Various artists: Heart of Country: Arnhem Land Barks. ANU Drill Hall Gallery. Until June 12, 2022. dhg.anu.edu.au.
Painted barks from Arnhem Land belong to a tradition of considerable antiquity. Gunbalanya was the first mission settlement to be established and by 1878 painted barks were collected by visitors to the settlement. By 1925, this settlement was sending its painted barks to cities in the south.
Subsequent mission settlements were established on Groote Eylandt in 1921, Milingimbi Island in 1923 and Yirrkala in 1935, and all of them traded in bark paintings. By 1929, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne held the first exhibition of bark paintings to be shown outside an ethnographic museum. In 1959 Tony Tuckson and Dr Stuart Scougall, from the Art Gallery of NSW, travelled to Yirrkala in north-eastern Arnhem Land to commission major bark paintings for the Sydney gallery's collection. Collections of bark paintings were also established in other state art galleries.
Arnhem Land has an abundance of stringybark trees from which, in the right season, sheets of bark are cut, then cured, flattened and scraped to provide surfaces for painting. Traditionally this was done in natural pigments that could be sourced locally. The tradition of bark painting coincided with an ancient and ongoing tradition of rock art painting, where images were constantly "renewed" and there is frequently a close correlation between imagery found on the barks and that on the rocky outcrops.
The painted barks from Arnhem Land did not have primarily a decorative function and frequently documented an association with country and with the ancestral spirits who in their travels criss-crossed the country giving it its sacred identity. The Yirrkala Land Rights petition of 1963 was created and presented as a bark painting and was a statement of the people's identity and land ownership.
The exhibition at the Drill Hall Gallery has a number of spectacular bark paintings. Most of the exhibition comes from the private collection assembled by Donna-Marie Kelly and her partner Andrew Dyer, the so-called Dyer Family Collection. Included in this collection are some of the prominent painters from Arnhem Land - Yirawala (12 works), Bobby Barrdjaray Nganjmirra (seven works) and Wally Mandarrk (seven works). This selection is supplemented by some of the well-known pieces from the ANU Art Collection.
In the foyer of the gallery, before you enter the exhibition, is a small display of contemporary paintings by Garrwa artist Jack Green who, in a politically charged manner, illustrates the sacrosanctity of his ancestral land and, as a form of protest art, denounces the trauma of its usurpation and devastation caused by corporate Australia, especially by the mining company Glencore. Jack Green writes, "A lot of people have died because of the desecration of our sacred places. Interfering with powerful places, it pulls people down."
This is not a tightly curated or thematic exhibition, but more of a presentation of highlights of Arnhem Land bark painting as found in a couple of collections. For me, the outstanding pieces were also some of the earliest pieces in the exhibition. These included Yirawala's Body design (Sacred Mardayin Ceremony), c. 1962, Two Mimi Spirits, 1967 and Woman is born, c.1967. Also, Billy Lanyirrda's Two male Namarnde Spirits, 1966 and Male and female Namarnde, spirits of the Stone Country, 1966. There is also the sublime Mawalan Marika Marika untitled bark painting from 1958 and the quirky and powerful early David Daymirringu Malangi, Gurrmirringu, The great ancestral hunter, c.1962. All of these are in the Dyer Family Collection.
These early barks have a directness, lucidity and profound simplicity without some of the later technical sophistication. It is difficult not to be moved by them. There is apparently a catalogue to go with this exhibition, but, at the time of my visit, it was yet to surface.
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