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Old Masters

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This magnificent exhibition of bark paintings, drawn exclusively from the Museum's extensive collection, celebrates Australia's greatest bark artists.

by Alisa Duff, Head Curator, and Gretchen Stolte, Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Program

Old Master is a term rarely applied to Indigenous Australians. It conjures up an image of an elderly man, perhaps with a long white beard, surrounded by easels and canvases, students eagerly gathered at his side. We think of a classical mise en scene of Corinthian columns and ivy leaves or the Rococo exuberance of gilded frames, not rock shelters cloistering images of ancestral beings. We picture scenes of Renaissance Italy with narrow streets, not the humidity of a paperbark swamp at the height of the wet season. We imagine a period of time fixed in the past, not the constant vastness of a clear night sky rhythmically broken by the morning star at the beginning of each day.

Old Masters: Australia’s Great Bark Artists celebrates the genius and craft of master bark painters from northern Australia. The Museum holds the largest collection of bark paintings in the world. There are over 2000 artworks painted on bark held in our care, spanning the breadth of northern Australia from Western Australia across the Northern Territory to Queensland. The 122 bark paintings chosen for Old Masters account for roughly five per cent of our entire bark painting collection and are a select few from the Arnhem Land region. Dating from 1948 to 1988, the works represent a critical period in the development of the appreciation of bark paintings as art.

The artists exhibited in Old Masters observed the seasons, noting the changes in landscapes across regions and engulfed in country with a profound sense of ‘place’. Their expression of these environments, the creator beings who roamed them, ancestors who came before them and the order and structure of their societies, are common themes.

The message of our exhibition is simple: these paintings are works of art. They belong to the canon of great Australian art movements, and the people who created them are outstanding Australian artists. This exhibition highlights a collection strength of the Museum, and brings these works out of storage. Many of the artworks on show in the exhibition have not been displayed in public before.

In Old Masters, audiences will experience an art gallery-style display. We've created quiet spaces for contemplation in which to examine groupings of works according to schools of techniques driven by a master painter or families and their dynasties. These relationships are discrete, but the viewer will be able to note similar themes and motifs repeated across the regional areas of western, central and eastern Arnhem Land, and draw parallels within the layout.

The two key artists of Old Masters are Yirawala and Narritjin Maymuru, of western and eastern Arnhem Land respectively, who were identified for their innovation and lasting legacies by the exhibition selection panel of Howard Morphy, Luke Taylor and Wally Caruana. Selecting which barks to display from such a large number of artworks was not easy. A number of bark painting experts across the country were consulted by the curators as the first step, with the method for selection at times resembling a process of deduction. Once the list of potential artworks began to narrow down, the curators and the Director of the Museum, Andrew Sayers, viewed the barks in storage. Rigorous and intense debate took place as to which works should be included.

It's an exhilarating experience to walk through the stores past shelves neatly stacked to the ceiling with bark paintings. A highlight of the storage viewings was taking a ride up in a cherry picker crane to look down on the largest bark painting in the collection – a painting from a bark shelter by Wally Mandarrk. This bark is the largest in Old Masters, yet it is an intimate painting created for family, possibly to teach children.

The people who acquired these paintings were as diverse as the artworks they collected. Predominately anthropologists and ethnographers by trade, they could be viewed as the earliest art historians of Indigenous Australian art. Wally Caruana, our consultant for Old Masters, notes that their methods for recording information about the artworks were similar to those of art historians – sitting with artists and discussing their work. Perhaps the most important question they posed to the artists was 'Why?' It's the variety of eloquent pictorial answers to this question that reveal the breadth and complexity of Arnhem Land societies, which are articulated throughout the exhibition.

Although the practice of collecting material culture from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is as old as first contact, the appreciation of those objects – as well as an understanding of their cultural significance – has not always been present. In the history of collecting, it is only very recently that bark paintings have been seen as works of artistic production, and three people stand out in developing Australia's appreciation for, and access to, Arnhem Land artists. Karel Kupka, Helen Groger-Wurm and Jim Davidson began collecting around the same time in the early 1960s, when it was not vogue to see bark paintings as anything but an ethnographic object. For these collectors, bark paintings were an extension and a visual representation of a particularly Aboriginal artistic aesthetic. They shared a passion for the art of Arnhem Land and a belief that these artworks were more than an ethnographic oddity. Although their individual backgrounds varied, their committed relationships with Aboriginal artists translated into a rich collection of bark paintings.

Kupka was a visual artist who was changed forever upon visiting Milingimbi for the first time in 1956. In The Monthly, Kupka recalled, 'I shall always remember vividly my stay at Milingimbi, which was not only the most interesting but also the happiest time I had spent for years'. Forging significant relationships with the artists Djāwa and Dawidi, Kupka went on to collect a significant number of bark paintings.

Groger-Wurm was a trained anthropologist from Vienna who approached collecting as a way of capturing Aboriginal cultural traditions. Her book on bark paintings from eastern Arnhem Land was published in 1973, and was one of the first publications to include portraits of the artists with personal details such as clan, language and moiety (kinship groups).

Davidson regularly visited Yirrkala and established a close relationship with the artist Mathaman Marika. Mathaman respected Davidson and even initiated him into his own clan. Davidson's collection of works stemmed from this close relationship as well as his passion for Aboriginal art. Old Masters draws from the extensive collection in the Museum's vaults and presents the bark paintings as connections, synergies and lineages between communities, among artists and to the visitor, to showcase Australia's unique heritage of master bark painters.

Old Masters: Australia's Great Bark Artists will be on display at the Museum from December 2013 to July 2014.