An Epic New Exhibition Celebrating The Women Bark Painters Of Arnhem Land

Yolŋu-run art centre Buku Larrngay Mulka Centre (Buku) is located in Yirrkala, a small Aboriginal community 700 kilometres east of Darwin in Northeast Arnhem Land. Its history of bark painting is long and fascinating, in both artistic and political dimensions.

This tiny former mission town was the site of the first ever formal assertion of Indigenous native title in the form of the Yirrkala bark petitions, which were presented to the House of Representatives in 1963. The community’s act of self-determination was written on paper and glued to painted bark, bordering claims of displacement and dispossession of sacred sites with traditional marks and figures.

Bark painting in this small but rich artistic community has held new potency of late, as the traditionally men-only craft has, in the last five decades, been practised by women. Bark Ladies: Eleven Artists from Yirrkala explores and celebrates the work of eleven women artists from Buku, who depict deep knowledge of Country, culture and community on bark and hollow poles (larrakitj).

Beginning with a collection of works by sisters Nancy Gaymala, Gulumbu, Barrupu, Ms N Yunupiŋu and Eunice Djerrkŋu Yunupiŋu – Yolŋu stories of creation, cosmology and elemental conceptions of the universe envelope viewers immediately.

This entry is followed by a second gallery space containing optical illusions by Dhuwarrwarr Marika; waterlilies by Malaluba Gumana; monochromatic stars by Naminapu Maymuru-White; paintings by Noŋgirrŋa Marawili and Dhambit Munuŋgurr; and the last works by the late master painter, Ms Wirrpanda.

Dhuwarrwarr Marika’s Birth of a Nation, which was recently included as a finalist in the 2020 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards will be on display, as well as bark paintings by Eunice Djerrkŋu Yunupiŋu.

Another highlight is a large-scale floor work on the pavers of Federation Court, Naminapu Maymuru-White depicts Milŋiyawuy (the Milky Way or the River Stars) alongside a multimedia cinema on the mezzanine where the artist recounts the story behind the work.

This vast, varied and nuanced exhibition was curated by Myles Russell-Cook, who expanded on the artists, their craft and the narratives underpinning their work below.

When did you first conceptualise this exhibition and how long did it take to curate?

I first conceptualised the idea for the exhibition in 2018, and have been working on the show, the book, and building the collection with this in mind, for the past three years.

How does the show fuse contemporary and traditional techniques?

Indigenous art is contemporary art. The artist all work in different ways, with a variety of media and techniques to translate cultural stories into contemporary paintings. It is not so much about fusing contemporary and traditional techniques as it is about the continuation of ancient cultural practices, in this case by women who are known for their daring and experimental painting style.

Can you expand a little more on the history of Yolŋu women artists and bark painting? Why were elements of bark painting not practised by these women until relatively recently?

For a long time, bark painting was men’s business, and it was not until relatively recently that women were given permission to paint in their own right. Coming relatively late to the medium meant that women were less encumbered by traditional visual styles, which meant they were more free to experiment. Not to take anything away from the men of course, who are also extraordinary and experimental in their own paintings as well.

Tell us about the merch collaboration with the Social Studio!

The NGV design store has collaborated with artists from Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Arts Centre, Yirrkala to produce a clothing and accessories range for the upcoming Bark Ladies: Eleven Artists from Yirrkala exhibition, available instore and online from 17th of December. The collection will bring artworks from the exhibition to life with a range of ethically made apparel produced with not-for-profit, Melbourne-based social enterprise The Social Studio. The range will include a shirt, shorts, scarves, hat, bag and even a plush toy.

Why is it important for people to see this exhibition?

This is an opportunity to see the best collection of bark paintings by women from Yirrkala in the world. These are works that hold up in an international context. It is also an extraordinary opportunity to learn first person about an artistic culture that is amazingly rich, and is at once both utterly contemporary and profoundly old.

Bark Ladies: Eleven Artists from Yirrkala
December 17th 2021 – April 25th 2022
Open daily 10am – 5pm 

NGV International
180 St Kilda Rd, Melbourne

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