Tommy McRae’s contribution to recording Indigenous history recognised on Arts West façade

October 16 / 187

In a striking design created by a joint venture between Architectus & ARM Architecture, Corroboree or William Buckley and Dancers from the Wathaurong People, (c 1890) by Indigenous artist Tommy McRae, is pressed into the exterior of the University of Melbourne’s new Arts West building.

McRae’s ink drawing is featured on the façade along with other objects from the university’s 23 cultural collections, transforms an archival object into a monumental work of public art, and inscribes a powerful Indigenous perspective on Australian history into the building’s skin.

Tommy McRae, also known as Tommy Barnes and by his Aboriginal names Yackaduna or Warra-euea, was born in the 1830s in the Corowa area identifying as part of the Kwatkwat tribe. By 1845 he was one of a few hundred traditional owners of the land left in the area. While working for local pastoralists, including Wahgunyah pioneer John Foord, McRae witnessed how settlers, miners and his relatives related to each other. He then made records of what he saw – his drawings.

Research by UMA archivists suggests the inclusion of two ink drawings by McRae in the Foord Family Collection, Corroboree and Squatters of the Old Times, is evidence of close ties between the artist and the Foord family.

John Foord’s son-in -law Roderick Kilborn likely witnessed McRae practicing traditional sand drawings and encouraged him by providing a notebook, pen and ink. They appear to have had a close relationship.

Acting as a de facto agent Kilborn facilitated McRae’s entry into the art world of Victoria by introducing his art to European settlers and dignitaries. So desirable was McRae’s work that he was able to subsist mostly off his income selling drawings. Kilborn also purchased notebooks full of McRae’s drawings, however many of these were given away until only two ink drawings remained in the family.

The presence of McRae’s artwork on campus is a reminder that the place of Aboriginal people as valued leaders is often not told but it is a vital story that needs to be heard. Such objects are not preserved as evidence solely of the past but also as living cultural memories with value in the present. Corroboree is a record of Indigenous perspectives and also of friendship that could cross the cultural divide.

A longer version of this story is on the UMA blog.

Story by Jane Beattie, UMA.


Corroboree or William Buckley and Dancers from the Wathaurong People, (c. 1890), ink on paper by Tommy McRae, University of Melbourne Archives, Foord Family Collection, 1961.0008.00001

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