Skip to content

Dr Luke Taylor, Australian National University, with an introduction by Genevieve Jacobs, 666 ABC Canberra, 5 June 2014

GENEVIEVE JACOBS: Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon and welcome to the final in this series of lectures from the National Museum’s Old Masters exhibition. I am Genevieve Jacobs from 666 ABC Canberra where I present the mornings program. I have been fortunate to attend each of these three lectures. It’s been a thoroughly delightful and fascinating process and one in which we have been able to glimpse, to hint at, to begin to unravel the profound nature of Indigenous culture in the Top End. But what I would suggest we have also learned is how deep, how complex and how infinite that culture is. We have seen art works that have had layers and layers of meaning that unfold like a piece of origami, allowing access at multiple levels, each of them very beautiful.

Today in this final in the series, we will hear from Luke Taylor, who is currently an adjunct professor at the Australian National University, author of one of the significant texts on this area Seeing the Inside: bark painting in Western Arnhem Land. Luke has co-written a number of books and articles, in addition to working at AIATSIS and here at the National Museum of Australia as a curator. He also prepared the first edition of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Visual Artists Database.

Luke talks to us today about the way we understand the bark arts and Western art by contrast and in comparison. He will consider the purpose and nature of that art and maybe its very definition too. Western art is often very much about the artist as hero front and centre - inspired, informed, someone who channels multiple influences into a personal vision that is highly defined, highly individual. It is rare for even the shy and retiring artist to hide their identity, hide their light.

Perhaps you are thinking that I am about to say Indigenous art is nothing like that. But we are in the midst of Old Masters, extraordinarily fine work made by individual and highly skilled artists but artists who exist within a social and cultural context. Luke will talk to us today about how individual artists in western Arnhem Land in particular grapple with those notions when they are expressing deeply meaningful and powerful themes for a whole culture but within their own vision. Given that that is what might loosely be termed religious art, I think it will be fascinating to observe how that takes place in the context of the rainbow serpent, the mimih figures from rock art, the sacred ceremonial designs - and again there is that question of multiple layers of meaning within the images, the stories, the designs. There are family relationships, custodian duties, networks of responsibility and custom that are central to the continuing strength of the culture. How detailed, how complex, how infinitely varied are all those considerations before the artist puts ochre to bark, before the radiating lines and rhythms begin to evolve in the image, before it comes pulsing to life.

One or two housekeeping matters before we begin, please turn your phones to silent or off. We will have the chance to take a few questions at the end of Luke’s lecture. Please now make Luke Taylor very welcome. [applause]

LUKE TAYLOR: Thank you very much and thank you for taking the interest in this very interesting topic. I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this country first and foremost. I would also like to acknowledge the artists who over many, many years have shared their knowledge with me and put up with my questioning about art. I would also like to thank the National Museum of Australia for putting on this talk today, particularly Jilda who helped to organise it, and the other co-curators on this Old Masters exhibition who all worked very well together to pull it together. I would like to thank you all for coming along.

Just to give you a bit of a sense of where we are talking about today [map shown], I will be talking mainly about western Arnhem Land. I worked particularly on the Liverpool River but coming right back to Kakadu National Park and going right up to Croker Island. It is quite a distinctive art area and a bit of analysis in its own right.

Although there was a period of assimilation in this area, people were agitating to go back to live on their lands for a long period, and from about 1972 they started to leave some of these townships and create little outstations on their own lands. This is when the marketing of art became critically important to bring in that cash income to help people to live on their own land and, similarly, moving back to live on one’s land created that inspiration that really invigorated the art market.

However, all of Arnhem Land was transferred to become Aboriginal land from 1976 with the passing of the Land Rights Act. It is a landscape which is characterised by freshwater flood plains and rocky escarpment country. People who know about landscapes can actually look into this and see that the freshwater flood plains in this locale are extremely rich but are actually quite recent in terms of the geological history of this country - about 3000 years ago - but Aboriginal people have been living through massive climate changes and landscape changes in this region for up to 60,000 years. It was actually the excavation at Kakadu National Park that found the 60,000-year date. When you look at this landscape, it’s actually a landscape that has happened in the last 3000 years and it’s full of art, it’s inscribed with ancestral history. Essentially the ancestral beings emerged from inside the land; they travelled across the land and moulded it through their actions; and then at the close of the creation period they returned back into the land and artists helped to reveal these connections.

In the exhibition we use the term ‘mural’, which is a term that is used to refer to art that is painted directly onto a wall, and basically this landscape is already imaged with ancestral connection. Artists have worked for thousands of years in this locale to transform the landscape into an historic landscape. I have a little insert of these dynamic human figures down the bottom. I will be using the term ‘dynamic figure’ to refer to these active beings. That history of depicting active human beings in this locale has a history of about 18,000 years. I am going to vastly simplify the various layers of history, but essentially people have been painting little human figures running, dancing, playing music, hunting for 18,000 years in this locale. So any artist in the present can draw on this visual history in the contemporary work.

Whereas in the X-ray painting – this is the type of art you would see at Kakadu [image shown of rock art at the Ubirr site] - you can see things like the back bone and stomach of the fish. There is a turtle there you can see the lobes of fat next to the arms, there’s a little kangaroo over there somewhere and up here there is a white fellow wearing clothes smoking a pipe. The X-ray technique is used to depict the body inside the clothes. Here is a style of art that has an 8000-year history that comes right up to the present.

When I went to work in this locale, most of the artists who were working for the market had been trained in their youth to paint on the rock. So this man Bobby Barrdjaray was trained by his father to paint in a shelter where they were living when he was 15 so it is about 1930. The mission at Oenpelli was already established. His family didn’t want to go and live in the mission. Bobby said he was beaten at school and that he would much prefer to live just outside of the mission up in the caves that were around it. He had a relative who used to herd goats on the hill. His family lived in the cave and he was trained to paint this kangaroo when he was a young man.

When we talk about this old master concept in relation to this exhibition, we are talking about people who were trained to paint on rock in the first instance and were at least middle age to older age by the time they started painting for the market. It was in this latter period that all their ideas that they had gathered through their lifetime came to fruition in the excitement of painting in a new medium for the market.

Another artist included in the exhibition is Nadjombolmi known as ‘Barramundi Charlie’. He’s a man that painted through many sites in Kakadu National Park and in particular is known to have repainted one of the main tourist sites in Kakadu National Park in 1964. Later he went to paint for the collector Dorothy Bennett this wonderful figure. You can see the relationship in the figures between the rock paintings and bark, the way the body is filled with those chevron shapes. The National Museum is extremely lucky to have purchased Dorothy Bennett’s first collection, which are very important pictures.

The other major context for painting is that, while people painted on rock, it was actually continuous with painting on bark shelters. Where people weren’t living in rock shelters, they were able to make shelters out of bark and senior men used to paint on the inside of those shelters for their children. This is not always some austere, removed exercise; it’s part of the active life of the family camp. I spoke to many artists who said, ‘I paint for my children, to share the stories with them and to bring them up with stories about the ancestral beings.’ There is a beautiful work in the exhibition by Wally Mandarrk.

[image shown: Borlung and Kangaroo, 1972-73 by Wally Mandarrk]

This was actually part of his shelter that he used in 1972 in his little outstation on his own land at great remove from the local town. He had built that shelter because he wanted to live in a particular place and make use of the hunting and gathering in that locale and he painted this image for his children, for his family. It’s nothing to do with the art market.

Later on he decided to move his camp and he went off somewhere else and made another camp, and a person in the local community thought ‘Hey this is important and actually collected the work,’ with Mandarrk’s permission and sent it to Canberra. So now it’s a part of this exhibition. It’s a work that has travelled the world. It’s been included in the Aratjara exhibition that opened in Germany and toured in Europe but it was painted in the family camp for his children. It’s significant that the rainbow serpent is the primary image there. You can tell it’s a rainbow serpent because of the little feathered headdress and little beard.

Some of these other works were also collected from shelters, and that’s actually how the whole market began. A very famous collector Baldwin Spencer went to Oenpelli in 1912. He saw people painting on their shelters; he saw the rock art; he was fascinated with it. His first works were actually collected out of people’s shelters, and then he started to commission people to paint small rectangular pieces of bark. He commissioned some 200 of these and they are now in the Museum of Victoria. Subsequent collectors reproduced this activity, commissioned the artists and the market took off from then but you can see this transfer from a more familial context into the market.

Genevieve mentioned that it’s a social exercise. [image shown] Here are three artists working on a single painting. This was the type of activity that I used to see when I was there. What was happening in this relaxed public atmosphere of the camp is that often the older men would be training younger people in the stories for the pictures. One of the key ways of doing that was actually to engage in an apprenticeship, if you like. It was a very relaxed familial context but an apprenticeship nevertheless. It’s extraordinary the way that young people pick up the exact haptic skill of their parents and can paint in an almost identical manner through these sorts of social processes. The social processes are not just training in how to correctly reproduce the subject matter, people are talking about aesthetic categories like balance, contrast and the importance of getting the colour to come out at you, to radiate out at you. This is a really important desired aesthetic effect. It’s a way of communicating the ancestral power of the subject matter if the artist can correctly facilitate that effect of the brightness of the paint.

You may ask what was happening with the women at this time? In 1981, women weren’t painting on bark in this location. They were making beautiful baskets and string objects that were marketed through Maningrida Arts and Crafts. It was only much later in the 1990s that women in this area started to paint on bark. Now we have some very famous women like Kay Lindjuwanga who is painting for the market but not in this early period.

Bardayal Nadjamerrek is another artist who learnt to paint on rock and throughout his whole career in the marketing of his paintings he said, ‘Listen, I want my bark paintings to look like rock paintings.’ His country is in the stone country just to the east of Kakadu National Park. Late in his life he was an extremely important man working with rangers to help transfer his knowledge about how to live in the rock country and there were major research projects engaged with this man. But throughout his painting career he painted in this way with this use of X-ray elements.

[image shown: Dukula and Lambalk, Possums and Sugar Glider Feeding, about 1977 by Bardayal Nadjamerrek]

You can see things like the heart and the lungs, the backbone, the chunks of meat that are good to eat on the animals. There is beautiful attention to detail with things like the claws of the animals, the right food that they eat and the active pose of the little flying possum there. That’s another aesthetic category that people talk about. It’s important to make it lively – ‘kukkmak’. If you are painting a living subject, it’s important to capture that life.

But in particular this red hatching - not cross-hatching in this instance but hatching - parallel red lines is very distinctive. Bardayal said, ‘I am not going to go the way of other artists.’ You will see in the exhibition a contrast between artists who used multi-coloured cross-hatching on one side of the room and artists who used this red hatching on the other side. Here is the use of the art to create a sort of social distinction, if you like, between people who identify very strongly with the stone country as opposed to those other artists who are pulling in new innovations, which I will talk about in a minute.

Bardayal sat with this other man Dick Nguleingulei Murrumurru. They lived together on many occasions sometimes at Oenpelli (Gunbalanya) but also in outstations until a very tragic event happened in one of those outstations. There’s a bark shelter painted by Dick Nguleingulei Murrumurru in the museum in Darwin that is now on display.

[images shown: Butchered Kangaroo, 1974 and Mimih Hunting, about 1980 both by Dick Nguleingulei Murrumurru,]

Again X-ray representation, very similar to the rock art, with representations of the little mimih spirit killing the kangaroo, representations of things like butchery of animals. A lot of the stories for these X-ray paintings relate to the cooking, cutting and distribution of game. It’s extremely important in this locale still. These rules about the correct division of game is one of the very important references of these sorts of works, because these rules were put down in the ancestral period and people used the paintings as a way of reproducing knowledge about those. But this man just the slightly different style in his hatching, a slightly more hesitant ‘taking the brush off, putting it back on’ sort of style, which is distinctive and you can distinguish his paintings from those of Bardayal, but together these two very important artists reveal a sort of social block which is different from some of the other artists who use different innovations.

An X-ray lends itself to these more macabre images of mortuary rituals as well. [image shown: Dead Man, 1968 by Dick Nguleingulei Murrumurru,]

We use the term ‘dynamic figures’ in the exhibition and I mentioned a history of some 18,000 years of dynamic figures in this part of Arnhem Land. Here are beautiful examples from a very important artist called Namatbara who lived at Croker Island. This man [Paddy Compass Namatbara] was a major ceremonial leader, very important in relation to the negotiations with the mission and how Aboriginal people would relate to people who had instigated the mission, but he didn’t paint for the mission. He painted for a French painter Karel Kupka who came through in the 1960s. He was actually a researcher paid by the Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies who made this really important collection of works.

[images shown: Two Mimih Spirits Dancing, 1963 and Mimih Spirits, 1963 by Paddy Compass Namatbara,]

It’s not the type of work that would have been painted for the mission. The subject matter is a bit beyond their ken but nevertheless is part of a really important tradition of representing mimih spirits in this part of Arnhem Land. The mimih are the trickster spirits who live in the rock. They are a bit licentious; they can steal your husband and take him into the rock; marry a mimih wife and you might never see your husband again. They are said to have their own world inside the rock with their own sun and their own rivers, but it’s a subject matter that lends itself to all sorts of lively interpretation. It’s a very important subject in this part of Arnhem Land.

[images shown: Two Mimih Spirits Dancing, 1963 and Cursing the Lovers, about 1963 by Paddy Compass Namatbara,]

Merging with a different type of imagery that relates to sorcery. That image of a couple making love, if you like, with stingray spines stuck into their joints and genitals. It’s the type of image that you also find in the rock art on occasion at very secluded spots where people actually paint images like this, call the name of lovers over the painting and hope that the contagion of the picture will transfer to usually illicit lovers. Here is the sort of imagery that Kupka was very interested to collect, not something that would ever been painted for the mission personnel but very important in this collection.

It’s very important that Yirawala, who is one of the senior artists, one of the Old Masters that figures very prominently in the exhibition, was part of this group of artists who working with Namatbara in the 1960s when Karel Kupka made the collection. Yirawala at that time would have been learning some of their stories from Namatbara who was actually a very senior ceremonial person. He is using a style which is almost identical with that of these other artists.

[image shown: The Dead Spirit, about 1963 by Yirawala,]

You can imagine the context of these people sitting together sharing artistic ideas as a group as they painted their work for Kupka. Yirawala went on to form a very important relationship with Sandra Holmes and continued to market his work until he died. But this relationship helped him to develop as an artist. It allowed his inspiration drawing from many ceremonies to find their expression in paintings made for sale and then on to the market. He said quite explicitly that he was painting in order to share his ideas about these ceremonies with a white audience. In fact, an extremely important collection of Yirawala’s work was sold to the Commonwealth and is now in the National Gallery of Australia across the road, but it’s continuous with some very important works also held in the National Museum.

Yirawala moved on from his work in the 1960s and started with this new idea to draw on ceremonial body paintings these multi-coloured cross-hatch designs and pull them into paintings made for sale. At one level you can read them as an X-ray painting of a kangaroo, but at another level these designs are interpreted as maps of country and people have these maps painted on their bodies in the Mardayin ceremony, but it was Yirawala’s invention to draw on that imagery and put it into the subject matter of barks made for the market. It was this idea that he passed on to a whole group of artists - in the exhibition it’s called the school of Yirawala - who took up this idea and created a very distinct style of picture as against some of the paintings we saw of the artists who said that they had followed the rock painting. This is a new style of painting for the market.

[images shown: Birth of a Mimi, about 1970; Two Long-Necked Turtles, about 1970; and Totemic Crocodile, about 1970, all by Yirawala,]

Yirawala was a master of getting this dynamic figure shape, getting the swirling imagery. There is still attention to detail but the energy in the format of the work, and training another artist Curly Bardkadubbu from the same clan. What happened was Yirawala was agitating for the right to return to his land for many years. In Sandra Holme’s books she tells the whole history of that agitation and his letters written to government saying, ‘I should have my own land back.’ In 1972 he was able to establish an outstation at Marrkolidjban with Curly Bardkadubbu and Peter Marralwanga, three very senior law men who was able to live together.

[image shown: Namanjwarre the Estuarine Crocodile, about 1980 by Curly Bardkadubbu,]

It was quite clear that Yirawala sharing some of these ideas about dynamism of figure shape and how to be inventive with the infill of the figure and draw on ceremonial designs to make a more powerful image. This image is huge in the context of the talk, but that’s actually a tiny picture.

[image shown: Ngalyod the Rainbow Serpent, 1968 by Yirawala,]

Yirawala painted tiny pictures in comparison to the way people are painting for the market today. He’s a person that hadn’t made it down to the National Gallery and seen the scale of the walls in places like that but was doing these enormously important pictures in this compressed small format but beautiful depiction of the rainbow serpent wearing a feather head-dress and the energy of this swirling, swallowing format.

You will see in Peter Marralwanga’s picture there is a tiny female figure in the jaws of the rainbow serpent there.

[image shown: Ngalyod the Rainbow Serpent, about 1980 by Peter Marralwanga,]

One of the big themes of this exhibition is how different artists can interpret this key ceremonial figure. Basically people say that the rainbow serpent vomits out the rain that makes the wet season in Arnhem Land, can strike people with the lightning in the dry season, inhabits the deep waterholes, returns to these deep waterholes in people’s country. You can see water lilies on the surface of the water indicate the presence of the rainbow serpent inside. In the ceremonial context, the rainbow serpent is said to swallow the initiates and then spit them out at the end of the ceremony as initiated people. People say the rainbow serpent through the rain makes the sap run in the trees, brings fertility to the world and that humans gain their strength and vigour through this process as well and through participation in ceremony. People say, ‘It makes us healthy, it makes us strong to go to ceremony.’

Here is an image that also relates to land creation, this sort of swallowing of another ancestral being is an image of drawing that other ancestral being into the earth, so the rainbow serpent swallows them and draws them into the earth into where their power exists at particular sites across the landscape. That’s many layered imagery that can play out in lots of different interpretations of the work.

[image shown: Ngalyod the Rainbow Serpent, about 1980 by Peter Marralwanga,]

This man Peter Marralwanga was another that was taught by Yirawala and learnt to be inventive with this internal cross-hatching element of the painting. You can see how he mixes it up; he changes the angles; he might use blocks of full colour or dotted sections to create context. The aesthetic effect people are trying to get is this colour coming out at you, jumping out at you that’s like a radiation of ancestral energy. Marralwanga himself went on to experiment with this technique to create this power in the subject matter.

[image shown: Yawkyawk, about 1980 by Peter Marralwanga,]

In this case the yawkyawk, another really important subject matter in this locale, being a bit like a mermaid and the rainbow serpents drew these women into the waterhole, they grew tails like fish and their big, long hair became like water weed at the site. When Marralwanga was about 15 his grandfather showed him this place and told him to carve the tail of the yawkyawk into that palm tree. So we returned to that place [image shown]. You can see how that carving done when he was 15 relates to his painting produced 40 years later.

These other artists in turn trained up a very important contemporary bark painter John Mawurndjul.

[image shown: Rainbow Serpent, 1981 by John Mawurndjul,]

You can see how Mawurndjul has picked up this skill at representing that twisting rainbow serpent form but has made it more elaborate and overlapping, but in particular this inventiveness with the cross-hatching as a way of creating in part the power of the image. You can see some of the water lilies coming out of its body.

[image shown: Ngalyod and Ngalkunburriyaymi, about 1977 by John Namerredje Guymala,]

Other interpretations of the rainbow serpent where you can see this crocodile head and a fish’s tail. This artist Namerredje makes beautiful use of blocks of full colour as opposed to cross-hatching as a way of getting contrast in the work, this sort of swallowing imagery again as an image of site creation.

Another one – [Ngalyod and the Sacred Tree, 1974 by Yuwunyuwun Marruwarr] - here depicting the rainbow serpent with the palm tree actually attached to its body. If you can imagine the palm tree on the top of the earth signifying that there is a rainbow serpent actually lying in the earth underneath, and this image of fertility, moisture and the water cycle.

This other suggestion of rainbow serpent as a creator of country – [Ngalyod the Rainbow Serpent, 1974 by Yuwunyuwun Marruwarr] – so in the swallowing of other ancestral beings and drawing them into the earth making important sites, and sometimes people represent these sites as a sort of feature of landscape. We talk about ‘figures in the landscape’ in the exhibition but that’s a very literal term because there are indeed ancestral beings in the landscape in western Arnhem Land and sometimes people represent the landscape as a figure.

[image shown: Ngalyod the Rainbow Serpent, 1982 by Bardayal Nadjamerrek]

We were talking before about Bardayal Nadjamerrek who used the red hatching and always relates his work back to rock art, but he is also known for this incredible way that he depicts the rainbow serpent as a melding of the features of so many different species. The other aspect of the rainbow serpent is that she was the original creator being and all the other ancestors were born out of her body. This is the way that Bardayal represents it with this crocodile head, the little feather head-dress and the beard and a brisket like an emu. An emu doesn’t have a crop but it has a bag that it blows up and makes this booming sound. I think there are references in the image to that. The little strings coming out of its body. People say that the species that came out of the rainbow serpent’s body were actually still connected by little strings to her. Snake body, fish’s tail and then you see these water lilies growing from her back, but this incredible image which reveals the rainbow serpent as the mother of all other species - a subject matter that lends itself to all sorts of incredible interpretation.

I was talking about about Yirawala’s pictures being very small. By the 1980s, artist had visit galleries in southern cities and started to scale up their works. Mawurndjul in particular said, ‘It’s inside my head. I can’t get it out.’ It leads to all sorts of creativity with this imagery. Two twisted rainbow serpents [photo shown of John Mawurndjul standing by his work Two Ngalyod, 1988]. I think you can see another little rainbow serpent coming out of the body somewhere. There is its head. But really the focus is on this swathes of cross-hatching that are overlapping and creating a lot of the energy of the work. The focus here is on that cross-hatching as country as a representation of landscape. So rainbow serpent, yes, but the focus is on coming to move to the cross-hatching itself.

Other images in the exhibition – [image shown: Dulklorrkenlorrken, about 1977 by Bardayal Nadjamerrek] Bardayal’s representation of this devil figure actually moulding the landscape by sitting down on it. People tell stories that the earth was like mud. The dramatic journeys of the ancestral beings sort of formed the earth in their actions and at the close of the creation period the rainbow serpent came up and swallowed them and took them back into the ground. Another beautiful picture by Namerredje using dots and radiating lines as a way of speaking to the energy of the subject [image shown: Ngalkunburriyaymi Female Spirit, about 1977 by John Namerredje Guymala].

Many representations of landscape are in the exhibition, some are quite literal elevation representations of landscape.

[image shown: Nimbuwah, 1968 by Bobby Barrdjaray Nganjmirra,]

Here is a beautiful picture by Bobby Barrdjaray Nganjmirra of Nimbuwah rock, which is a really characteristic feature as you drive east from Kakadu. There is a beautiful painting in the exhibition by his brother [Jimmy Nakkurridjdjilmi Nganjmirra] which actually shows the bones of the ancestral beings inside that landscape representation. So if you look you see the landscape as an elevation and then you look inside and see bits of figure and bits of bone, very much a reference to the western Arnhem Land conception of these living identities still in the earth still radiating their power.

It was Yirawala who drew on these body paintings.

[image shown: Lumaluma the Giant Ogre, about 1970 by Yirawala,]

Lumaluma was a major creater for the Mardayin ceremony and Lumaluma’s limbs became the sacred objects of different clans. They were cut from her body. She wore this sacred design over her shoulders and on her body. It is like a representation of country that’s placed on the body of initiates in the ceremony which basically maps them to connection with the country and leads them to a particular way of thinking about the world where people even speak about birthmarks on their body as if they were sacred sites in their country. Their very body through the processes of ceremony is linked into this understanding of country.

[images shown: Country, 1970 and Spirit People, 1965 by Yirawala,]

But it was Yirawala’s understanding of this ceremony and its meaning that led him to be so inventive with the subject matter. Here you can see the cross-hatching being used as a map. You can even see a little fish inside the waterhole and then these other figures passing through the landscape. Here he has done it in a different way in a comic book structure, if you like, with these transformations revealed in the different elements of the picture, but here just a representation of country as ceremonial design.

[image shown: Hunter and Kangaroo, 1974, by Bob Balirrbalirr Dirdi,]

This image is actually a hunting story but Dirdi here has shown the landscape as this representation of cross-hatched country with these dotted dividing lines, which are very characteristic of this Mardayin style.

So we have moved a long way from X-ray. There are X-ray references in these sorts of designs but it’s another way of painting. It’s another way of painting that didn’t come from rock art; it came from ceremony; and it was Yirawala that brought this innovation in and communicated it to many other artists through his activities.

You have an artist like John Mawurndjul who now refuses to paint figurative imagery [photo shown of John Mawurndjul and Mardayin painting, 2004]. He is painting the grids of these designs with the waterholes inside them and the cross hatching as a representation of the power coming out of these waterholes and concentration of the movement across the surface, the different energies that flow and are created through the construction of these grids of cross-hatching.

People are much more self-conscious these days about the importance of representing country and of holding country. We talked about in the early 1970s this desire to get away from the mission towns to create outstations on their own lands and the importance of art in drawing money in on these lands. But now there is a much more political concern that art is a way of revealing this core connection and that art, beyond the money that is drawn in, is a way of communicating with the world the importance of this central link, if you like.

Mawurndjul himself has influenced a whole succession of younger artists, including his wife Kay Lindjuwanga. Many other artists in the region in Maningrida do not paint figures any more, they paint these grids of rarrk and they call it Mardayin style. You have the historical influence of a number of people starting with Yirawala leading to a major transformation in the way that people represent their country and their world in only 40 years. As distinct from people at Oenpelli (Gunbalanya) who maintain representations of figurative images with X-ray details inside and really emphasise this connection to the rock. I wanted to end on the historical importance of individuals in actually transforming a whole art movement. Thank you. [applause]

GENEVIEVE JACOBS: Luke, many thanks. That has been utterly fascinating, as all these lectures have been. We have room for a couple of questions. We have some microphones around the room. If you raise your hand if you would like to ask a question, but please do wait until the microphone turns up we will all be able to hear what you have to say. Would anyone like to ask a question?

First, one or two things from me. You spoke about the masterful images of Yirawala and sharing those with white people. Was that a sense of cultural responsibility? Is it the same mechanism as fathers teaching sons to paint and doing it as a sense of responsibility towards country?

LUKE TAYLOR: One of the things that has to be emphasised is that this is a core religious experience that people are communicating, so indeed it’s a responsibility to maintain that religious tradition. But in the contemporary context there is a political inflection to it. At one level it is just maintaining religion but at another level it is maintaining this religion in the context of colonial relations. I would say over time where people were less self-conscious about that issue, I think for people like Yirawala and his agitation for returning to his own land became a political issue for him. So the emphasis on the sharing and the demonstration of religious knowledge was a way of trying to get us to listen and to appreciate that core connection and to act responsibly to Aboriginal people in granting access to land and land rights.

GENEVIEVE JACOBS: Did white collectors understand that culture transaction, the full nature of what was taking place?

LUKE TAYLOR: It’s interesting to see the way artists try to draw people like arts advisors into ceremonial life to make them understand the importance of the images that they are trying to sell. Now whether that communicates beyond the arts advisor to the market in general, it’s a bit haphazard, but you can see some were more cognisant than others.

GENEVIEVE JACOBS: I was particularly interested by this notion of the land being inscribed with art and history so that people are writing and draw the landscape as they sing or as they dance it or as it appears on their bodies. It is almost as if the artists you are describing are tradesmen, that they are doing something valuable, intrinsic and ongoing in creating those images.

LUKE TAYLOR: We actually see in many contexts in our contemporary life Aboriginal people using ceremonial knowledge as a way of trying to draw the rest of us in. At something like the Olympics, those demonstrations are not just representations of those stories, they are representations of core central religious concepts for massive audiences. That, I think, is a very deliberate act to get people to come over to a different set of values, a different set of religious understanding, and to appreciate that multiple religions exist in this country and to respect them.

GENEVIEVE JACOBS: It’s interesting in a context where religious imagery has lost much of its power in Western culture that this is intense and powerful stuff, and hence my question about whether white collectors always understood the value of the cultural transaction and the power of what they are being invited into.

QUESTION: My question was similar. Luke, you indicated that all the barks were produced for a commercial purpose from a collector requesting. Do we have any barks that were produced for ceremonial purpose or do any other institutions have any?

LUKE TAYLOR: No, we don’t, but we have other things - we have sculptures. In the National Museum collection there are items which are very continuous with some of the things you have seen. People who have been to the National Gallery would have seen the 200 hollow log coffins. They are representations of things that would be used in ceremony. The designs are important on the coffin for the purpose of the ceremony to get the soul of the deceased back to their country; yet these things are also sold made for the market and sold.

We have all sorts of sculptural works in our collections that could be linked in with the bark paintings to make that ceremonial connection more explicit. But in the history of bark painting there was a point where it became disengaged from paintings in the family camp and became this sort of transportable object that could be sold. If you look at the history, I think you can see stages in how that happened, which isn’t to say the themes that are painted are not important in ceremonial context, because things like the rainbow serpent are absolutely still central in the religious life and the ceremonial life at these locales. But all those core ideas are played out in dances, in songs and in other sorts of constructions not necessarily bark painting in the context of those ceremonies.

GENEVIEVE JACOBS: It’s an interesting reflection to consider that often when religious art is produced in a Western context, we would see it as being debased by produced for sale and yet that is not necessarily what is going on here.

LUKE TAYLOR: No, not at all. It is conceptual art in a sense that the religious components produce all these different material manifestations but it has always been the case that the material manifestations were less important in the Aboriginal context, I believe. It was the ideas that you are communicating through these processes, the ideas that become alive in people’s heads and help to generate other sorts of understandings that is the central part of the religious experience, if you like.

There has been a particularly excellent accommodation between the development of the bark market and this need to communicate central religious ideas so people had already figured out cultural work that they were very happy to engage in. Now we have these discussions about real jobs and real work in some of these locales, but it was the art market that people were very happy to engage in because it had this cultural element.

QUESTION: I just wanted to clarify whether there are two schools of art during this transformation period that we have had from representing country and then looking at the X-ray technique. Are there two different schools of thought there?

LUKE TAYLOR: I have highly simplified it for the purposes of this talk. Really what you can see is that different families have quite distinct ways of putting pictures together. What I did in the talk was actually contrast two of them, because the exhibition does that to some context. You have Bardayal and Dick Nguleingulei on one side and you have Yirawala on the other side, and then you have other people trained by Yirawala. Bobby Barrdjaray and his family have a whole another way of painting.

In fact, these days you are getting PhD students who can go and look at a particular family’s work and trace very fine links between groups of people. I have a student who working with the Croker artists. Sabine Hoeng is working with Namatbara’s family and she is doing very fine-grained work to show the people that he trained and painted like him.

What’s happening is that we have a blunt art history at the beginning and in discussion with the artists we are starting to refine our understanding of Aboriginal artists’ art history - art history as they understand it in terms of the familial relationships between different artists and how that plays out in terms of the work that are produced.

GENEVIEVE JACOBS: It is just fascinating the influence of John Mawurndjul. It is as if there is figurative art and here comes Picasso, here comes Jackson Pollock, and a whole school of art is transfixed and transformed by one powerful and intense artist.

LUKE: Indeed. He is powerful and he is intense and he loves to talk about his art. I appreciate your opening remarks when you were talking about this play between individuals. He will certainly emphasise his own role but also he’ll say, ‘I have been to all those museums and I have seen Yirawala’s work and I saw him when he was painting when he was a young man. My brother and my uncle taught me.’ He will acknowledge a local art history that we know nothing about until we go and ask him, as well as his own role. He is quite happy to talk about his own very powerful engagement with the art market but also to say, ‘Listen, Yirawala did this before me.’

GENEVIEVE JACOBS: It’s fabulous: Paris - New York - Maningrida. Do we have any more questions? I wondered because you referred to Ngalyod, the rainbow serpent, as ‘she’. Is the rainbow serpent gendered?

LUKE TAYLOR: It is androgynous actually. She is mostly female but can be male in other circumstances, and in fact there are paintings which reveal it in that manner. It’s surprising.

GENEVIEVE JACOBS: Luke, it’s been wonderful to talk to you about this. This has been the most fascinating conversation about the balance between a cultural context and the power of the individual artist, and I think you have demonstrated that beautifully. Thank you very much indeed.

I would like to hand over to Jilda Andrews from community outreach here at the National Museum.

JILDA ANDREWS: Thank you, Genevieve, and thank you very much, Luke, for your wonderful presentation. It gives me a great honour and privilege to have been able to be part of bringing the lecture series to you. The lecture series for the Old Masters exhibition has been incredibly enlightening and, for those of you who have been able to attend more than one, you will see the dynamism of Arnhem Land, of the Yolnju culture, the Yolnju people and the Yolnju landscape.

I wanted to acknowledge that and thank all our speakers in this series - Luke Taylor, Howard Morphy and Wally Caruana - for giving us an insight into what is clearly a passion of theirs and they have successfully been able to translate some of that passion and share it with us. Thank you very much for bringing that passion to us, and please join me in thanking the speakers. [applause]

I would also love to acknowledge and thank the ABC 666 for being part of this wonderful series. Certainly Genevieve’s insights, thought and consideration about the material and what it represents and what it means for her has been fascinating to listen to. Thank you very much, and thank you to your team as well - Tracy and Stefan.

I would like to acknowledge you the audience and the Friends of the National Museum of Australia for wanting to come. When I think about this exhibition and I think about the generosity of the artists and what they are willing to share with us, that goes half way; the other half is meeting that. You have all been wonderful in wanting to meet that and wanting to undertake a cultural exchange between yourselves and the artists. It’s really special.

On that note I would like to do something a little bit different and that is acknowledge country. I am not doing it retrospectively across the series. I would like to remove the protocol element from the acknowledgment of country and say that I have been inspired by the exhibition to think about country and to think about my own country, certainly where my family are from and where I have lived but also where I am from - that is our country. We all share that. For those of you who are from Canberra and live here, you can really see the landscape, the magical elements to it and also the ways in which we have worked with that landscape. It has become part of us as much as we have become part of it. A wonderful gift from the Old Masters [exhibition] for me is to be able to acknowledge this land. I would like to end the lecture series on that note and thank you once again for coming. [applause]

Disclaimer and Copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.

© National Museum of Australia 2007–22. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.

Date published: 01 January 2018

Return to Top