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From the external ultra-modern assertive geometry and scale, I moved into the National Museum of Australia, and the quietness and detail of bark paintings by “old masters”. For most of the two hours I spent in the galleries I was alone, so I could stand and look without interruption, a rare treat in front of such masterpieces.

All the paintings in the exhibition were made between 1948 and 1988, representing landscape, skyscape, rituals and animals of Arnhem Land. Their creators were not only supreme artists with a stunning mastery of colour, design, composition and fine detail. They were also ceremonial leaders of their clans and the stories their paintings tell are a complex of history and ritual. I could see the building of bark huts; and patterns of flying foxes or stingrays, axe heads or possums and sugar gliders. I could notice the fine white lines like stitching that gave the paintings the appearance of fabric or the thick white almost enamelled dots. But my appreciation was of the surface.

The names of these Old Masters are unfamiliar: Yirawala, David Malangi, Narritjin Maymuru, Peter Marralwanga, Valerie Munininy (the only woman), Birrikitji Gumana, Mithinarri Gurruwiwi, Mawalan Marika – forty of them. Even to call them “old masters” diminishes them by placing them in a eurocentric world, intruding our non-Aboriginal perspective.
I paused halfway through my homage to watch three videos of the artists at work: a group of young men learning how to cut and prepare the bark; an older artist teaching how to use the fine brush of a few human hairs to do the delicate white cross-hatching; and a master artist at work.
I ended my pilgrimage watching a slide show of the Arnhem Land landscape: rugged escarpment, swamp and beach. A glass case displayed the simple tools used by these consummate artists: a tin of rough ochres waiting to be crushed, a stick brush. A note mentioned that until the 1960s artists used egg as fixative, as did the painters of medieval manuscripts, but they also used juice from a native orchid (the bracket orchid according to one reference, but it doesn’t appear in my orchid bible, David Jones' Native orchids of Australia.)
 
 

Birrikitji Gumana - Stingray dance

Yirawala - Birth of a Mimih (c 1970)

 
 
 

Bardayal Nadjamerrek - Possums and sugar gliders feeding

Mungurraway Yunupingu - The great brushfire dreaming of the Gumatj People

George Milpurrurra - Stringy-bark houses

George Milpurrurra - Flying fox dance

 

John Bulunbulun - Creatures of the Arafura swamp

 

Mithinarri Gurruwiwi - Stone axe heads (1965)

Valerie Munininy - Djang'Kawu Sisters at Gariyak

Mawalan Marika - Sydney from the air (1963)

 

I asked for permission to use these images saved from the NMA website. Permission was given in the following words: “We actually licence our use of the images of the barks for all our uses including website, which also means low resolution versions are available for download. This enables people to use the images for ‘personal’ and ‘research’ purposes. I consider your proposed use is of a ‘personal’ nature.”

Many more images from the exhibition, and videos of the artists at work, can be found at

nma.gov.au/oldmasters

As I looked through this site to find images to share, I realised how many paintings I'd failed to see. I need to visit again.

 

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