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Old Masters: Australia's great bark artists

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The Djan’kawu — two sisters and their brother — are the major ancestors of the Dhuwa moiety. They created the first human beings and organised them into clans, allocated land and provided fresh water by plunging their digging sticks into the ground. They came to Arnhem Land from the east, across the sea.

Djunmal’s The Sea Voyage of the Djan’kawu Sisters depicts sea creatures that the ancestors saw as they paddled ashore. Tom Djawa’s Emu Dance shows two inland sites they created. The Union-Jack-like design represents the Djan’kawu, and the circles are freshwater wells. In Valerie Munininy 2’s painting a variation of the Djan’kawu design is shown among beds of oysters, at a site called Gärriyak.

The Djan’kawu arrived with the dawn and are linked to Banumbirr the Morning Star, which is symbolised by the yam plant. In Bartji (Jungle Yams), Jack Wunuwun, a master of the visual pun, has drawn the tubers of the plant in profile to suggest the human body with arms outstretched, as if performing in ceremony. He has transformed his subject from one realm to another, from the natural world to the ancestral. The vines of the yam plant symbolise the feathered string that ancestral beings attach to Banumbirr the Morning Star on its daily pre-dawn journey heralding a new day.

Paintings in the exhibition

Click on the images below to see a larger version and more information, including dimensions. Please note these images are not to scale.

  • Tom Djäwa, Emu Dance
  • Tom Djäwa, Crabs
  • The Sea Voyage of the Djan’kawu Sisters
    Djunmal, The Sea Voyage of the Djan’kawu Sisters
  • The Djan’kawu Sisters at Gärriyak
    Valerie Munininy 2, The Djan’kawu Sisters at Gärriyak
  • My Father’s Dreaming
    Jack Wunuwun, My Father’s Dreaming
  • Bartji (Jungle Yams)
    Jack Wunuwun, Bartji (Jungle Yams)
  • Bartji ga Bonba (Yams and Butterflies)
    Binyinyuwuy, Bartji ga Bonba (Yams and Butterflies)

All these bark paintings are part of the National Museum of Australia’s collection. © the artist or the artist’s estate, licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency 2013, unless otherwise specified. These images must not be reproduced in any form without permission.