Coranderrk was under threat by the Aboriginal Protection Board, which was threatening to close what had developed into a flourishing pastoral community. Barak represented Indigenous interests to the governing forces in Melbourne, petitioning over many years for the survival of Coranderrk. He fought to keep the land that he had worked hard to create into community, and on which he would see out the end of his life. However, the mission would decline after his death due to the racial policies of the Board.
Barak’s advocacy and leadership for Indigenous people and culture also took form in his paintings, which preserved important stories and tradition for his people.
Working with a mix of traditional and European techniques and materials, he depicted in ochre and charcoal, watercolour and pencil the customs and sacred stories of the Wurundjeri people. In particular his numerous artworks detail corroborees and ceremonies, and illustrate gatherings of Wurundjeri people wearing detailed ochre-coloured possum-skin cloaks.
These works served as important teachings to the people at Coranderrk, by sharing Indigenous tribal knowledge, language and history. They also spoke to Europeans, who gained valuable insight into traditional culture they would not otherwise have had the privilege of witnessing.
Barak’s portrait was commissioned by Scottish-born philanthropist Ann Fraser Bon, a friend of Barak’s and an Aboriginal advocate, and created in oil by artist Florence Ada Fuller in 1885. It hangs in the State Library Victoria. Barak’s own works were appreciated by art lovers and found homes in museums around the world, including at home in Melbourne’s NGV international.
Today you will find tributes around Melbourne to this influential man. You can walk the William Barak Bridge constructed in his honour between Birrarung Marr and the MCG, and view his large-scale image on the Barak Building along Swanston Street.