Looking at life through their eyes

Looking at life through their eyes
Tommy McRae sketchbook in the Treasures Gallery
7 July 2017

As the Visitor Services Officer I am often asked about what to see at the Library. I always recommend visiting the Treasures Gallery to get a visual snapshot of Australian history as presented through the collection. There is a focus on twentieth century material relating to the development of rights for First Nations people, particularly the 1967 constitutional referendum. The best way to appreciate why these items are so significant is to look back through the colonial era displays and find Tommy McRae’s sketchbook. It provides a glimpse into the historical context surrounding the tensions of expressing First Nations identities. 

Tommy McRae (approximately 1836-1901), Aboriginal men hunting possum  1881, black ink on paper, nla.cat-vn6296730

Yakaduna/Tommy McRae

'The Blacks are the most observant people I have ever met ... the difference between their art and mine is that however roughly theirs is done it has the look of life mine never has.' Kate Langloh Parker

Tommy McRae (Yakaduna is thought to have been his original name) was a Wiradjuri man who lived with his Warra-euea clan near what is now Corowa on the Victoria and New South Wales border. He was forced from being a traditional owner to a stockman as the effects of pastoralism and the gold rushes took hold. He later lived on the Lake Moodemere Aboriginal Reserve near Wahgunyah with his wife Lily and four children (despite the family's efforts to evade officals, all the children would be forcibly taken from him). He adjusted to the changes that colonisation brought with a proactively tactical mindset – developing close relationships with the local settlers, becoming wealthy enough to own a horse and buggy, and using the judicial laws to defend his rights. 

Tommy McRae (approximately 1836-1901), A group of Aboriginal men are pursued by another group and a study of three settlers  1880, black ink on paper, nla.cat-vn2306688

His unmistakable style of drawing, with dynamic silhouettes that dance between poise and caricature, provide commentary on a variety of subjects including corroborees, hunting, European settlers and Chinese miners. His sketchbooks can be seen as artistic expressions of his identity, as they reveal his Wiradjuri cultural knowledge and wry observations of the settlers and miners. 

Tommy McRae (approximately 1836-1901), Aboriginal man chasing Chinese man and Aboriginal men fighting  1881, black ink on paper, nla.cat-vn6296671

I was introduced to McRae while studying colonial Australian art history. The late Andrew Sayer’s book Aboriginal Artists of the Nineteenth Century (1994) brought to light the art of First Nations people who lived during the colonial contact era, including McRae. His academic research demonstrates why revising the historical record for ‘silences’ - in this case for First Nations voices and perspectives – has such value. I am sure there are many more First Nations artists from this period that could be added to the Australian art historical canon. 

Tommy McRae (approximately 1836-1901), Aboriginal tribe and their leader in confrontation with warrior  1881, black ink on paper, nla.cat-vn6295516

Even though Tommy’s work is in the colonial section of the Treasures Gallery and therefore separated from the 1967 referendum material, they should be considered together. Their historical context is entwined and their stories reflect the immediate and ongoing impacts of identity transformed by colonisation. It also shows how creativity is a powerful way for First Nations people to express identity on their own terms.

Come visit the Library and look at life through their eyes. 


Brooke Thank you for a very informative piece on Tommy McRae's art. I have learnt so much from your article. Jenny