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Old Masters

WARNING: Visitors should be aware that this website includes images and names of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Celebrating Australia's finest bark painters

The Opossum, Marnungo and the Night Bird, Karawak 1948 by Narritjin Maymuru.
The Opossum, Marnungo and the Night Bird, Karawak 1948, attributed to Narritjin Maymuru. © The artist or their estates and licenced by Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre.

Bark painting is an art practice that demands considerable ability and patience. During the wet season, a 'canvas' needs to be harvested from the thick, outer bark of a stringybark tree: the fatter the tree, the wider the canvas. A complex process of heating, flattening, drying and scraping follows as the surface is prepared to achieve the desired smooth and silky surface. The craftsmanship involved in this process ensures that bark is not a crude material to paint on but a surface that is highly refined.

Bark painting is a delicate art form. The bark 'canvas' continues to breathe long after it has been prepared, warping and curling with even slight changes in humidity. Crushed ochre is used to make a paint that is applied to the surface with the utmost care. Ochre is usually mixed with an adhesive extracted from a plant such as the orchid, allowing it to grip the surface of the bark. Sometimes a solid-colour background is used, sometimes not, and line-work is mostly fine and controlled. While the colour palette is largely limited to yellows, browns and reds (although there are occasionally some brilliant Reckitt's Blue highlights, created with paint made from the powdered laundry whitener of that name), these colours have significant meaning to the artists, like the narratives that they bring to life in the imagery. Red and yellow, taken from rocks, for the blood and fat; white, taken from clay, for the bones; black, from manganese or charcoal, for the skin - substances drawn from country become the inscription of action, feeling and thought expressed.

Yet, bark painting is not simply about the materials used and the method of production. Seminal to this art form is an act of inspired creation. Artists are inspired to create with the things around them: the stories and metaphors that fill their lives and their histories; the aesthetic forms and practices that constitute the cultural traditions they sit within; the local raw materials they use and manipulate; the audience for which they produce; the family that surrounds them, past and present; and, the country on which they sit. A master artist brings all these elements together to create something that speaks to people's lives. What they create has meaning that resonates.

Old Masters: Bark Artists from Australia 1930s – 1990s is an upcoming exhibition at the Museum featuring Australia's greatest bark painters from this period. It is a celebration of the genius and craftsmanship of master artists, representing diverse schools and regions from northern Australia. The curatorial team includes Alisa Duff, David Kaus, Andy Greenslade and Samuel Curkpatrick, with expert consultants Wally Caruana, Howard Morphy and Luke Taylor. This exhibition will showcase the best of the Museum's extensive collection and will be the largest exhibition of bark paintings ever displayed.

Selecting bark paintings for Old Masters
(Left to right) Alisa Duff, Wally Caruana, Luke Taylor, Andy Greenslade, Samuel Curkpatrick and Andrew Sayers selecting barks for Old Masters
David Malangi's Waterhole Life
David Malangi's Waterhole Life

Acquired over decades, the Museum's collection of bark paintings numbers more than 2300 works. This collection contains within it stunning works from a vast region spanning the Kimberley to the Cape. It is clear, when looking at many of these works by diverse and accomplished artists, that bark painting belongs to the canon of great Australian art movements. The finest works typify an Australian 'high art' that is intimately connected to history, environment, culture and a unique visual language.

Aboriginal people have been producing bark paintings for generations and this art form represents a continuous practice of cultural and artistic expression. The individual master painter has always been essential to the vibrancy and longevity of the practice. It is through their mastery over aesthetic and technical aspects of painting that a great artist - often a ceremonial leader, wise elder and politician in his or her own right - engages a viewer with a particular narrative, place, animal or event through the media of ochre and bark. Each artist tells a different story: Yirawala brings to life epic narratives of giants and ghosts; Bobby Barrdjaray Nganjmira's figures capture physical movement and energy in still-frame movement; while, Narritjin Maymuru's work depicts the poetic and mystical underpinnings of existence.

At the moment, the Museum is busy researching and collating information about bark artists and collectors, and filling in the gaps in documentation by examining the backs of the paintings for any information that may have been left by the artist, a gallery or collector. Interestingly, some dynastic families retell similar narratives or create work with similar themes. Part of the curatorial process is teasing out these relationships, looking for the continuities in style or techniques between generations and the individual approach that each artist brings to the art form. Following this, staff from the Museum will travel to the Top End for consultations with the families of the artists who have been selected for the exhibition.

All of these tasks deepen the Museum's knowledge of its collection and are central to the selection process. Of the current collection of more than 2000 barks, 200 works will be chosen for the elegant catalogue to accompany the exhibition, and that number will be reduced again to around 90 works for the exhibition itself - a tough job considering the personal favourites of the curators number in the hundreds!

Samuel Curkpatrick Assistant Curator, ATSIP

Note: Old Masters: Bark Artists from Australia 1930s - 1950s will open in early December 2013