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‘Seeing barks’

Consultant curator Wally Caruana, with an introduction by Genevieve Jacobs, 666 ABC Canberra, 5 March 2014

GENEVIEVE JACOBS: Ladies and gentlemen, hello and good afternoon. It’s time to begin. Welcome to you all. I am Genevieve Jacobs from 666 ABC Canberra where I present the Morning Show and I am delighted to be with you for the first in this series of lectures associated with the Old Masters: Australia’s great bark artists exhibition at the National Museum of Australia. Lots of you have fliers in your hand from 666 ABC Canberra. You can see my face there. But before the lights went down I saw lots of familiar faces out here too, because we are very much part of your community.

The Old Masters exhibition - such a great title, isn’t it? - such a clever multi-layered evocation of the undisputed greats of visual expression. It brings to mind those whom we have traditionally revered. That’s what you see in the exhibition at the National Museum: those who have been long revered; those who have a powerful story to tell, one that echoes deeply among everyone who hears it; those whose skills, vision, imagination and creative powers are celebrated, lauded and held up for admiration as the very best and truest of their kind.

I think Old Masters is a truly excellent bit of linguistic appropriation, and there is nothing better than turning expectations on their heads. The Old Masters exhibition traces a unique moment of both discovery and expansion. By looking at the art made in Arnhem Land in the post-war period, it pinpoints a moment when the outside world discovered the people of the far north and when they often discovered the outside world at a time of colliding cultures opened up by many things: the bombing of Darwin, the arrival of better transport mechanisms, the recognition of the significance of the north and that the people who had always lived there had a deep and powerful world view expressed uniquely in their creative arts.

For Australians of European heritage, the bark paintings were probably often the very first visual idea we have about Indigenous art. For many of us in this room I suspect we first saw them in something of an ethnographic sense decades ago. We understood them perhaps initially as cultural artefacts rather than in their truest sense as works of art, as doorways that can open into an extraordinarily complex world view where ideas about time, place and family can assume an entirely, overwhelmingly different significance from our very linear Western viewpoint.

These are works that invite us to look very carefully, to step out of our preconceived ideas about what painting should be, what a visual language should represent, to walk through the doorway into a country where silent, still caves are patterned with images 1000 years old, to places where the mangrove roots curl around the muddy, northernmost edges of our continent, where the lines that twist their sinuous way around bodies that are painted for dance also dapple and cross-hatch stretched bark that is coloured with the very stuff of the earth itself.

You are such a fortunate auditorium full of people for the first in this series of lectures. Today we are about to hear from Wally Caruana, one of the great figures in Indigenous art history, analysis and criticism. He is an independent curator, author and consultant who was for almost 20 years senior curator of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art collections at the National Gallery of Australia.

In the lecture you are about to hear, Wally will metaphorically take our hands and walk us through the visual language of the bark paintings. He will talk to us about seeing them rather than just looking at them and give us his insights into the fertile culture and country from which they sprang.

There will be time at the end of the lecture for a couple of questions from you. So please put your thinking hats on. While you are putting your thinking hats on, do remember to turn your phones off or at least to silent.

I will also show you a beautiful copy of the catalogue [Old Masters: Australia’s great bark artists]. Those of you who have ever been to an exhibition opening with Ron Radford at the National Gallery will know that never a moment goes by without him pointing out that the catalogue is available for $39.95 and that it’s a marvellous price. This catalogue also contains a wonderful essay by Wally and a beautiful depiction of the works from the exhibition.

This is the first in a series of three lectures. Further lectures are forthcoming in April from Howard Morphy and in June from Luke Taylor, and I know the Museum would very much welcome your participation. But now please make very welcome Wally Caruana.

WALLY CARUANA: Thank you, Genevieve, for that very kind and detailed introduction to not only my talk but also the exhibition. It’s good to see so many familiar faces here. A lot of you I have known for many years now. I hope in the course of this talk that I won’t be repeating myself too much because I am sure that you are very familiar with some of the things I am going to be talking about. Before I do, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people of the land that we are meeting on today. I would also like to warn people that there are images in my presentation of Aboriginal people who have passed away and also, of course, images of paintings by artists who are deceased.

What I hope to do today is to take you through a bit of a wander through the visual imagery that is present in the exhibition of bark paintings. Please don’t expect that you are going to learn a visual language by the end of 45 minutes. I want to touch on a few things in a fairly organised manner but the associations that will come through the imagery that we will be looking at go far and wide. I will be pointing at things that will hopefully allow you to make up your own minds on how you can explore the visual ideas further, and perhaps by going back be into the exhibition as well.

I have started my talk with these two pictures by two old masters from very different times, because they show something very contrasting but complementary and something that pervades bark painting as well. There are two aspects to the works that are on display that I am showing you now. One is very much a narrative picture and the other is very much a conceptual picture. These two attitudes, as you will see and I am sure a lot of you have understood already, are recurring throughout the bark painting tradition.

The [Kazimir] Malevich which I have chosen is the first of his famous Black Square paintings that was produced in 1915. He did a number of Black Square paintings, but I particularly wanted to show you this one because of its condition. The squiggly white lines that appear on the slide are actually deterioration. There is shrinkage in the paint. The picture has been restored, but this is as much as restorers could bring it back to its original condition, yet it’s deemed to be perfectly suitable for exhibition and for reproduction. This actually appeared in a number of catalogues of Malevich’s exhibitions.

I do that pointedly because one of the questions I often get asked about bark paintings is exactly that: what about their condition? You will see some of the older works in Old Masters are not in perfect condition but visually they are perfectly fine to look at and to exhibit. Of course, the condition they are in is purely a result of their history of where they have been over the decades and how they have been treated, but by and large bark paintings last forever.

Having said that, I would like you to think about these two pictures [on the left Annunciation by Fra Angelico and on the right Black Square by Kazimir Malevich] and think about how you would describe them to someone who has absolutely no knowledge of Western European art or its history. Would you be talking about the two figures in the painting on the left? One of them might be ill or feeling ill, carrying what appears to be two strange wicker-shaped baskets on their back. What’s happening in the background with those two people being ushered out of some place by a third person? What about that sun, that gold ray of light, what is it doing pointing at the figure on the right?

Interestingly, this leads to one of the recurring strategies of bark painters, and that is to paint using very fine cross-hatching, rarrk or miny’tji, which produces that visually stunning effect, that brilliance, which again is meant to express the sacred ancestral nature of the subject they are painting or the land that the artist is painting on. That has a lot to do with the sun in the picture on the left by Fra Angelico.

Interestingly, Malevich’s painting was first produced as a set for a futuristic play called ‘Victory over the Sun’ and that is the sort of blocking out of the sun. Of course, it’s intended to be a work that is very much conceptual, but it too has a narrative and has levels of meaning that I think again we can apply to bark painting especially as we go through the paintings I am about to show you.

Now a couple of bark paintings that you are familiar with. Malevich spoke about his Black Square as being on the one hand black, the lack of colour, emptiness, a sort of infinity; and on the other hand it was the sum of all colours, the sum of all experiences. It was, if you like, the whole universe condensed into one natural inorganic form. Writers like John Mundine, who has been a curator of Aboriginal art and worked in Ramingining and other communities for decades, has written about this comparison between Malevich’s Black Square and the image of the clan waterhole. The clan waterhole, which in Arnhem Land people talk about as containing the souls of all the people who have passed away: all their ancestors, parts of the souls of the living, and the souls of all those yet to be born into the clan. It’s a very powerful place in terms of providing people with their identity.

In these pictures by [Tom] Djäwa, we see the treatment of the clan waterhole in two ways, the one in the centre is the painting of the Djan’kawu ancestors called Emu Dance, with that typical Djan’kawu design. It’s an ancestral design - that cross-shape which, if you look closely, you will see the diagonals of the branch and it actually becomes a type of Union Jack - pointing towards a central waterhole which contains the eggs of the emus - at least that is what it appears to do in the painting. But it is also a visual analogy for the souls of the clan members, those eggs in the waterhole. And just as people ritually place sacred objects in the clan waterhole, in this case the emu eggs become those too, they become sacred ritual objects. So you are looking at one thing, but the implications are various.

Again, remember when we talk about interpreting the imagery in bark paintings, we are not talking about translating the images just as you do prose word for word, but it’s more like poetry with its rhymes and rhythms, its illusions and puns. There are many different levels of interpreting the very same image. This helps Aboriginal people, artists in Arnhem Land, to actually control the level of knowledge that they express to a public, because you can interpret these works, as you would traditionally with younger children, with people who haven’t been initiated, with people who have no rights to certain knowledge, you can still talk about these paintings in great detail but you are not going into the deeper, necessarily the inner levels of meaning.

Graphically too there is an interesting comparison here between Djäwa’s depiction of that Djan’kawu design, as it’s painted onto the chest of Richard Birrin Birrin’s son Jazmin [photo shown in the top left]. Again, it’s another variation of that exact same design. But in Tom Djäwa’s Crabs painting on the right he has done that again but it’s a variation of the very same thing.

Malevich also painted the Black Circle. One of the interesting things here in bark painting is to see that clan waterhole depicted as a central part of the composition and in a sense that mimics the centrality of the clan waterhole in people’s identity, in people’s lives in their associations with the ancestors and especially with the country. It’s that locus where people attain that identity from and where it’s kept.

In the Waterhole Life painting by David Malangi, you will see an image of a diver duck with its white breast and that is meant to indicate the harbinger of death. In this picture the diver duck is about to swoop into the pool of souls, the clan waterhole, and pluck souls out from that. In a sense, an image like this is really about exactly what I am saying in terms of the identity of an individual, David’s identity, it’s more than just a landscape painting, it’s more than just an image of particular creatures, because in fact these have totemic and personal significance to the artists. So in many ways it’s a very personal picture.

When we think about the structure of that Djan’kawu design, that Union Jack as I call it, you can have variations on that. You will see how in the painting by Mutitjpuy Mununggur [The Djan’kawu in Djapu Clan Territory with Mäna the Shark] how it appears in Djapu clan country. It’s part of the story of the Djan’kawu travelling across the country creating people and creating land, but that Union Jack has now been modified into a grid structure in Mutitjpuy’s painting on the left. I am sure you can see that fairly clearly.

There is another mode of expressing the same ancestral design that appears in the paintings by two Rirratjingu artists Mawalan and Mathaman Marika, who were brothers. Their pictures here are of the Makasar fishermen who traded the trepangas and who came to the shores of Australia up until about 100 years ago and with whom Yolngu people, especially in eastern and north-eastern Arnhem Land, had strong relationships with.

The painting that appears small in this slide [The coming of the Makasar] belongs to the National Gallery’s collection and was collected by Jim Davidson in 1964. It was painted by Mawalan Marika in response to a question. Jim’s question to Mawalan was: how long have the Makasar been coming to Australia? Rather than give him dates, Mawalan painted this picture where he is contrasting or comparing the Makasar to the original ancestors, the Djan’kawu, who are now depicted in figurative form giving birth to the clans. So he’s not putting a precise date on it, but it’s definitely before white people turned up.

In Mathaman Marika’s painting to the right [Makasar Boiling Down Trepang], I find this particular work extraordinarily interesting in the sense of how clan designs can be modified and manipulated and how you actually read pictures or one way of interpreting them. The Makasans came at the beginning of every wet season, as you probably know, in search of sea cucumber and pearl shell. The sea cucumber they actually cured to transport back to the markets of Indonesia first but eventually China, and they would leave at the end of the wet season.

In Mathaman’s painting you can actually see in the two depictions of the Makasa prow or ship that the image in the middle actually shows the ship coming in to land. It’s coming in at the beginning of the wet season. All the crew are yellow, they are Makasans, they are Malays. In the bottom of the painting you can actually see the rigging from behind as though the ship is actually leaving the shores of eastern Arnhem Land. I am sure you can see that fairly clearly. But note too that some of the crew are painted black, and that records the fact that a number of Aboriginal people actually went back with the Makasar to Sulawesi, and there are Aboriginal families living there now.

There are a couple of other interesting aspects of this painting. In the top register you have actually a land scene. That is, you have people actually boiling up the trepang, the sea cucumbers, in large pots and they are standing on the earth. If you look at the clan pattern that represents the earth, it’s actually associated with the Rirratjingu clan and with the Djan’kawu ancestors. So that’s the earth-based form of that clan pattern. If you compare that to the bottom section register of the painting where you have the same clan design but it’s been modified into curves to indicate the sea. So it’s a very simple concept that works brilliantly. In the top centre of the painting, just by way of description, is a tamarind tree which is another of those things that the Makassar introduced into Australia.

We are going to change subjects now and go to the Wägilak sisters, and again we are going to use, if you like, a Western analogy. In terms of the exhibition Old Masters, as Genevieve pointed out, the title itself is in many ways provocative and multi-layered in terms of how you may interpret it. It alludes to the notion perhaps of black art on white walls. Are we looking at this art through Western eyes? Can we help but look at it through Western eyes for most of us or from other eyes that are not Aboriginal? The task of putting together exhibitions like this is to actually try to put all of us into the artists’ shoes or into Aboriginal people’s shoes, into Arnhem Land shoes, and see pictures through their eyes and see how they will react to them to gain a deeper understanding across cultures. The title of the exhibition begs for comparisons with Western art. I think these are valid in terms of coming to understand a concept, but once you understand the concept you can throw out the model that you had brought in from the west.

In the top left we have another painting Nativity by Fra Angelico of two people, a couple of animals - a donkey and a cow - looking at this glowing baby. It looks like it’s been irradiated or something. No wonder they look worried. But the picture is allegorical in a sense, in the same way that paintings of the Wägilak sisters are allegorical too in terms of their being about the creation of particular laws – the laws of marriage, the laws of society, the coming together, the coming of the first monsoon to Arnhem Land, the environment, et cetera. But like the nativity scene, they too work on a visual structure of elements and place which, once you recognise them, you know is the subject of the work.

How do we know that the picture on the top left is the nativity? There are certain signs there that tell us it is. Similarly, and a number of you have heard this before, with the Wägilak paintings you have to have this waterhole, the snake coming out of it, emerging from there, standing erect in the sky and swallowing the Wägilak sisters, their children and their possessions.

You can see variations on that very structure in the paintings of Dawidi [shown The Wägilak Story], Mathaman Marika [shown The Wäwilak Sisters] and Paddy Dhäthangu [shown Wititj with Rock Wallaby and Sand Palm in Seed]. They all represent the same things but are different aspects of it. In Dhäthangu’s painting the snake is swallowing one of the Wägilak sisters’ catch, one of the kangaroos, but in a sense the kangaroo is a symbol for the sisters themselves. This is one way of actually understanding, if you like, the subject matter behind the work not through any narrative description but looking at a visual structure within the painting.

And then we take the same story further east to Gälpu country where we have Mithinarri Guruwiwi’s interpretation of the same story [shown Wititj the Gälpu Snake], and we can tell it is the same story because of the spiralling form of the snake. It is not the same snake as the one that appeared in the other paintings but it is related to that. Part of the narrative about the Wägilak sisters is they made a camp near a particular site which was a quartz stone site that was very important to people of Arnhem Land because of course you can make sharp edges from quartz - knives, axes, et cetera. Mithinarri’s painting in the middle of Wititj the Gälpu Snake alludes to the painting of his more abstract picture, if we can call it that, in the top right [Stone Axe Heads] which just focuses on a series of rows of quartz axe heads. But if you look closely in the top register of Mithinarri’s large painting [Wititj the Gälpu Snake], you will see one of the goannas is actually holding an axe head. It’s making the connection between the Wägilak sisters, the story and that particular place. Then there is that wonderful photo of Donald Thomson, the eminent anthropologist, of that very site itself [image shown].

We are going to move on to another set of pictures which in the exhibition we have called ‘Figures in the landscape’. As you will have noticed, those of you who have seen the exhibition, we have deliberately chosen subjects, themes, ideas or genres of painting that appear in Western art. In a sense, what we hope we have been able to do with the exhibition is show how from an Aboriginal perspective you can invert these ideas. They are valid; they hold; but they are seen in very different ways.

So in paintings like the Fossickers by Walter Withers on your left, figures in the landscape in the Western tradition really has to do with the relationship between the figures and that landscape. It could take various forms. It can be intensely emotional quite the opposite. In this case it may even just be economic, digging up the earth for gold. The Aboriginal perspective of the landscape and the relationship to it is quite different in terms of figures in the landscape. In this painting [Hunter and Kangaroo] by Bob Balirrbalirr Dirdi, we see what ostensibly is a hunting scene. In actual fact, it is a painting about a rainbow serpent emerging from the earth; in other words, creating that site itself. So the figures in these landscapes actually give birth to the landscape. This in fact is the subject of these two paintings by John Namerredje [Ngalkunburriyaymi Female Spirit] and Bardayal Nadjamerrek [Dulklorrkenlorrken]. They are of ancestral figures literally giving birth to sacred sites. This depiction is very much a convention in west Arnhem Land painting for expressing this idea.

Then another form of creating country and of the ancestors themselves metamorphosing into features of the landscape is through this notion of swallowing and regurgitation, which of course is one of the major themes in the Wägilak story where people talk about how the ancestral serpent Wititj swallowed the sisters and then regurgitates them. People talk about ceremonies as swallowing initiates as boys and spitting them out as men.

So this idea of the spiral, of encircling, is essential to the idea of transformation. What we have here are images of what appear to be creatures on the one hand, ancestors on the other, but also there is a very strong hint of these figures actually creating the landscape that appears in the pictures, because in the end if you were to take away the outlines of these figures you are left with clan designs and variations on those clan designs which literally depict that very landscape.

We can continue the theme with other paintings such as these [shown from the left: Three Rainbow Serpents by Narroldol; Ngalyod and Ngalkunburriyaymi by Nammeredje; and Ngalyod and the Sacred Tree by Yuwunyuwun Marruwarr]. The picture by Yuwunyuwun on the right, for example, shows a variation on this notion of what appears in Nammeredje’s picture in the centre, and that is of the rainbow serpent swallowing another ancestral being and then regurgitating it as part of the landscape. In Yuwunyuwun’s painting this appears as a tree or a plant.

I love the painting by Narroldol on the left [Three Rainbow Serpents], because again it shows these rainbow serpents but it’s a much more animated image. Of course all these rainbow serpents, Ngalyod or whichever name they are known by, are the creators of the wet season, instigators of the wet season and they spit out the clouds that create the rain and their flickering tongues become the lightning. There is an image in the right-hand side of that crocodile-backed rainbow serpent, that zigzag line that actually imitates the lightning. You have in a picture like this a subtle intimation of what the painting is actually talking about.

Looking at other acts of transformation we will continue with the idea with the figures in the landscape and how they appear in the landscape. First at the top is Bardayal Nadjamerrek’s [Ngalyod the Rainbow Serpent] painting. In Western Arnhem land these ancestral beings often appear as the composite of features from various animals; in other words, they are taking on aspects and characteristics of those creatures. So the rainbow serpent is essentially a snake but here it has a crocodile’s head, a fish’s tail and the crock of an emu. That appears in Yuwunyuwun Marruwarr’s picture of Ngalyod the Rainbow Serpent as well on the bottom left. The crock is a means by which the notion of an act of transformation takes place just as an emu or birds will half digest food and feed it to their young by storing it in the crock. This, too, is symbolic of this idea of regeneration. That wonderful image of Bardayal depicts a rainbow serpent in a billabong, in water. It’s not just having paints growing out of its back but the lily pads that appear there are meant to indicate the fact that they were on the surface of water, hence the Ngalyod is in its natural home which is the clan waterhole. The painting by John Mawurndjul [Rainbow Serpent] in the exhibition, which appears below it, is another version of that same picture.

Many of you will have noticed that this exhibition actually ranges in dates from 1948 until 1988. As Genevieve said in her introduction, that was a very critical period in terms of the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Australia but especially through art, going from a time when these artists were not known to the time where a number of these names are now becoming familiar to it us. And I hope this exhibition contributes to that. We stop in 1988 mainly because all the major older figures – and most of the artists in the exhibition were born before white people turned up in their country, so they experienced that cultural collision first hand - were passing away by 1988, they had stopped making art.

But there are a couple of younger artists in the exhibition like John Mawurndjul, and in a sense he’s symbolic of the sense that the traditions continue. He is now one of the leading artists in the current generation of bark painters and, in fact, one of Australia’s perhaps most renowned artists both here and internationally. His painting on the right [Mardayin design] is just an example of where this idea of playing with the rarrk, with cross hatching, has led Mawurndjul in recent times.

Luke Taylor writes about dynamic figures in his essay in the catalogue, and I am sure he will be talking about them in his lecture as well. One of the things about bark painting which I think is extraordinary and people tend not to talk about so much is the idea of drawing - drawing the figures especially, the way that physical movement can be expressed, and the way that ideas that are aesthetic in nature can be emotional drawings as well.

Najombolmi’s painting Namorrorddo, Malicious Spirt of the Stone Country appears on the left. He was actually renowned as rock painter. In fact, many of you probably have seen some of his paintings at Nourlangie or Uluru where he has continued that tradition of painting on rock. He was an artist with an incredibly sensitive hand. There is something incredibly attractive about his wonderful drawing of this supposedly malicious figure, the Namorrorddo. There is an exquisite fineness to the way the figure is drawn. Compare that to Paddy Compass Namatbara’s much more athletic image of two figures Mimih Spirits, which of course come from a series of paintings to do with sorcery and therefore are very much different in intent; whereas David Malangi’s painting The Dead Gurrmirringu is extraordinary because it shows his major ancestor, the great hunter Gurrmirringu, who is actually dying. He has been poisoned to death by that snake. In fact it’s a picture of suffering. It’s a picture of an ancestor who meets a terrible end.

This painting The Dead Gurrmirringu is interesting pictorially for a number of reasons. One is because David has used the idea of cross-hatching, which in Central Arnhem Land is not that frequent, it appears more in the bark paintings and rock paintings of Western Arnhem Land. Why is he using this? We can only surmise except to say that perhaps it is to actually emphasise that idea of suffering, of the flesh being torn apart. You will see in the exhibition a number of pictures by Malangi. His draftsmanship is extraordinary. It is definitely unique. The way he draws some of these macabre spirit figures is quite breathtaking.

I am going to move on to talk about Narritjin Maymuru who, with Yirawala, is one of the two key artists in the exhibition. But before we get to Narritjin’s work, I want to show you two sets of pictures which in fact conceptually are identical. On the left are George Milpurrurru’s two paintings of flying fox or ritual objects [Rangga (Ritual Objects) for the Yirritja Flying Fox Dance and Yirritja NGarra Flying Fox Dance] and on the right Narritjin Maymuru’s two paintings of the main ancestors of the Manggalili clan, the Wurrathithi, or Nyapilillngu as they are also known [The Two Wurrathithi with Ceremonial Digging Stick and Wurrathithi Digging Stick].

In these pictures of Narritjin’s, the painting on the left as you are looking at it [The Two Wurrathithi with Ceremonial Digging Stick] actually shows the women, the two female ancestors, in figurative form. Note two things: They are wearing that cross-shaped breast girdle that women wear in ceremony. In the painting on the right [Wurrathithi Digging Stick], they appear there too, but not figuratively just purely through the symbolism of the X shape. Similarly in paintings of these ancestors by Narritjin, their figure is actually made up of forms of tools used by women - women’s things like the digging stick in the middle, which appears in both paintings. In Milpurrurru’s picture of the flying foxes, the very famous image of his with the foxes hanging upside down from a tree, they are in fact mimicking sacred objects used in the ceremony, such as those wooden images of Rangga depicted in the painting on the left [Rangga (Ritual Objects) for the Yirritja Flying Fox Dance].

Bearing in mind some of these attributes, one could - and we don’t have the time to go through it all - pick through this magnus opus by Narritjin Maymuru, the Creation Stories of the Manggalili Clan, which is one of the largest bark paintings in the exhibition. I will point to some of the features of this painting in a second but I am comparing it very much to one of the Yirritja church panels, which I am sure a lot of you are familiar with and which Narritjin was one of the prime movers behind producing in 1963. We are going to look at the contemporary relevance of bark painting not today but at the time when these things were being made.

Narritjin, as with a number of the other artists in this exhibition - Mawalan, Yirawala and others - was keen to show non-Aboriginal people the depth and breadth of Aboriginal culture. People like he, Mawalan and Yirawala have been recorded as stating at certain times after that initial contact, ‘If we don’t show white people our culture, we are going to lose it and the best way of getting people to understand our culture is showing it to them through our art. They understand art; they will understand ours.’ Narritjin was very much at the forefront of this idea. He declared himself a professional artist in the 1960s. He even in the 1970s began dealing in his own and his family’s paintings.

He, as we shall see, was one of the prime painters of the Yirrkala bark petitions which are now in Parliament House and he was one of the prime movers in painting the church panels at Yirrkala. The early 1960s were very turbulent times for Aboriginal people across the country but of course in Arnhem Land. This was still a few years away from the referendum. Firstly, you had the threat of mining but also Christianity - not that it was fought against by Yolngu people in the east but it needed to be accommodated, its power was becoming too overreaching.

So elders like Narritjin, Mawalan and others decided to paint these two magnificent works. They are four metres high, that painting on the right there, which show all of the major ancestor beings of both the Yirritja moiety and the Dhuwa moiety. These were placed originally either side of the mission church in Yirrkala, as you can see in the slide. So they were in a Christian space but they were placed there to remind people constantly of their traditional beginnings. It wasn’t a matter of conflict but more of accommodation.

So I suppose armed with this need to be able to express the depth of culture, Narritjin produced huge pictures like this one here, the Creation Stories of the Manggalili Clan. One could actually write a PhD about this painting, but I will just point out some of the features. We have the women’s site that we were talking about in the previous slides, the Wurrathithi or Nyapilillngu, depicted here. You can see the women as these digging sticks to either side of this cashew tree in the middle with a bird on top. They create this site at Djarrakpi, Cape Shield, on the eastern coast of Arnhem Land. They are associated with the harbingers of the wet season symbolised through the thunderhead cloud. This is a depiction of the thunderhead here and here for the Manggalili.

They created the very first funeral ceremony for their brother in this place at Djarrakpi. The reference to that comes in the form of this hollow log here with the body inside it, and analogous to that is the image of a crab with the fish inside it, which represents the body. The crab, which appears a few times in this painting, is also a symbol of cleansing. Just as the crab will eat away at the flesh of rotten fish on the beach, so too here it represents a cleansing after the funeral ceremony; in other words, the people who have attended the ceremony are now no longer exposed to the spirits of the dead.

Then here you have this wonderful panel in the lower middle, which actually represents the constellations of the Yolngu, many of which of course overlap with ours. So you have the crocodile, the fish and remember the Milky Way is conceived of by people as being this great river in the sky teeming with fish and other creatures. So that was in a sense the religious aspect of Narritjin Maymuru.

There is one very little bark painting in the exhibition, Coat of Arms, which people have reacted to it saying that it is rather kitchy. That may be the case. I will let you decide. But it is a wonderful expression that Narritjin felt needed to be made about the place of the Yolngu, of Aboriginal law, in Australian society.

The pictures there show the three bark petitions, the two on the left with their borders which were painted by Narritjin actually contain the petitions with the petitioners’ signatures, which was led in fact by Milpirrum Marika who appears in the photograph on the bottom left. Mawalan, his elder brother, was actually leading the land rights case in the early 1960s but he passed away and Milpirrum took over. In fact, the legal case is now known as the Milpirrum v. Regina case in the parliamentary records.

The painting on the right of Narritjin’s interpretation of the coat of arms I think yields a number of wonderful insights into the place of Aboriginal people, Aboriginal society, Aboriginal law in this country, because of course he has imitated the Australian coat of arms. The one I am showing you here is the one that is used officially by the government - at least I got it off the website. You can see how Narritjin has actually modified that.

But I think the most important thing here is that image that appears between the kangaroo and the emu. Here the kangaroo symbolises the land, the earth; whereas the emu represents the sky; and in a sense they are symbolic of the coming together of two different entities, of two different peoples. To Narritjin, this was saying that Australia is made up of people from different identities, different backgrounds, and this is where everything comes together and coalesces.

But he wasn’t just a voice in the dark. He wanted to emphasise his authority in speaking on behalf of other Yolngu people. So in the centre middle of the top part of the picture, you have a spear thrower with a spear loaded into it. The spear thrower, for much of Aboriginal Australia, represents authority. When you talk at a communal meeting or at a ceremony when you are talking about politics, when you are talking about family and you are talking with authority, you carry a spear thrower in your hand. That is your mace, your staff of authority. It’s a wonderful picture and historically incredibly important in terms of the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.

The clan patterns we are looking at in these pictures all represent different modes or states of water - whether it’s fresh, salty, the coming together of salt and freshwater, which of course which is a really powerful symbolism in Arnhem Land culture. Freshwater again is a place of great fecundity, a place of conflict and a place of resolution as well - symbolically very loaded. Water essentially is also symbolic of knowledge. One of the lovely things about the opening of this exhibition, which was performed by Djambawa Marawili and Wakoti Wanubi from Yirrkala, both from north-east Arnhem Land, is they basically sang two songs. A number of you were here at the opening. The first one was about people coming down to the water - this is a very brief summary - that was symbolic of all of us coming into the Museum. They sang about the water: how the waves moved, how it swelled, how it chopped, and suddenly we find ourselves in the water, we are in the exhibition. We are in the exhibition gaining knowledge – again, this symbol of water is knowledge.

To extend that idea further, the drawing on the left [Dhalwangu freshwater at Gangan by Gumuk Gumana] is actually on display now at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and I urge you, if you have a chance, to go and see this exhibition of drawings from Yirrkala [closed February 2014]. They were commissioned and collected by anthropologist Catherine Berndt in the 1946-47 period just after the war. It shows you a different aspect of what these master artists were capable of doing.

One of the most intriguing things – and here is another comparison with Western art - is that one of the great collectors and one of the great collections on which this exhibition was drawn was Karel Kupka. Karel Kupka was a Czech-French artist ethnographer who lived in Paris, first came to Australia in 1951 and for the first 18 years or so put together a number of major collections for museums in Europe but also for the Institute of Aboriginal Studies, which is the collection here at the Museum, and the National Gallery in the mid-1980s was able to acquire his personal collection. He was very influential in terms of being one of the first people to write about Aboriginal art as art.

He was also related to the futurist abstract painter Frantisek Kupka. I couldn’t help but see that visual similarity in this very kitchy depiction of water, in this case freshwater, at a site called Gangan [Minhala the Long-Necked Tortoise at Gangan by Birrikitji Gumana] and the use of the triangle and the diagonals in Kupka’s paintings [shown Localisation of graphic motifs by Frantisek Kupka]. You have to think that Karel Kupka would have been thinking and looking at these pictures purely from - and the way he has written too - an aesthetic and formal perspective as much as he wanted to learn about the narrative behind them.

At the end of the exhibition there is a section which we call portraits, in fact they are self-portraits, but of course they are not portraits in the European sense, and here is another inversion of a European paradigm, if you like. Penny Tweedie’s wonderful photograph of boys about to be initiated I think sums it up in terms of expressing people’s identity but also that connection between country, because that’s what painted onto their torsos, and also to the ancestors because in this particular case it represents the honey ancestor which appears in Jimmy Wululu’s painting on the right [Sugarbag Dreaming]. Pictures like this are much more important than images of someone’s face, the physical features, because they tell you more about people’s histories, their background, who they are connected to both ancestrally and in kinship terms. They tell you so much about people. You as a person wearing this, it becomes your badge of honour and badge of identity.

The wonderful bark on the left by Harry Makarrwanga [Milka (Mangrove Worms)] was collected by the Mountford expedition to Arnhem Land in 1948. Typical of bark paintings in the pre-war era though you can see how it’s been cut into a shape that actually replicates the shape of a body painting. So you have the two arms that actually go over the shoulders, and a painting like that emphasises that relationship between bark painting and body painting.

Having gone through some of the imagery in the previous slides and previous paintings, we come to a picture like this by Johnny Bulunbulun which is called the Creatures of the Arafura Swamp, which was painted in the early 1980s. I could practically rely on you to decipher this picture by yourselves. Of course, it is also one of the poster images so you will get the full description there, but you can see in a painting like this some of the elements that I have been talking about. The photograph that is the background of the picture is actually the Arafura swamp itself in the late wet season. For those of you who have seen the movie Ten canoes, this is where it was filmed - but it was filmed in the dry season. It would have been a bit difficult to do it here.

You can see some of the elements in a painting like this. For example, the creatures themselves are actually depicted more like ritual objects than animals. You can see quite clearly the two waterholes that actually depict the extent of Ganalbingu clan country which is Bulunbulun’s clan. You can see the ancestral rainbow serpent and bundadlong, the tortoise, who not only created this country but also gave the Ganalbingu language and law. And you can see the fish trap that runs through the middle of the painting. That’s really buzzing with ancestral energy. That is not part of the painting if there ever was one.

But I think, too, one of the things which is very difficult to do is that you also gain a real understanding of bark painting if you know the country. In my experience there is a couple of people here [who have been there]. In 1993 I took my first aerial tour of Arnhem Land or of outback Australia, and people on the tour kept talking about seeing the paintings in the earth from the plane. And it’s true in a sense that people do conceive of the country as though - I had to answer a lot of questions about astral travel, I remember - but the connection between the visualisation of the country and how it’s expressed in painting is incredibly close and it is the sum of literally generation after generation of knowing the country and not just looking at it.

I am going to finish off my talk with a couple of paintings by Mawalan, because they express that very personal autobiographical dimension of bark paintings. The painting on the top right, Sydney from the air, is in the exhibition. I have far found four paintings that Mawalan made after he visited Sydney, the first time ever he went to a big city, going from the mission of Yirrkala, population of maybe 400, to Sydney in 1961 which wouldn’t have been the millions of today but a huge city nonetheless. It made a huge mark on him. He was actually going to Sydney for an exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales that was being curated by Tony Tuckson simply called Aboriginal art. The painting on the top right, of course you can read it as a map as Mawalan saw it of looking down upon Sydney seeing the buildings and roads that connect them, and of course on the right-hand side you have the east coast complete with the Sydney Harbour. But he is using this in Arnhem Land style of painting.

But the picture on the left, which was painted around the same time but from the same experience, is just called Sydney and I expect it’s an image of George Street or Pitt Street at peak hour at 5 o’clock, just like John Brack’s painting Collins St., 5pm, 1955. In the image on the left those curved shapes that you see Mawalan describes as hats. There is a wonderful analogy between the two paintings between his and Brack’s. But there is also one fundamental difference, apart from the style of painting which in Mawalan’s case is again eastern Arnhem Land style very much related to Djan’kawu and Rirratjingu clan designs, those lines of dots that appear in body designs in the era here represent street lights. So you get this nice convergence of ideas.

One of the things that struck me when looking at the two paintings of Bracks and Mawalan is Brack is an observer: he is a bit of a voyeur, he is not participating in that rush of people; the crowd is walking past him. By comparison, Mawalan is actually in the street with people coming towards him and going past him. He is engaged. I think that’s very symbolic of what a lot of the art in Old Masters is about, and that is engaging people. Aboriginal people want to be engaged in Australian society generally and vice versa.

Just to finish off, one of the instructions that Luke Taylor, Howard Morphy and I were given originally when we were asked to actually select the works from the wonderful collections here for the exhibition was to select them on the criterion of aesthetic merit only. On occasion we got pulled up when we started talking about the stories behind the painting, and people were saying, ‘No, don’t worry about the story, what about the aesthetics?’ I hope this exhibition actually shows us that we have great master painters in this country who deserve recognition, because they have opened up the way for us to understand their culture and, by doing so, they have enriched our lives through giving us these wonderful, intellectual and aesthetic experiences as appears in the exhibition. So thank you very much. [applause]

GENEVIEVE JACOBS: Thanks, Wally and thank you for me the analogy between the visual metaphors, the images and the rhythms of poetry, I found that extraordinarily helpful to think of the layers and layers of images that offer so many different interpretations. We have time for just a couple of questions, fairly briefly. We have some roving microphones in the room. If you just put up your hand, we will get a microphone to you.

QUESTION: Wally, thank you very much. I wonder if you could say: is it true to say that paintings moved from painting on bodies and painting on rocks onto bark or had it always been the case? There is one piece in the exhibition that seems to have come from a hut wall that had been cut out, and I wonder if that was a response to Western contact.

WALLY CARUANA: That is a very good question, because it’s a question that people still debate whether bark painting came as a result of white interest in Aboriginal art and Arnhem Land art or whether there is a lineal progression from rock art to body painting to bark painting. The general consensus is that bark painting has been around as long as bark has been. But of course the materials of bark paintings are ephemeral, so it’s very hard to actually put a date on when the tradition first started.

One of the things we do know for sure is that there is that wonderful painting by Wally Mandarrk in the exhibition which came from his bark hut he built in the early 1970s. Painting on bark huts, and that section is called murals, is part of the tradition of actually teaching the young about their culture and about decorating interior spaces. In many ways, bark paintings on bark huts were produced for similar reasons as they are in other societies. But bark paintings, as far as we know, have been produced as long as bark huts have been made. There is no doubt, however, that once the interest, especially in the very early part of last century, of collectors in Aboriginal art and bark painting developed, then the number of bark paintings definitely has increased in proportion.

QUESTION: What kind of aesthetic did you apply in deciding what was aesthetically pleasing?

WALLY CARUANA: That’s a great question. A number of us have been advantaged in having had worked so much with the artists and in those communities over the last few decades since the 1970s. We are in a very privileged position of being able to - we have been used. We have been told how to look at things and then how to tell people how to look at things. So I suppose for all of us the experience of actually being able to step outside - and it takes a long time to do that - what you know and look at art through other people’s eyes is a wonderful privilege for us to have experienced that, but it is something that we hope we can culcate in other people too, that that is what you need to do to understand somebody else basically.

GENEVIEVE JACOBS: Let me thank Wally Caruana on all our behalf. It’s been an absolutely riveting lecture. I was delighted from slide to slide to deepen my understanding, to broaden my horizons, to see the straightforward visual interpretation, the idea of a totemic level, spiritual level, and then perhaps the deepest level of knowledge of the truly initiated. That there is such complexity, such diversity and such a vibrant layering possible within each work was absolutely a revelation for me. We have been enormously privileged to be here for the first in this series of lectures for the Old Masters exhibition. Wally Caruana, my thanks and our thanks to you.

WALLY CARUANA: Thank you, Genevieve, thank you everybody. [applause]

Date published: 4 April 2014