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Abstraction

Old Masters: Australia's great bark artists

Caution: This website includes images and names of deceased people that may cause distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.


Abstraction

Abstraction in Western art history is a term applied to paintings of predominantly geometric forms or to images without obvious external referents. Abstract art emphasises the formal and expressive properties of line, shape and colour to elicit an aesthetic reaction beyond words. In Aboriginal bark painting there is an interplay between figurative and non-figurative imagery, between the representational and the abstracted, so that both may exist simultaneously within a painting.

The landscape may be perceived as sets of abstracted patterns and designs. In several of Birrikitji Gumana’s paintings, regular rows of stingrays are surrounded by a Dhalwaŋu clan design to create a mesmerising pattern of eddies and pools of light reflected in the water. By way of contrast, his Ŋärra Ceremony is a syncopated juxtaposition of sections of Dhalwaŋu body designs referring to fire. West Arnhem Land painter Bob Balirrbalirr Dirdi’s enigmatic tracery of yam roots and tubers may in fact double as an image of a serpent.

Mawalan Marika created a series of innovative ‘abstract’ paintings after his first visit to a big city — Sydney — in 1961. One of these captures his impression of buildings and roads seen from the air.

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.

  • Ŋärra Ceremony
    Birrikitji Gumana, Ŋärra Ceremony
  • Stingrays
    Birrikitji Gumana, Stingrays
  • Ŋärra Ceremony
    Birrikitji Gumana, Ŋärra Ceremony
  • Stingray Dance Performed in the Yirritja Ŋärra Ceremonies
    Birrikitji Gumana, Stingray Dance Performed in the Yirritja Ŋärra Ceremonies
  • Stone Axe Heads
    Mithinarri Gurruwiwi, Stone Axe Heads
  • Sydney from the Air
    Mawalan Marika, Sydney from the Air
  • Yam
    Bob Balirrbalirr Dirdi, Yam

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.