Tommy McRae: his cultural interaction with the colonial world
AuthorJankelson, Hilary Clare
AffiliationSchool of Culture and Communication
Document TypePhD thesis
Access StatusOpen Access
© 2019 Hilary Clare Jankelson
Tommy McRae: His Cultural Interaction with the Colonial World Andrew Sayers' landmark book 'Aboriginal Artists of the Nineteenth Century' was published in 1996. It revealed for the first time the extent of the art produced by Tommy McRae during the second half of the Nineteenth century and discusses in detail the context of the artist's works. With most of his drawings now held by public institutions, they are available for his audience to view and study. This thesis advances the understanding of McRae and introduces a novel iconography and chronological analysis of his works. It interprets the minutiae of posture, placement and engagement that the artist brought to his drawings in order to expand his narratives. Through careful evaluation they will be recognized for their pictorial appeal with their simplicity and fluidity of line, their complexity of detail, their humour and their honesty. The sensitivity and discerning qualities of his depictions are emphasized in his figures, both human and animal, whereby he communicated speed, agility, vigour and momentum, emotion and intent. The works of McRae should be seen as documents of historical significance by a highly perceptive man and a committed and accomplished artist, who was countering the words that were written at the time, by those outside his culture. McRae was born in Victoria's north-east in the 1830s, growing up through the turbulent years of Colonial expansion, the rush for gold and the resulting population explosions of invading settlers. He maintained his independence outside the formal government reserves and set up his base at Lake Moodemere, near Wahgunyah. The artist was heir to a heritage of images etched and drawn on rock faces, trees, bark and skins. He was first observed drawing in the mud and then encouraged to transfer his ideas using ink and paper. There are upward of 245 images on single sheets and in notebooks and sketchbooks from which to study the iconography that established his narratives of hunting, fishing, fighting, ceremony and celebration. His definition of attribute and decoration detail the elements that make up the different occasions. Through close examination of the spacing and the relationship that the artist created between his participants, the mechanics and sequences of the performances and activities can be understood. McRae's skill conveys the physicality in man, bird and animal, as well as the attitudes that drew his audience into his depictions and enlightens them to their demands and requirements. On paging through the sketchbooks, the evolving social climate to which the Aboriginal people were exposed is revealed, including McRae's response to the government's 'Half-caste Act'. The thesis explores gender within this social climate. From his earliest books until his death in 1901, there is a paucity of depictions of women at their traditional activities, except accompanying family groups in hunting for fish and game and as 'music-makers' at some ceremonial and celebratory events. It recognizes that McRae was drawing for predominately male patrons. Also, the census figures support the decrease of female numbers in the communities along the Murray Valley with a corresponding increase in those taking up residence in government reserves. His drawings thus focus on the pursuits of the Aboriginal men and their responses to the influences to which they became exposed by the new settlers; alcohol, social interaction and dress. Chronological sequences can be identified both within each book and between books. McRae introduced the William Buckley saga in 1885 to define that within the former. By illustrating the circumstances around the arrival of the Europeans on the shores of Port Phillip Bay which coincided with the artist's supposed birth in the mid-1830s, he developed the handkerchief waving motif to delineate those events and activities prior to and those after this occurrence. The source of the images is aligned with the published accounts, recognizing that he may have been able to access this information through his literate second wife. The iconography is juxtaposed with the analysis of his human and animal figures and the examination of McRae's depictions of the tree, the shrub and the ground as the chronological markers. The dissection of the evolving images of these features provides a sequence between his books. Across the years, the architecture of the trees becomes more complex, the main trunks develop a definition of bark and there is further transformation in the canopies. Varieties in shape and size extend to the middle and lower story shrubs, with the artist detailing a more intricate herbage underfoot. The development of these images is aligned with known commissioning dates, establishing a chronology into which can be inserted single sheets, notebooks and sketchbooks about which we have less information. This thesis, with its detailed and comprehensive analysis of each drawing, furnishes the audience of the Twenty-first century, with the knowledge of an Aboriginal Australian of the Nineteenth century, detailing his Aboriginality and his Cultural Interaction with the Colonial world.
KeywordsTommy McRae; Tommy MacRae; William Buckley; celebration; ceremony; Theresa Walker; Gallery of New South Wales; National Library of Australia; National Museum of Australia; National Gallery of Australia; William Lang; State Library of Victoria; National Gallery of Victoria; iconography
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