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.
IN OCTOBER 1931 the Healesville branch of the Australian Natives' Association announced its intention 'to erect a permanent stone over the grave...of one of the most notable aborigines of the Healesville district, King Barak, of the Yarra Tribe.' The Argus reported that the branch had been given 'a splendid stone of Italian marble, valued at between £300 and £400', and had opened an appeal for the £60 still needed to meet the costs of its removal and re-erection. The stone in question formerly stood in the grounds of Mrs Bon's Wappan homestead at Bonnie Doon, bearing the names of her deceased husband and first-born child. However, the property had been compulsorily acquired by the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission in the 1920s, and was to be flooded for the new Sugarloaf Dam. Whether out of Scots practicality or a deeper motivation it is impossible to judge now, but the remarkable fact remains that Ann Fraser Bon offered her own family monument, ground clean and re-inscribed, to stand over Beruk's grave.
Her generous gesture prompted another. Peter Schipperheyn was not the first artist to propose a Beruk bronze; in December 1931 Paul Montford, then working on his ambitious sculptural program for the Shrine of Remembrance, wrote to The Argus: 'Believing that no memorial to an individual is complete without a permanent representation of the subject, I will provide, as my contribution, a medallion of Barak, to be placed on the memorial...' Appropriately, Montford's imposing compass-point sculptural groups at the Shrine represent Patriotism, Sacrifice, Peace and Justice, abstract nouns made concrete in the life and work of William Barak.
In the event, neither the cemetery site nor the Montford medallion survived the lengthy planning process, but on a wet winter's day in 1934, in the presence of many visitors and local residents (including both a number of Aborigines and the 96-year-old Mrs Bon), the monument was officially unveiled in Healesville's main street, bearing the legend
To the glory of God,
and to the Memory of
Last Chief of the Yarra Yarra tribe
of Aborigines and his race
Barak died at Coranderrk
15th Aug. 1903. Aged 85.
A sincere Christian
This is not quite the end of the story. Some years later the William Barak memorial was vandalised, and the local council subsequently removed and stored it. However, in the early 1950s the Melbourne literary society the Bread and Cheese Club revived the Australian Natives' Association's original idea, and arranged for the stone to be relocated once again, to stand over Beruk's grave at Coranderrk. Three hundred Victorian Aborigines attended its dedication ceremony.
ALL THIS INDICATES something of the complexity of the business of commemoration, particularly in relation to a life as long and tangled and troubled as that of Beruk, 'white grub in gum tree', of William Barak, 'last of the Yarra Yarra tribe'.
Yet, for the architects and advocates of Portrait, biography seems to have been rather less important than geography. The designers are, as indeed they should be, particularly concerned with the cartographical potency of the site, with the critical importance of the Swanston Street north-south axis in defining the shape and meaning of Melbourne's built environment. I can remember when I was a young man studying at the University of Melbourne, just up the road, and how with all the sociological smartarsery of the undergraduate I thought it a great joke the way that taken together, the twin nodes of a war memorial and a brewery created a neat caricature of the Australian national character.
Sadly the Ashton Raggatt McDougall proposal is not that much more sophisticated. For the firm, the Shrine of Remembrance is apparently the key point of conceptual departure. This much is made clear in the ARM promotional video. To a soundtrack of psy-trance drumming, digital didgeridoo and haunting, wordless vocals, a virtual aerial eye descends in an arc from the top of the Shrine, down St Kilda Road, to Princes Bridge. There the image shifts into monochrome and drops down to street level for a few blocks of 1910 tram-cam documentary footage; then the camera swoops up again to regain colour and show the view from the Portrait penthouse. Then...fade to black.
As reported in The Age, ARM's Howard Raggatt said, 'the firm designed the high-rise to be paired with the Shrine of Remembrance as "bookends" for the city. "I guess we were searching for something that could have that kind of status, I suppose."' On Ten News, he elaborated: 'We felt that if the Shrine represented the kind of modern history of the country, then we should be looking at the kind of deep history of the country.' Or, as the ARM website has it, 'The image of William Barak...references the deep history of our land – a strong and dramatic presence, and a symbol of our shared identity and heritage. It is a homage to the First Australians, and a recognition of our complementary history.' Admittedly he was speaking off the cuff, and the statement is accordingly less polished, but on that same Ten News report then Premier John Brumby expressed a similarly vague and vaguely heart-warming attitude: 'And I think anything that linked to our Indigenous heritage – that's a good thing...'
Now we can understand why it doesn't really matter that the Beruk on the building is not really an actual, historical, documentary image of the man, but an idealised artist's impression from a hundred years after his death. Because the Beruk on the building is not primarily a historical figure, but rather an icon of ARM's 'deep history', a kind of local 'One Pound Jimmy' Tjungurrayi, a metonymic representation of the whole of the Kulin Nation.
The sad truth is that this building is not a monument to William Barak. It is not in fact a Portrait. And it is not, strictly speaking, a commemoration of any kind. No, this is Brand Reconciliation, in which a literally superficial image of Aboriginality serves to mask the profit motive, with corporation and government colluding in a chorus of unassailable political correctness, and in which the particular and painful truths of Indigenous and settler history are glossed over in favour of a warm and fuzzy notion of communal inheritance. However sincere the motivation (though the camouflage effect I have described must give cause for doubt), however sophisticated the computer-generated technique of the striated balconies, however enthusiastic the response of representatives of the dispossessed Wurunjeri, this is still kitsch. Beruk deserves better than to stand on his country as a giant concrete Aborigine for the Garden State.
IF THE MAKERS of the urban architectural environment, and of the public culture more generally, can be so cavalier in their treatment of an individual life and image, it is hardly surprising that their macroscopic projection of Aboriginality should turn out to be equally ropey. For Howard Raggatt the Shrine is simply a synecdoche, a structure that stands for the whole 200-odd years of settler-Australian history, while 'bookend' Beruk stands for the previous sixty thousand. However, the Shrine was not designed as – nor, until the recent rise of 'Anzac-Aussie-oi-oi-oi-ism' perceived as – some kind of abstract national monument. It is first and foremost a cenotaph, a publicly funded public expression of grief over the deaths of young Australian soldiers during Word War I.
It is possible that Raggatt and his team are making a sly but deliberate equation of the two structures, in a similar manner to the appropriation of Daniel Lebeskind's Holocaust Museum for their design of the National Museum of Australia. It could be that Portrait was designed as a kind of counter-Shrine, an ironic, postmodern memorial to the thousands of Aborigines killed in the undeclared wars of the Australian frontier. But whether simply insensitive or smugly more-PC-than-thou, the mirroring of Aboriginal identity and war might not be the most helpful contribution to reconciliation.
Furthermore, given the architects' evident focus on the building's location, it is more than a little surprising that they should so completely ignore the history of the Carlton site. Since the earliest days of European settlement, Aboriginal Australians have drowned the sorrows of death, dispossession and disadvantage in alcohol, and alcohol-related illnesses and mortality are still major challenges for many Aboriginal communities. A 2008 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare survey found that Indigenous alcohol-related hospitalisations were between one and 6.2 times greater than those in the non-Indigenous community in the case of males, and between 1.3 and thirty-three times greater in the case of females (assault injuries featured significantly). In 2009, the report of the Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision stated that Indigenous deaths from various alcohol-related causes are five to nineteen times greater than among non-Indigenous Australians.
In the light of such statistics, to put a black man on the site of an ex-brewery is, to say the least, in questionable taste. Moreover, remembering that as a youth I made that joke about beer and diggers on the Swanston Street axis, I can easily imagine the eyebrow-raising, the smirks and the slurs that Portrait will generate, its reinforcement of the prejudicial stereotype of the drunken blackfella. This would be not only unfair, but also ahistorical. Defending the continued existence of the Coranderrk settlement, Beruk's predecessor as nurungaeta, (Simon) Wonga, stated: 'It is better to live here than to go about and drink,' and station manager John Green told the 1881 inquiry that he 'sometimes...fined the blacks for being drunk. They themselves made a law authorising that.' It would appear that the devout Presbyterian William Barak and his community were solidly opposed to grog.
And then there is another problem: the head itself. Yes, the portrait bust is such a commonplace in the western artistic tradition as to be unremarkable, and the colossal head is also familiar, from those of Rameses II at the British Museum and Constantine the Great at the Capitoline to the recent sculptures of Ron Mueck and Jaume Plensa. Nevertheless, in this specific case the isolation of the Aboriginal head must inevitably recall the regrettable social-Darwinist elements of nineteenth-century anthropology – the obsession with physiognomic measurement (height of Aboriginal cranium: thirty-two storeys), the oppressive scopic regime of ethnographic photography and, even worse, the regular mutilation of Aboriginal corpses to satisfy the international museum skull trade. Finally, speaking of bones, and despite the University of Melbourne architecture professor Philip Goad's endorsement of the fact as 'strangely haunting', is there not something passing strange about a memorial to a black man having an all-white finish?
No, no, no – this is all too much. What were these people thinking?
Beruk richly deserves to be remembered and honoured as an important figure in Victorian history, as a defender of his people and of their proprietary and citizenship rights. But in relation to this Portrait I find myself in sympathy with the anonymous correspondent who wrote to The Argus around the time that Ann Bon's 'splendid stone of Italian marble' was installed in the main street of Healesville: 'residents would have no objection to the erection of a suitable memorial to Barak...but they do object to the resurrection of an out-of-date, mournful-looking tombstone to serve this purpose. Better no memorial at all than one which is...an object of ridicule.'
- The story of Beruk and Coranderrk has been told many times, most recently in the third episode of Rachel Perkins' 2008 television series First Australians. This essay also owes a debt to Jane Lydon's Eye Contact: Photographing Indigenous Australians (Duke University Press, 2004) and Chris Healy's Forgetting Aborigines (UNSW Press, 2008). Thanks also to Penny Edmonds, Tom Griffiths, Robert Kenny and Peter Timms.