This magnificent exhibition of bark paintings, drawn exclusively from the Museum's extensive collection, celebrates Australia's greatest bark artists.
by Alisa Duff, Head Curator, and Gretchen Stolte, Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Program
Old Master is a term rarely applied to Indigenous Australians. It conjures up an image of an elderly man, perhaps with a long white beard, surrounded by easels and canvases, students eagerly gathered at his side. We think of a classical mise en scene of Corinthian columns and ivy leaves or the Rococo exuberance of gilded frames, not rock shelters cloistering images of ancestral beings. We picture scenes of Renaissance Italy with narrow streets, not the humidity of a paperbark swamp at the height of the wet season. We imagine a period of time fixed in the past, not the constant vastness of a clear night sky rhythmically broken by the morning star at the beginning of each day.
Old Masters: Australia’s Great Bark Artists celebrates the genius and craft of master bark painters from northern Australia. The Museum holds the largest collection of bark paintings in the world. There are over 2000 artworks painted on bark held in our care, spanning the breadth of northern Australia from Western Australia across the Northern Territory to Queensland. The 122 bark paintings chosen for Old Masters account for roughly five per cent of our entire bark painting collection and are a select few from the Arnhem Land region. Dating from 1948 to 1988, the works represent a critical period in the development of the appreciation of bark paintings as art.
The artists exhibited in Old Masters observed the seasons, noting the changes in landscapes across regions and engulfed in country with a profound sense of ‘place’. Their expression of these environments, the creator beings who roamed them, ancestors who came before them and the order and structure of their societies, are common themes.
The message of our exhibition is simple: these paintings are works of art. They belong to the canon of great Australian art movements, and the people who created them are outstanding Australian artists. This exhibition highlights a collection strength of the Museum, and brings these works out of storage. Many of the artworks on show in the exhibition have not been displayed in public before.
In Old Masters, audiences will experience an art gallery-style display. We've created quiet spaces for contemplation in which to examine groupings of works according to schools of techniques driven by a master painter or families and their dynasties. These relationships are discrete, but the viewer will be able to note similar themes and motifs repeated across the regional areas of western, central and eastern Arnhem Land, and draw parallels within the layout.
The two key artists of Old Masters are Yirawala and Narritjin Maymuru, of western and eastern Arnhem Land respectively, who were identified for their innovation and lasting legacies by the exhibition selection panel of Howard Morphy, Luke Taylor and Wally Caruana. Selecting which barks to display from such a large number of artworks was not easy. A number of bark painting experts across the country were consulted by the curators as the first step, with the method for selection at times resembling a process of deduction. Once the list of potential artworks began to narrow down, the curators and the Director of the Museum, Andrew Sayers, viewed the barks in storage. Rigorous and intense debate took place as to which works should be included.
It's an exhilarating experience to walk through the stores past shelves neatly stacked to the ceiling with bark paintings. A highlight of the storage viewings was taking a ride up in a cherry picker crane to look down on the largest bark painting in the collection – a painting from a bark shelter by Wally Mandarrk. This bark is the largest in Old Masters, yet it is an intimate painting created for family, possibly to teach children.
The people who acquired these paintings were as diverse as the artworks they collected. Predominately anthropologists and ethnographers by trade, they could be viewed as the earliest art historians of Indigenous Australian art. Wally Caruana, our consultant for Old Masters, notes that their methods for recording information about the artworks were similar to those of art historians – sitting with artists and discussing their work. Perhaps the most important question they posed to the artists was 'Why?' It's the variety of eloquent pictorial answers to this question that reveal the breadth and complexity of Arnhem Land societies, which are articulated throughout the exhibition.
Although the practice of collecting material culture from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is as old as first contact, the appreciation of those objects – as well as an understanding of their cultural significance – has not always been present. In the history of collecting, it is only very recently that bark paintings have been seen as works of artistic production, and three people stand out in developing Australia's appreciation for, and access to, Arnhem Land artists. Karel Kupka, Helen Groger-Wurm and Jim Davidson began collecting around the same time in the early 1960s, when it was not vogue to see bark paintings as anything but an ethnographic object. For these collectors, bark paintings were an extension and a visual representation of a particularly Aboriginal artistic aesthetic. They shared a passion for the art of Arnhem Land and a belief that these artworks were more than an ethnographic oddity. Although their individual backgrounds varied, their committed relationships with Aboriginal artists translated into a rich collection of bark paintings.
Kupka was a visual artist who was changed forever upon visiting Milingimbi for the first time in 1956. In The Monthly, Kupka recalled, 'I shall always remember vividly my stay at Milingimbi, which was not only the most interesting but also the happiest time I had spent for years'. Forging significant relationships with the artists Djāwa and Dawidi, Kupka went on to collect a significant number of bark paintings.
Groger-Wurm was a trained anthropologist from Vienna who approached collecting as a way of capturing Aboriginal cultural traditions. Her book on bark paintings from eastern Arnhem Land was published in 1973, and was one of the first publications to include portraits of the artists with personal details such as clan, language and moiety (kinship groups).
Davidson regularly visited Yirrkala and established a close relationship with the artist Mathaman Marika. Mathaman respected Davidson and even initiated him into his own clan. Davidson's collection of works stemmed from this close relationship as well as his passion for Aboriginal art. Old Masters draws from the extensive collection in the Museum's vaults and presents the bark paintings as connections, synergies and lineages between communities, among artists and to the visitor, to showcase Australia's unique heritage of master bark painters.
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David Malangi, Tree Spirit, 1967. National Museum of Australia. ©The artist or the artist's estate, licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency 2013. The image must not be reproduced in any form without permission.
This bark painting depicts the tree spirit, Gurrmirriŋu. One evening, Gurrmirriŋu decided to camp under a tree growing on the banks of a sacred waterhole. He lit a fire and then cut up a wallaby and threw it on the coals to roast. A large snake emerged from the grass and bit him on the ankle, causing his death. His spirit has now become the guardian and ancestral spirit of the clan, and the story of his life and the cause of his death are re-enacted in dance and song whenever a member of the clan dies.
Yirawala, Totemic Crocodile, 1965. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Art Collection, National Museum of Australia. ©The artist or the artist's estate, licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency 2013. The image must not be reproduced in any form without permission.
Yirawala is one of the highlighted artists in Old Masters and this painting exemplifies not only his careful and meticulous use of line but also his innovation. It represents a totemic crocodile that once lived on the mainland behind the mountain range in a lagoon. The crocodile decided to go to the sea, so he chewed his way through the land and through the mountain range to the coast. In doing so, he created the Liverpool River. The design along the left side of the body of the crocodile represents a traditional clan design, while on the right is an abstract line design that stands as an example of Yirawala's ability and authority to innovate.
Ngalyod the Rainbow Serpent
Bardayal Nadjamerrek, Ngalyod the Rainbow Serpent, 1984. National Museum of Australia. ©The artist or the artist's estate, licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency 2013. The image must not be reproduced in any form without permission.
Ngalkunburriyaymi is the daughter of Yingarna, the all-powerful Rainbow Serpent of the Dreaming, who gave birth to a son and a daughter. Ngalyod, the son, is also a Rainbow Serpent, much feared throughout western Arnhem Land, and Ngalkunburriyaymi is less feared, although still very powerful. In rain-making ceremonies they are both honoured with their mother, so that they remain happy and do not upset the balance of the seasons by becoming angry during the dry season. In western Arnhem Land, ancestral beings are often depicted as figures combining the physical features of a number of animals. Here the Serpent has a crocodile's head and a fish tail. The depiction of waterlilies along its back indicates it is underwater.
Coat of Arms
Narritjin Maymuru, Coat of Arms, 1963, National Museum of Australia. ©The artist or the artist's estate, licensed by Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre. The image must not be reproduced in any form without permission.
In 1963 during a Yolŋu call for recognition of their agency, Narritjin Maymuru created a bark painting titled Coat of Arms. The artwork uses the well-known Australian symbols of the emu and kangaroo, but they are merged with key Yolŋu motifs, concepts and designs. In this artwork, Narritjin attempts to communicate notions of the order, genesis and power of Yolŋu society in a way that everyday Australians would recognise. A year after this artwork was created, the Yirrkala bark petitions, which called for Indigenous land rights to be recognised, were making their way from Arnhem Land to Parliament House in Canberra.
Sydney from the Air
Mawalan Marika, Sydney from the Air, 1963, National Museum of Australia. ©The artist or the artist's estate, licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency 2013. The image must not be reproduced in any form without permission.
This painting depicts Mawalan's journey by plane from Yirrkala to Sydney and is an example of how land and country are perceived by an Arnhem Land artist. Instead of using a horizon line or foreshortening to create perspective, Mawalan has transformed the land using Rirratjiŋu concepts of space. Features such as mountains, rivers and townships are symbolised by rectangles with connections and linkages made across the landscape through the delineation of carefully cross-hatched shapes. Issues such as scale and proportion are given less of a priority as the main emphasis is the linking of places to one another – and by association people – in a series of relationships that span the entire country.
Old Masters: Australia's Great Bark Artists will be on display at the Museum from December 2013 to July 2014.