Stepping forward to the past: William Barak and William Dawes

Thursday 12 August 7:30-9pm, Institute of Postcolonial Studies

A conversation between Tony Birch and Ross Gibson

Two figures from the early days of the Australian colony that have fresh relevance today – an English scientist at the founding of Sydney and an indigenous leader at the birth of Melbourne.



William Dawes arrived on the First Fleet as the official astronomer. After arriving, he developed a close relation with the Eora people and learned their language. In the South, Dawes experienced a kind of intellectual upheaval whereby he began to understand the world in a non-hierarchical, fluid and relational way that contradicted most of the rectitude that he’d been trained in. 


William Barak was a Wurundjeri man and member of the party that met John Batman in the ‘purchase’ of the Melbourne area. During subsequent colonisation, Barak fought to protect Coranderrk, a self-sufficient Aboriginal reserve. This defence included three major walks to Parliament House.

During the early days of British settlement in Australia, the relationship between Indigenous peoples and Europeans was potentially quite open. Out of the many possible relationships explored at that time, a particular colonial paradigm emerged of squatters, missionaries and miners. Is it worthwhile delving back into the start of the colony for alternative paradigms that can inform our understanding of biculturalism today? Are there resonances with other colonial beginnings across the South?

Tony Birch writes short fiction, poetry, essays and art criticism. He also works as a curator and teaches creative writing at the University of Melbourne. His books include Shadowboxing and Father’s Day. He has recently been collaborating with artist Tom Nicholson including Camp Pell Lecture (2010) at Artspace.

Ross Gibson is Professor of Contemporary Arts at Sydney College of the Arts. He makes books, films and art installations. He is particularly interested in art and communication in cross-cultural situations, especially in Australia and the Southwest Pacific. His recent works include the books Seven Versions of an Australian Badland and Remembrance + The Moving Image (editor), the video installation Street X-Rays, the interactive audiovisual environment BYSTANDER (a collaboration with Kate Richards) and the durational work ‘Conversations II’ for the 2008 Biennale of Sydney.

Institute of Postcolonial Studies
78-80 Curzon Street
North Melbourne
Victoria 3051 Australia (
Tel: 03 9329 6381
Admission – $5 for waged, $3 for unwaged, and free for members.

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