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Tommy McRae & Mickey of Ulladulla

Video clip synopsis – Working at the end of the 19th century, Aboriginal artists Tommy McRae and Mickey of Ulladulla drew the world around them with an extraordinary vitality and sensitivity to detail.
Year of production - 2006
Duration - 5min 0sec
Tags - Aboriginal art, art, artists, conservation, Indigenous Australia, see all tags

play Warning - Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers should exercise caution when watching this program as it may contain images of deceased persons.

Tommy McRae & Mickey of Ulladulla

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About the Video Clip

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Tommy McRae & Mickey of Ulladulla is an episode of the series Hidden Treasures (15 × 5 mins) produced in 2006.

The National Gallery of Australia has more than 100,000 works in its collection—an extraordinary reservoir of creative vision and cultural history, from decorative arts to photography and sculpture.

Yet on a visit to the gallery, you’ll see only the tip of this iceberg. Carefully stored away are the things that can’t be placed on permanent display.

These unseen gems include works of exquisite fragility, from brilliant hand-painted fabrics to delicate works on paper. From Australia, the Americas, Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Oceania, there are masks and carvings, lithographs and linocuts, set designs and stage costumes, sketchpads and handprinted books, marionettes and maquettes, teapots and textiles, and much, much more.

Now in this series of micro-docs, former director of the gallery Betty Churcher presents an insider’s guide to some of these 'hidden treasures’.

In the entertaining, accessible style for which she is renowned, Betty Churcher takes us behind the scenes, sharing with us her passion and insights. From her unique vantage point, she makes intriguing connections between a range of different objects and artists, linking them to the stories that surround them.

These are fascinating tales—about the works themselves, the people who created them and the challenge of preserving them—and a tantalising look at some of the ideas and influences that have shaped modern art across the globe.

A Film Australia National Interest Program in association with Early Works. Produced with the assistance of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Full program credits

Curriculum Focus

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Students create and make artworks that explore ideas, issues, concepts and themes. Artworks should reflect sensitivity, commitment and an understanding of aesthetic consideration. Students should demonstrate technical and structural elements in an imaginative, skilful and coherent way to make artworks. Students record their working processes and document the development and presentation of their artworks.

This is a guide only. Teachers and students should consult their state’s curriculum and learning programs.

Background Information

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When Aboriginal artist Tommy McRae died in 1901, he was a man of substance in the region of Corowa and Wahgunyah on the Murray River—known as an upright character, a teetotaller and an astute financier, selling his drawings for cash.

Tommy McRae was born before his people were displaced by colonisation, and he was keen to show the newcomers his ancient culture. He drew with pen and ink on paper and sketchbooks bought at the local newsagent in Corowa, and he always began by first drawing the ground on which his figures would stand and his trees would grow. He worked up from the feet with astonishing accuracy, keeping each figure in his mind’s eye as an entirety, even when clustered. There were no generalisations—each leaf or clan marking is clearly delineated—and never a misplaced line or a correction.
Mickey of Ulladulla was a contemporary of Tommy McRae but we know little about him beyond the fact that he walked with the aid of two sticks. And that he always showed himself in his works wearing western clothes—a long coat and hat.

He drew with pencils and watercolours, and his skill lay in his depictions of the natural world of the rich coastline of Ulladulla, south of Sydney, which was then a quiet backwater, and in the beautifully precise drawings of the animals and fish that he hunted.

Both artists show the amazing adaptability of Aboriginal artists who had only recently been displaced. When these talented artists wanted to communicate with drawn images they did so with a sensitivity to detail that sets them apart.

Classroom Activities

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  1. Discuss the requirements that the National Gallery of Australia needs to put into place to slow down the natural deterioration processes for the conservation of paper, workbooks and artefacts.
  2. Storyboards for historical fiction and non-fiction perform a number of useful functions. They enable us to understand what has happened and what is important within the story. They serve as a summary to the story. They can serve as a display of the narrative, and they may also be used for developing our own writing. Discuss ways of looking from different perspectives, first from a bird’s viewpoint, perched on a tree and looking down, then from a snake’s viewpoint looking up from the ground.
  3. Draw or paint with watercolour a storyboard of a personal story or historical event. Create the same story twice, each one from a different viewpoint as outlined in the previous activity.

Further Resources

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Andrew Sayers, Aboriginal Artists of the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, 1994

State Library of NSW, atmitchell.com (use the ‘find it’ function)

Tumblong artefacts: Mickey of Ulladulla

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies: Online Exhibitions