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[in Arnhem Land bark painting]

by Howard Morphy

The title of this exhibition — Old Masters: Australia's Great Bark Artists — is based on analogy. It is deliberately provocative. At first sight it could be argued that it is taking Aboriginal art out of its context. Implicitly it places the bark painters of Arnhem Land within the frame of European art history, moving the artists away from the religious and ceremonial context of artistic production in the forests, flood plains and escarpments of Arnhem Land. Surely, old masters are part of the history of European art, exemplars of traditions, founders of schools, people of established reputations, renowned for the important innovations they made? In bringing Aboriginal art into world art history we need such provocations to think beyond our preconceptions — to see what art and artists might share in common cross-culturally, and to become aware of what we have routinely overlooked.

The artists in this exhibition were nearly all born well before the intensive colonisation of their country in the first half of the 20th century. They worked in a number of different, sometimes overlapping, traditions and developed their abilities over many years. They began to learn the skills of art-making at an early age by assisting more senior artists in producing paintings in various media — on log coffins, bark shelters and rock walls, and on the human body. They learnt the techniques of painting, becoming accomplished in the painstaking skill of crosshatching. They became aware of the subtle effects produced by applying earth pigments in different combinations and sequences, and learnt to appreciate the aesthetic qualities and cultural significance of the ochre palette. They learnt the meaning of a range of geometric designs and how to produce the figurative outlines that differentiate one animal species from another, or that mark the characteristics of spirit beings in human form. In western Arnhem Land, training required being able to mark the distinguishing features of the myriad fish species that swim in the rivers and coastal waters, and of the birds and animal species of the forests and flood plains.[1]

From the perspective of European categories, the Arnhem Land artists painted in a number of styles, some of which are characteristic of particular regions. In the X-ray art of western Arnhem Land, internal organs and skeletal features are depicted within the beautifully delineated outlines of animals. Eastern Arnhem Land sacred paintings cover the entire surface of the bark with complex geometric clan designs, bordering onto schematic, often monochrome, figurative representations of animal and human forms. But within each region there is considerable diversity — different styles are used in different contexts for different purposes.

The term 'abstract' in Western art history tends to be applied to paintings of predominantly geometric forms, or to images without obvious external referents. Abstract art, which coincidentally emerged around the time Walter Baldwin Spencer first collected bark paintings in Arnhem Land, adopted an analytical perspective on previous traditions, emphasising the formal and expressive properties of line, shape and colour. Abstraction followed figuration, both in movements such as cubism and abstract expressionism and in the work of individual artists, such as Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock and Tony Tuckson. Some have regarded this trajectory as 'progressive'. In Aboriginal art, one can see the same dialogue between figurative and non-figurative art, between representational and abstract art, but there is no simple sense in which one follows the other in time. Both are present and in constant dialogue with one another. The process of abstraction is ongoing as, undoubtedly, in reality it has been for Western artists.

People have applied the term abstract to Aboriginal art works that can be appreciated on the basis of their formal properties, but which are difficult to interpret — geometric and expressive forms with no readily identifiable representational shapes. In the case of the bark painters of Arnhem Land, geometric art exists side by side with representational art, painted by the same artist and often in the same work. In western Arnhem Land, X-ray art is the main art depicted in the public spaces of rock walls and bark shelters. Figurative art also occurs on body paintings but, on the whole, the art of ceremonies is geometric in form. The designs are termed Madayin (or Mardayin), as are the ceremonial performances that celebrate the creative acts of ancestral beings associated with particular places. Furthermore, each ancestral being is associated with particular design forms. In bark paintings and on rock surfaces the Madayin designs are often represented on the bodies of human figures — the 'abstract design' represented in context. In other cases, the Madayin designs may be the subject of the bark painting as a whole.

The Madayin designs contain within them processes of abstraction. As well as being identity markers of the ancestral being, they represent the country created by ancestral action. The pattern represents the terrain travelled, and the waterholes entered or created. Bands of colour represent deposits of ochre or clay that are the transformed bodily substances of the ancestral beings. The designs are abstract in the analogical sense of looking like Western abstract art, and in the sense that they reflect a process of abstraction that references the ancestral presence in landscape. Thus, they are not separate from X-ray art, but in dialogue with it. In featuring the internal organs, artists are representing a complex idea or conception of the world that can only be understood by locating the images in ancestral space and time. The organs are the unseen interior of living animals, something that different species share in common. Yet, those internal organs become externalised through ancestral action, as when the backbone of the snake or kangaroo, or the heart and the liver, can be seen transformed into features of the landscape. The dialogue between figurative and geometric forms in western Arnhem Land art can be seen in the forms of figurative representations by master artists such as Peter Marralwanga (see Ngalyod the Rainbow Serpent), Yirawala (see Totemic Crocodile) and John Mawurndjul (see Rainbow Serpent). In the Mawurndjul work, the internal organs are replaced by the geometric motifs of the Madayin, and the figure of the serpent expands its contours to take over most of the surface of the bark.

The figurative tradition that represents in human form the spirit beings who reside in the region of the Arnhem Land escarpment also shows complex processes of abstraction. The paintings by artists such as January Nangunyari Namiridali and Paddy Compass Namatbara represent the spirits individually or interacting with each other, their bodily features transformed and reconfigured. The entangled limbs, body adornments and genitalia themselves become a pattern, which simultaneously delights and disturbs.

In eastern and central Arnhem Land there is a similar dialogue between figuration and abstraction. The sacred paintings known as madayinbuy are largely geometric in form. The painting for Birrkuda (or Niwuda), the wild honey ancestor, appears as an abstract pattern, a complex construction of geometric shapes (see Jimmy Wululu's Sugarbag Dreaming). As in all madayinbuy, its power lies partly in the expressive form of the design. The crosshatching, combined with the intersecting diamond design, creates bir'yunaramirri, the shimmering brilliance that characterises Yolŋu art.[2] At the same time, the design contains multiple references to wild honey: the shape of the hive, the glistening of honey, the sound of the bees, and the paperbark trees where the bees make their hives. The image is an abstraction in conveying the essence of the ancestral being; but, connected to ceremony and to the land, it is redolent with meaning.

The density of meaning associated with the geometric designs enables painters to generate an almost infinite variety of other figurative and abstract images, which represent, in different ways, the references contained within them. The geometric patterns of intersecting parallel lines, and line and circle motifs, in Wandjuk Marika's paintings associated with the journey of the Djan'kawu Sisters represent, simultaneously, different episodes in their lives (see The Sacred Waterhole at Bilapinya). The sisters travelled across Arnhem Land, following the sun from sunrise to sunset, making waterholes with their digging sticks and giving birth to children beneath circular mats. Trees grew from where they stuck their digging sticks into the ground beside the waterholes. The geometric pattern in the painting represents many different things: the circles mark key places on the sisters' journey, and the shapes of the sun and the mats; the intersecting lines can represent the sand dunes that they crossed, reflections in water or the rivulets that drain the flood plains. In paintings about the Djan'kawu, artists can represent many things in figurative form, including the trees; the sisters walking, digging or giving birth; the sacred baskets they carried with them; the goannas that played in the waterholes; and the bustards (wild turkeys) the sisters saw as they crossed the plains.

There is always a relationship between the geometric and the figurative in Yolŋu art, but sometimes artists integrate the two within the same image. Frequently, elements of figurative representations in paintings by Mithinarri Gurruwiwi or Mawalan Marika or Narritjin Maymuru become components of geometric designs. The digging sticks and circles are, in a sense, both geometric and representational, but in Mithinarri's paintings, the limbs of goannas or the feet and legs of birds will continue as extended lines to become part of a clan design or background pattern (see Frogs at Mirarrmina). Yolŋu use figure-ground reversal to create shapes that reference sacred objects, or use repeated sequences to produce Escher-like patterns (see Narritjin's Fight between Crocodile-Man and Stingray-Man and The Marrawili Tree). Birrikitji Gumana's stingrays combine figuration with patterned abstraction (see Stingray Dance Performed in the Yirritja Ŋärra Ceremonies and Ŋärra Ceremony).

Narritjin's works abound with visual puns, but it is in his paintings of the life on the beach at Djarrakpi that he frequently transcends the distinction between abstraction and figuration (see Creation Stories of the Maŋgalili Clan). The themes of these paintings are drawn from Yolŋu mortuary rituals, which focus on loss, memory and the continuity of life. A core image is the process of death and regeneration that occurs each day on the beach as the tide ebbs and flows. The paintings show the marks of turtles as they haul themselves up the beach to lay their eggs; sand crabs that scuttle around on the beach, dragging the remains of decaying matter into their holes in the sand; and the birds that scavenge on the beach, catching and consuming the sand crabs (see Gunyan White Sand Crab). The background pattern shows the marks left on the sand — the scrolling patterns made by the crabs, the changing tide, and the maggots that eat the remains of the fish. In Narritjin's paintings, the diurnal movements — the life and death struggles — are recorded in the background pattern, which is often integrated with the figurative forms of the crabs and the seabirds. If the figurative representations are taken away, the action remains impressed in the mind through background pattern.

Abstraction in Arnhem Land art is linked to the metaphysics of Aboriginal society: it engages with the boundaries between the interior and exterior worlds; alludes to the all-pervasive ancestral presence that underlies the visible world; enables connections to be established between people and place; and combines different orders of reality. But in the techniques of visual representation that painters employ, abstraction in the art of Arnhem Land also reveals the kind of experimental attitudes to form, as a means of expression, that is integral to art practice across cultures and time.

Howard Morphy is the director of the Research School of Humanities and the Arts at the Australian National University, Canberra, and has published widely in the areas of anthropology, art and religion.


1 L Taylor, Seeing the Inside: Bark Painting in Western Arnhem Land, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1996.

2 H Morphy, Ancestral Connections: Art and an Aboriginal System of Knowledge, University of Chicago Press, 1991.

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