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Identity

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.


Identity

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The expression of identity is a recurring theme in bark painting. It personalises the subject of a painting to allow the viewer to see ‘through the artist’s eyes’. Identity is defined by a person’s family ties, clan membership, descent from a particular ancestor, attachment to country, and social and ritual status. It is expressed in painting through the same patterns of clan designs that are painted onto a person’s body in ceremony.

These designs also show the moiety to which the artist belongs. Djunmal’s painting The Djankawu Cross Back to the Mainland (left) symbolises the complementary roles played by the moieties. The design on the right shows the Djan’kawu ancestors associated with the artist’s Dhuwa moiety. It represents the paths they travelled as they created the first peoples and the freshwater wells (the circles in the painting). The Yirritja moiety design on the left represents mangrove worms in the brackish waters where fresh water meets salt water.

DJUNMAL
Mayarrmayarr clan, Liya’gawumirr language
about 1920–1975

The Djan’kawu Cross Back to the Mainland, 1966
collected by JA Davidson at Milingimbi
138 x 53 cm


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.