Gallery opens with Barak artworks that have come home

A dedicated Indigenous Gallery at the State Library of Victoria is opening to the public, with artworks by Wurundjeri artist William Barak.

The inaugural exhibition, titled beruk, features two works by the Aboriginal leader that were bought at a Sotheby's auction in New York in 2022.

After a crowdfunding campaign raised $119,710 to buy the 19th-century painting and carved hardwood parrying shield, the Victorian government contributed $500,000 just hours before the items went under the hammer.

Barak's painting Corroboree "Women in Possum Skin Cloaks" from 1897 contains valuable information about women's ceremonies, according to Koorie Librarian and Elder in Residence Maxine Briggs.

"He was crafting and painting so his culture survived into the future," she told AAP.

The painting and unique patterned carving were reportedly given to the de Pury family from Switzerland in the late 19th century.

Barak, known as Beruk to the Wurundjeri people, was born in about 1824 and witnessed his elders mark the Batman Treaty in 1835.

The document is now regarded not as a treaty, but an attempt by John Batman to buy the land that would later become Melbourne and Geelong.

Barak became the Ngurungaeta, or leader, of his community at Coranderrk, as his country and people were being transformed by colonisation.

The new gallery telling the story of his life in its inaugural exhibition is the result of a lot of labour, said Briggs, who has worked at the State Library for 15 years.

"I'm a stubborn person, and if I have a mission, I'd like to see it through," she said.

"Sometimes it takes as long as it takes, which you have to be prepared for."

A boomerang and a woomera (spear thrower) Barak made are also on display, along with a reproduction of Captain Cook's map of the world, painted over with pathways in ochre, showing where Barak's artworks have travelled.

William Barak exhibition
The exhibition of Barak's works will help people understand the diversity of Aboriginal cultures

As well as learning about William Barak, the exhibition will help visitors understand the diversity of Australia's Aboriginal cultures, of which the Wurundjeri people are less well known, curator Stacie Piper said.

"I think the Wurundjeri have been quite invisible nationally... we don't do dot paintings," she told AAP.

"We look different, we speak different, we have different cultural practices."

There are also cultural items made very recently that show the continuation of Indigenous knowledge, including a possum skin dancing skirt, a reed necklace and carved digging stick.

The gallery was set up with a $1.25 million gift from the Hansen Little Foundation and will be led by the Victorian Indigenous Research Centre and curated by Indigenous Victorians.

The free exhibition is open to the public until April 26, 2024.

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