From Griffith REVIEW Edition 36: What is Australia For?
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by David Hansen
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David Hansen’s biography and other articles by this writer
AT the time of his death, in 1883, Wambeetch Puyuun was the only Liwira Gunditj still living on his country in the Western District of Victoria. In its obituary, the Camperdown Chronicle reported: ‘As the last remnant of his race in this locality has passed away in "Camperdown George", it has been suggested to commemorate the circumstances by raising a tablet to his memory in the cemetery.' Perhaps not surprisingly, nothing came of this suggestion, at least not until Wambeetch Puyuun's friend James Dawson, the local Protector of Aborigines, returned to the district following two years' absence in his native Scotland. Dawson immediately set about raising funds for just such a memorial, but without much success, and the obelisk that now stands in the Camperdown Cemetery was erected largely at Dawson's own expense. One of those Western District squatters who Dawson approached for a donation famously responded with the words: ‘I decline to assist in erecting a monument to a race of men we have robbed of their country.'
Such cynical sentiments seem to have prevailed throughout the later-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Apart from the grave of Thomas Mitchell's guide Yuranigh, with its combination of Aboriginal carved trees and European inscribed marble, the tombstone of Indigenous cricketer Johnny Mullagh Unaarrimin at Harrow, William Ricketts' eccentric sculpture park at Mt Dandenong and Dawson's tribute, I cannot think of any significant monuments to Aboriginal Australians erected prior to the 1988 Aboriginal Memorial in the National Gallery of Australia, with its Bicentennial two hundred log coffins, or the slightly later installation outside the Museum of Sydney by Fiona Foley and Janet Laurence, Edge of the Trees (1995).
These last are essentially formal-emblematic sculptures, monuments to Aboriginality in the abstract, to a whole people: nations, tribes, clans, families. In more recent years, prompted by the enhanced popular awareness of and engagement with Indigenous history, by the national readiness for reconciliation, there have also been a couple of more personal, individual memorials.
In Albany, Western Australia, a life-size bronze figure of the Minang (Noongar) leader Mokare by the sculptor Terry Humble was erected in 1997, to commemorate – as it says on the plaque – ‘the role Mokare played in the peaceful co-existence between Noongar people and the first European settlers'. In Victoria, the sculptor Peter Schipperheyn has for some years been agitating for a similar memorial to the Kulin statesman Beruk, known to Europeans as William Barak, ngurungaeta (clan leader) of the Wurundjeri and spokesman for the Aboriginal community from the 1870s to the 1890s. The artist's website contains detailed design drawings for a six-metre-high bronze and stone sculpture of Beruk in heroic pose, wearing a possum-skin cloak and holding a large fighting boomerang.
The proposal seems to have been circulated strategically. Phillip Adams gave ‘Schip' a glowing testimonial in a November 2008 column in the Weekend Australian. Sculptors looking for substantial public commissions must necessarily also speak with the people who have control of foyers and plazas, and the Schipperheyn website acknowledges the ‘support and assistance' provided by the property developers Bruno and Adam Grollo of Grocon.
FAST FORWARD TO 2010 and the launch of Portrait, an apartment block designed for Grocon by the Melbourne architectural firm Ashton Raggatt McDougall. One of a cluster of retail, office, apartment and student accommodation buildings planned for the historic Carlton & United Breweries site at the north end of Melbourne's Central Business District, Portrait is in many ways the human face of the development, both in its direct address to Swanston Street, the city's main north-south axis, and in its relative modesty. With only thirty-two stories and 530 apartments, Portrait is certainly small beer compared to the ninety-storey, 800-apartment Denton Corker Marshall tower to be erected on the south-east corner of the site.
And the human face is not just metaphorical. The north or ‘back' elevation of Portrait is flat, but is decorated with a linear pattern that resembles a contour map, or the whorls of a fingerprint. The decoration seems to allude to Indigenous pattern maps and stories, though there is no historical or tribal specificity here. This is not the totemic pattern emblazoned on a Wurundjeri possum-skin cloak; it is more a super-hieroglyphic of placedness in general. But across its curved Swanston Street frontage the building presents an unequivocal marker of Aboriginality: the face of William Barak.
As with so many of its ilk, the front of this building is crossed at each level by a horizontal line of balconies. However, here the balconies are not straight, but curve and swell, so that the dark shadows behind and within are variously enlarged. This permits a dynamic modelling of the face of the building. Studio Gang architects achieved a not dissimilar effect with their recent Aqua skyscraper in Chicago. In that building the curved concrete balconies project beyond the steel and glass cubic core; and, because the extent and flow of the curves varies from storey to storey, the whole structure has an undulating, fluid profile, presenting an ambiguous, abstract image of a waterfall or a stalagmite. ARM's technique involves shaping the balconies on the vertical plane, which similarly animates the facade but permits a more precise control and a more photographic finish.
Certainly photography has been an important inspiration for ARM. The firm's first design to incorporate this idea of ‘striated balconies' was a proposal back in 2005 for the Dupain Building, a fifteen-storey development on Sydney's Darling Harbour. This building was to feature, or rather be made into a screen for, the representation of Max Dupain's Bondi – that classic 1939 image of a bathing couple seen from behind, with the woman tugging at the right buttock of her swimsuit – spread across the entire north side of the building.
According to ARM's publicity: ‘To build this image the famous original photograph was scanned and processed into strips using a sophisticated computer-generated technique. Each strip became curved and rippled like ribbons or driftwood. Together these strangely evocative balustrade forms create the vivid optical illusion of the original picture, which becomes clearer as distance increases, to emerge as if from a mirage.'
AS REPORTED BY Grocon, the official launch of the Portrait building design, on 15 September, began with a welcome to country by the Wurundjeri elder and Beruk descendant Aunty Doreen Garvey-Wandin. The company's media release explained:
Wurundjeri Tribal Land Council CEO Megan Goulding said there was full support for Grocon using William Barak's image on the facade of the building.
‘The Elders have noted that it's Grocon's intention to pay respect to both Barak and the Wurundjeri people as the traditional owners of the Melbourne and greater Melbourne region over many thousands of years,' she said. ‘The Wurundjeri community is very moved by this gesture and appreciates the respect that both Grocon and ARM have shown in developing this exciting concept.'
Victorian Aboriginal Affairs Minister Richard Wynne said the Government also welcomed Portrait and the continuing redevelopment of the Carlton Brewery site.
‘As this site has been vacant for more than 20 years, we are glad to see buildings such as Pixel and Portrait appearing,' he said. ‘And this commemoration of the life of William Barak is one that the Victorian Government certainly applauds.
‘The Victorian Government has celebrated the life of William Barak in other ways, including by naming the footbridge leading to the MCG in his honour, and we see him as a very significant figure in our history.'
Barely six weeks later, the apartments were advertised for sale in a four-page liftout in Melbourne's Age newspaper. Beruk had completely disappeared. The front page of the supplement announced ‘New City Living' over a peculiar collage of a designer chair, a pair of headphones, a couple of flowers and a grey cornery bit that turns out on closer inspection to be a da sotto in sù black and white photograph of one of the remnant bluestone brewery buildings. Inside, the word Portrait appears in large letters, but of the two images of the facade one is not from an angle that shows any image in the rippling balconies and the other is a close-up view that shows only seven storeys, and thus, again, no image. On the back page, the computer-generated image is of the Swanston Street elevation, the ‘face face', but the art direction of the shot and the pattern of lights turned on and off in the apartments make it virtually impossible to read the portrait.
To a degree, this absence is an artefact of perception. As Daniel Grollo himself said at the launch: ‘It's not meant to be that from every angle you will get the perfect image of it; it's that you will get the perfect image in glimpses.' The striated balconies produce a shimmering instability, a visual frisson somewhere between a half-tone dropout poster head of Jimi Hendrix or Ché Guevara and one of Bridget Riley's black and white op-art paintings of the mid-1960s. It's a wee bit like the New Zealand artist Gordon Walter's painted versions of Maori koru patterns, with their shifting black and white, positive and negative. Now you see it, now you don't.
However, Beruk's disappearance from the sales liftout seemed deliberate. Perhaps the marketing people were frightened by the Channel Ten news report of the launch, which proclaimed that ‘just like [football personality] Sam Newman's mural of Pamela Anderson [on a townhouse designed by the young Melbourne architect Cassandra Fahey], this face on a facade is dividing opinion,' and which included the vox-pop soundbite ‘Who is this guy anyway?' Perhaps they calculated that superannuation fund managers and offshore property investors don't care too much about reconciliation. Or maybe they just figured that no one would want to live inside a blackfella's head.
Whatever the reason, the ostensible subject of Portrait was as completely removed from the liftout as any purged counter-revolutionary from a Soviet Politburo photograph. Well, perhaps not entirely; in the corner of the back page image, in tiny eight-point type, is the text ‘Artist [sic] impression / Barak image derived from / artwork by Peter Schipperheyn.'
Excuse me, but this is just weird. You can't claim the history and deny it at the same time. You can't make the Aborigine disappear at will.
ESPECIALLY NOT THIS Aborigine. Beruk is not only a key player in Aboriginal-settler history in Victoria, but he was also evidently a figure of considerable personal presence. When (in old age, twice widowed) he married for the third time, the Lilydale Express reported on the speech he made at his wedding: ‘His Majesty stood up. Although not a tall man he is noble looking, and [manager] Mr Shaw informs me he is a nobleman in every sense of the word. After the loud applause with which he was received had subsided, perfect quiet reigned for fully half a minute. King Barak then, having looked around him, said in a most impressive manner, "I am here." Another stillness for thirty seconds, during which a pin dropping might be heard, and then he gave a detailed account of his courtship and marriage.'
Something of this authoritative bearing can be seen in the many pictorial records of ‘King Billy'. This archive of relatively small, flat images is in itself a powerful monument. There is, for example, an extraordinary photograph in the State Library of Victoria in which the white-bearded Beruk leans back on one leg in a martial stance, fighting club in his right hand, boomerang held above his head breaking the horizon; at his feet are a couple of mongrel dogs, one gnawing at an itchy back leg, the other tremblingly attentive to the sticks. Then there are the equally well-known Talma & Co. pictures of Beruk with hat on and collar up, one hand holding a brush, the other in his pocket, painting on the outside wall of his wooden shack one of his now widely exhibited and much-admired depictions of traditional ceremony.
Less familiar but equally potent is the image of Beruk as a handsome, dark-haired, scowling 33-year-old in a photograph by Charles Walter, one of the 104 ‘Portraits of Aboriginal Natives Settled at Corranderrk' displayed at the Intercolonial Exhibition of 1866. The exhibition was held in a Great Hall constructed behind Queen's Hall at the State Library in Swanston Street, just a block from the Grocon brewery site. WH Ferguson's King Billy and His Mate shows Beruk and a younger though still grey-whiskered man, both in European dress and handsomely hatted, each holding a boomerang in his right hand: an image poignantly resonant with those of first-generation contact Pintupi or Warlpiri men from Papunya or Yuendumu in the 1970s.
Beruk's appearance is recorded not only in photographs, but at least three times in that luxury artefact of European culture, the oil portrait. Two of these paintings were made towards the end of his life, in 1899 and 1900 respectively. The first is a profile by Victor de Pury, younger son of the cultured Swiss settler Guillaume de Pury, whose Yeringberg vineyard was one of the first and most successful in the Yarra Valley. The elder de Pury was a prominent figure in the Lilydale district, and evidently took a keen interest in the local Aboriginal community; Beruk is known to have been a regular visitor to Yeringberg, and de Pury was one of the members of the 1881 Board of Inquiry into conditions at Coranderrk. The second is by the Portuguese émigré Artur Loureiro, a Paris-trained painter who was closely associated with the naturalists of the Heidelberg School, and who may have been inspired in his choice of subject by Tom Roberts' 1890s heads of Corowa and Yulgilbar blacks. Both of these turn-of-the-century portraits show Beruk as a snowy-haired and long-bearded patriarch, a sort of nineteenth-century Indigenous reprise of a Renaissance Moses or St Jerome.
More interesting is an earlier work by the young Florence Fuller, now in the State Library of Victoria – again, just along the road from the Grocon site. Eighteen-year-old Fuller was the niece and, at the time this picture was painted, the pupil of the orientalist and society portraitist Robert Dowling, best known to present-day viewers for his closely observed if somewhat awkward early paintings of Tasmanian and Victorian Aboriginal people, and Fuller's picture has a similar deliberateness and objectivity. Beruk is here presented not as a savage, however noble, not as a romanticised or sentimentalised ‘last man of his tribe', but as (to use the art historian Joan Kerr's words) ‘a well-groomed visitor to town', wearing a double-breasted coat, clean white collar and red tie.
This is the William Barak who was warmly received by Victoria's Chief Secretaries Graham Berry and Alfred Deakin, who provided invaluable information on traditional beliefs and cultural practices to the pioneer anthropologist Alfred Howitt, and who was the probable author of numerous petitions and letters from the Coranderrk people to the colonial government, to the Aborigines Protection Board and to various newspaper editors. This is the image of a man who spent much of his life trying to negotiate a viable personal and communal space somewhere between Indigenous and settler cultures. Indeed, it is entirely appropriate that Beruk's (Anglicised) name should have been given to a bridge. And a pedestrian bridge at that: Beruk's long walks – from Yering to the Acheron and then to the Mohican in 1860, from the Mohican to Coranderrk in 1862, and from Coranderrk to Melbourne, once with his terminally consumptive son David, and many times to meet with politicians and public servants – are a significant part of his legend.
It is equally appropriate that the Florence Fuller painting was commissioned by one of Beruk's greatest white allies, the wealthy philanthropist Ann Fraser Bon, at whose Kew residence Beruk would stay when on those delegations to the city. In 1901 Mrs Bon gave Fuller's portrait ‘To the People of Victoria', and many years afterwards she was also instrumental in the development of the first public, exterior monument to her late friend.