Two rare pieces of art by Wurundjeri leader and artist William Barak have been bought and will return to Victoria after they were auctioned in the US. But it’s fucked that the art had to be bought back in the first place.
The pieces of art are a painting called “Corroboree (Women in possum skin cloaks)” and a parrying shield. They were auctioned by Sotheby’s in New York on Thursday May 26, National Sorry Day.
They were ultimately purchased because of a massive crowdfunding effort by the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Cutural Heritage Corporation, which raised over $110,000. The Victorian Government ended up contributing $500,000 to the crowdfunding effort at the very fkn last minute.
Two artworks by Wurundjeri artist William Barak are officially returning to Country.
Until this morning, the pieces have been in the hands of a Swiss family.
But after a successful auction bid this morning, it’s been confirmed the artwork is coming home. pic.twitter.com/TayDPyD3Qb
— Dan Andrews (@DanielAndrewsMP) May 26, 2022
The parrying shield sold for $74,000 while the painting ultimately sold for over $530,000.
The fact the items were even sold at all instead of returned to their rightful custodians has been widely criticised.
A descendant of William Barak and Wurundjeri traditional owner Mandy Nicholson told The Age there shouldn’t be a “monetary tag” attached to art like this.
“We are the traditional custodians of the knowledge embedded in that image,” Nicholson said.
“It is priceless, there shouldn’t be a monetary tag attached to something like this. It’s one of the few visuals we have of our traditional cultural practice.
“He is the main one who has provided us with a stepping stone into the past so that we can rekindle today that cultural knowledge that he painted in there.”
Another descendant of William Barak, Wurundjeri elder Ron Jones appeared on ABC 7.30 and spoke about the significance of the art returning.
“We brought an ancestor’s relic back to Australia where it belongs, and Uncle William Barak, what a tremendous man he was,” he said.
“If people follow our history, it’s a great learning tool to show that we didn’t have a written history so Uncle William’s paintings were depicting our culture and our history, through drawings.
“If people know how to read William Barak’s paintings, he’s telling the story of Wurundjeri people, not just Wurundjeri but all the people living on Coranderrk.”
He also spoke about how frustrating it was that the artworks were sold instead of returned.
“That was given as a gift to that family group, now if they no longer want to keep it in their possession, hand it back to those people, to that country.”
According to the ABC, both of the pieces of art were apparently given to the Swiss de Pury family in what’s now know as Yarra Valley back in 1897. They were then taken by Jules de Pury to Switzerland.
The Australian branch of the de Pury family said they had donated all of their William Barak works to the Yarra Ranges Regional Museum.
They also said they didn’t have any input in the Swiss branch of the family’s decision to sell the artworks, per The Age.
“We believe these artworks should come back to Australia because it’s important, and we’ve been doing what we can to support it,” Sandra de Pury told the ABC.
It’s not clear yet where exactly the pieces of art will be displayed, though Dan Andrews mentioned the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Museum and the Koorie Heritage Trust.