Accepted Paper:

Tommy McRae, an Australian Aboriginal draughtsman  


Andrew Sayers

Paper short abstract:

The drawings of the Australian Aboriginal artist Tommy McRae, made between 1864 and 1901, are an excellent case study of the ways in which art historical, cross-cultural, post- colonial and ethnographic interpretations have interacted over the last century. The paper will examine closely the work of this exemplary artist, will analyse its technical and formal properties and the various interpretive frameworks that throw light on the artist's world.

Paper long abstract:

Tommy McRae died in 1901 and for much of the ensuing century his work was rarely seen. Some of his drawings were included in the international exhibition The Art of Australia, 1941-2, but generally his work escaped wider exposure. In the 1980s this began to change, markedly. By the beginning of the 21st century, along with many other Aboriginal artists who made drawings, Tommy McRae, had become part of the ‘canon’ of Australian art history.

Tommy McRae’s drawings were originally made in sketchbooks, save for a few scattered examples, and were made between the 1860s and the 1890s. There are many examples that have survived in library and museum collections and in private hands. The sketchbooks were usually commissioned by people with an interest in the shape of Aboriginal society before colonisation. McRae’s style was original and immediately recognisable, but the drawings were later annotated by a number of different collectors.

McRae’s drawings are an ideal study of the various ways in which Aboriginal visual culture, in particular that which has a strongly narrative dimension, has been interpreted over time – as anecdote, as historical and ethnographic documentation – and as art. The drawings raise a great many questions that cross or merge a variety of disciplinary approaches. This paper will bring these approaches to an examination of some of the more elusive dimensions of his art, in particular, the ways in which we might interpret his unique spatial sense.

Panel P021
Converging worlds: anthropology and art history (JASCA panel)