These busts of Wurati (1835) and his wife, Trukanini (1836) are possibly the earliest major examples of European sculpture in Australia. Commissioned by George Augustus Robinson, they were sculpted by British artist Benjamin Law, who had arrived in Van Diemen’s Land as an independent colonist in 1835. Much has been made of the difference between the two busts, particularly with regard to their facial expressions.
When George Augustus Robinson was appointed as Conciliator of the Aborigines of Van Diemen’s Land in 1830 his task was to persuade all Aborigines remaining on Country to cease resistance to European colonisation. As European-Aboriginal relations were openly hostile at the time, this task was practically impossible without the help of his Aboriginal guides. Wurati and Trukanini were Robinson’s companions in this ‘conciliation’ effort – which, unbeknown to them at the time, would lead to the deaths of many of their people and, ultimately, the decimation of their population.
Law made Wurati’s bust only two months after arriving in Van Diemen’s Land, and depicted him as a confident, even heroic, figure. In comparison, the bust of Trukanini – made one year later – depicts her as a forlorn figure, her downcast eyes suggesting a particular sadness. Some commentators have suggested that this perhaps indicates Law’s own learning of the tragedy of the conciliation effort during the course of 1836 – information that had not informed his earlier portrait of Wurati.
Law made 30 casts of the pair and about half of these are in public institutions around the world, often in ethnological sections of museums. Recent attempts by Sotheby’s to auction a pair provoked protests from the Tasmanian Aboriginal community, and led to their withdrawal from sale.