A rare drawing from one of the most important First Nations artists of the nineteenth century has been acquired.

image of "Tommy McRae, Before the Fight – A War Dance"
Tommy McRae, Before the Fight – A War Dance, c.1890. Pen and ink on paper. University of Melbourne, Melbourne.

The drawing by Kwat Kwat man Tommy McRae (1830–1901), one of the most important First Nations artists of the nineteenth century, has been acquired by the University of Melbourne with funding assistance from the Australian Government’s National Cultural Heritage Account.

Tommy McRae’s Before the fight – a war dance, c. 1890, beautifully evokes cloaked and bearded Aboriginal warriors preparing to engage in a form of dispute resolution, a theme relatively uncommon in McRae’s works.

This significant drawing provides an intimate window into the lives of First Nations people over a century ago and celebrates their practising of culture. McRae’s work is artistically significant as he is the only First Nations artist at that time to have made the pen and ink medium his own and to have adopted the art of silhouette which was then popular in Europe.

The acquisition was made possible with $30,000 in funding from the National Cultural Heritage Account, enabling the University to continue to enhance its collection of Australian art.

McRae’s drawing will be a centrepiece in the exhibition 65,000 Years: A Short History of Australian Art at the re-opening of the Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne in early 2025.