seen and heard.”

The Indigenous Gallery forms part of the Cowen Gallery and Rotunda suite, with beruk running until April 26.


Artwork image credit: Corroboree - Women in Possum Skin Cloaks c. 1900 Beruk, Wurundjeri, charcoal and ochre on paper. Courtesy of the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation

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