Organized by the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection

The Dartmouth Review: Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting at Dartmouth’s Hood Museum

The Dartmouth Review

Photo by Rob Strong. Courtesy Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth.

Hanover’s very own Hood Museum of Art is hosting Madayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from September 3 until December 4. The exhibit hails from northern Australia and is the first major collection of Aboriginal Australian bark paintings to tour in North America. Sixteen tribes wished for their elders to have a painting featured, which resulted in a mixture of art that was selected and art that was commissioned specially for the series. 

Upon entering the gallery, guests are given some history about the relationship between Western civilization and Aborignal Australian bark painting. In the fall of 1932, the elders of the Djapu’ clan were disrespected by five Japanese fishermen. The actions of these fishermen resulted in their death. When the police were sent to investigate, Constable Albert McColl was also killed. The three sons of Djapu’ clan leader Woŋgu Munuŋgurr were arrested and found guilty of the murders. A fourth man, Dhäkiyarr Wirrpanda, was arrested as well but mysteriously disappeared after being acquitted at the trial. Rumors circulated that McColl’s colleagues were responsible for Wirrpanda’s disappearance. As tensions in the region were rising, anthropologist Donald Thomson formed a relationship with Woŋgu and his sons while they were still in prison. Thomson negotiated the release of the Munuŋgurr sons in exchange for Woŋgu’s promise to keep the peace in northeast Arnhem land, known to those who inhabit it as Miwatj. The first painting on display in the exhibit was one of many gifts to Donald Thomson from the Munuŋgurr family. The art is from the year 1935, but the patterns and designs featured in the painting are far older. 

The front of the exhibit shows a statement from Wukuṉ Waṉambi, one of the curators for the collection. “We have shared these paintings to give you an understanding of our world. If you are expecting to learn everything about the meaning of the many designs and how they relate to song cycles and ceremony, then you are mistaken. We cannot explain everything. Like the surface of the water, beneath is an ocean of knowledge. We can only show you the surface,” says Waṉambi. The sacred layers of meaning underneath the surface of the paintings are not ours to know.

The stories within the bark paintings are cornerstones of each tribe’s way of life and tradition. Displaying such an intimate form of cultural expression was a challenge for not only the curators, but the artists themselves. These paintings, as in the example of the Munuŋgurr family and anthropologist Donald Thomson, were often given as precious gifts. The artists viewed their work as a gift with the intention to transport their homeland to audiences in North America. 

Henry Skerritt, curator of the Indigenous Arts of Australia at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia, told Dartmouth students about the difficulties his team faced in transferring this collection to North America. In fact, Skerritt says, Australian legislation was changed to allow for the paintings to leave the continent and travel to the United States. The regulations of the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act 1986 were altered to recategorize certain Aboriginal bark paintings so they could be exported out of the country. 

Visitors to the exhibition view Djambawa Marawili’s Americalili Marrtji at the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth. Photo by Rob Strong.

Beyond legal challenges, the curators of Maḏayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting faced a unique challenge with fusing aesthetics and culture. Ultimately, the story told within the exhibit overpowered the desire for aesthetic beauty. Though there are more than 90 paintings in the exhibit, works of art were removed from the initial collection during the process of curation due to their lack of coherence with the overarching themes of the collection. Other pieces, Skerritt said, were too sacred to be on display for the masses. The goal of curation was to represent one body of kinship. Each painting is a story told with the intention of communicating a story from one generation to the next. 

Some of these works were commissioned at the moment a gap was noticed in the greater story that the curator wanted to tell. The artwork on the paintings contains the same symbols, themes, and mediums that Australian Aboriginals have employed for centuries to pass down legends to the next generation. In the entirety of the collection, only one, very blue, painting features acrylic paint. All other paints were pigments ground from ochre clay and mixed with water to display on the canvas of bark.

There are many important works throughout the exhibit, but my personal favorite was Americalili Marrtji Journey to America which depicts the Statue of Liberty. The artist, Djambawa Marawill, depicts a faraway land in the artform familiar to his native people. In giving his clan the gift of this painting, Marawill shares with them a piece of America. How grateful we are, then, to receive a fraction of the rich tradition to be found within Maḏayin.

From a Volunteer’s Vantage Point

Madayin at the Hood Museum of Art in Hanover, NH, on Wednesday, September 7, 2022. Copyright 2022 Rob Strong.

An illuminated wall of lapping sea water beckons at the entrance to MADAYIN at the Hood Museum of Art. Sounds of foamy waves overlaid with Indigenous voices singing is an irresistible invitation into a slower, richly complex world.

Just home from three days of art and culture-immersive events for the MADAYIN  opening, my thoughts return to that entry space, and a concept expressed by Yolŋu curator, Mr. Wanambi, who likened viewing bark paintings to looking at the water’s surface, knowing there are unseeable depths, yet remaining content in the liminal space.

In my 2 years as a Kluge-Ruhe guide, I’ve become accustomed to discussing this duality in Australian Indigenous art, whereby the works reveal, and simultaneously conceal. Now having “skimmed the water’s surface” of the MADAYIN project, I see this duality as metaphor for the museum volunteer experience itself. On the surface, there’s alluring beauty in the art on our Pantops mountain farmhouse walls; and behind the scenes, unbelievable dynamism and activity buzzes, boldly projecting this art and culture to a much wider audience.

In truth, bark painting wasn’t a genre that readily drew me in. MADAYIN is, within the museum’s physical walls where I operate – both too big for those walls, and somewhat invisible on a daily basis. As a volunteer, I felt challenged in how to meaningfully engage.

It took time; but I was curious. I took advantage of moments like observing conservators preparing barks for MADAYIN , and chatting with collections manager and registrar Nicole Wade about the rigors that months of touring and fluctuating humidity conditions entail. I read, engaged with online content, listened to podcasts. Slowly I came to see what this massive endeavor signifies.

When Margo asked me, in my professional capacity, to handle travel logistics for the elders and artists coming from YIrrkala for the Hood’s opening, I was honored. Then came the opportunity to attend, meet the distinguished Yolŋu, and fold into the wider museum community.

It was both a huge responsibility – to the traveling delegation – and a privilege, to be present at the culmination of this monumental 7-year achievement for the museum. The Yolŋu-led opening ceremony of song, sounds of the yidaki and bilma, and beckoning of guests up the entry-way stairs into the exhibit was powerful.

I wondered how the travel-weary Yolŋu who’d journeyed so far felt to see their works, and those of their forebears, aunties and uncles, expertly displayed – all purposely arranged according to their culture’s twin moieties and distinct clan designs, as they would encounter them back home.

DJ Marika playing his yidaki as part of the celebration of Madayin at the Hood Museum of Art in Hanover, NH. Copyright 2022 Rob Strong.

At dinner I sat with DJ Marika, the delegation’s ‘youngster’, making his first trip to the US. A performance artist and grandson of legendary Yirrkala artist and activist Wandjuk Marika, DJ was the featured yidaki player for the Hood events. His yidaki bore wide yellow, red and black bands of tape, the colors of the Aboriginal flag. The tape also served to protect the instrument from changing humidity conditions DJ knew he would encounter on the journey.

I recall that saying, “the medium is the message.”

This exquisite bark medium is truly a revered messenger. The majestic barks in MADAYIN both shimmer and sing. Their presence in the US is a generous invitation to glimpse the complex world of a small community of ancient people who, speaking through their art with power and authenticity, patiently altered the course of their continent’s history.

The Dartmouth: Maḏayin makes history at the Hood

The Dartmouth

Madayin at the Hood Museum of Art in Hanover, NH, on Wednesday, September 7, 2022. Copyright 2022 Rob Strong

On Sept. 3, the Hood Museum of Art debuted its newest exhibition: “Maḏayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala.” Organized by the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia in partnership with the Buku-Larrŋay Mulka Centre in Australia, “Maḏayin” makes history as both the first major exhibition of Aboriginal Australian bark painting in the United States and the largest display of Aboriginal Australian art in the Western Hemisphere in 30 years. 

“Maḏayin” allows the Yolŋu people to convey the stories of their culture, families and heritage. Many of these stories originated in Yirrkala, the northeast Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory. “Maḏayin” is the first exhibition for which Yolŋu people have been asked to participate in the curating and decision making processes. According to Wakun Waṉambi, artist and Yolŋu co-curator of Maḏayin, no Yolŋu have ever curated before this exhibit — it was a job for the “non-Yolŋu” who do not understand the rich history of these paintings in the same way the Yolŋu do. This partnership allows for the unique, authentic voices of Indigenous Australian people to be displayed in an American museum. 

In the opening remarks of the exhibition’s media event, Hood Museum director John Stomberg said that the exhibition has undergone a long journey. 

“[“Maḏayin”] is a project that our colleagues at the Kluge-Ruhe have been working on for seven years, but a tradition that goes back much farther,” Stomberg said. “I think one way of thinking about this exhibition, this art, these wonderful paintings, is that it is a beautiful flower, with roots that go down 80,000 years.” 

According to the information displayed on the walls throughout the exhibition, the Yolŋu have a deep culture that was confusing to follow at times. However, in curating “Maḏayin,” the Yolŋu people organized the pieces according to their kinship system, called gurruṯu. Gurruṯu is known to the Yolŋu people as raki, or string, and it is how all Yolŋu people are connected. The raki also applies to the land, sea, creatures and plants. Through this interconnectedness, the Yolŋu people have great knowledge of the land and the sea; they belong to the land and everything in their world through gurruṯu.

The Yolŋu people have another way of classifying their pieces throughout this exhibit. All Yolŋu clans belong to the Dhuwa or the Yirritja, complementary groups, or moieties. Yolŋu people must marry someone from the opposite moiety, and Yolŋu children always take their father’s moiety. Each artist on display in “Maḏayin” belongs to one of sixteen different clans; eight are Dhuwa and eight are Yirritja. 

Henry Skerritt, curator of Indigenous arts of Australia at the Kluge-Ruhe Collection, explained that this exhibition is about relationships. 

“It’s about families,” Skerritt said. “It’s about speaking across cultures, but it’s about doing it in your own words, about respecting each other’s way of seeing the world.” 

Upon entering the exhibition, viewers are greeted by a full-wall projection of the ocean waves in Australia. On the adjacent wall there is a quote by Wukun Waṉambi, a recently deceased artist and member of the exhibition’s curatorial team. 

“Like the surface of the water, beneath is an ocean of knowledge,” Waṉambi said. “We can only show you the surface.” 

This quote sets the expectation for the exhibition before viewers move upstairs to view and appreciate 80 bark paintings that explain the rich history of the Yolŋu. 

Madayin at the Hood Museum of Art in Hanover, NH, on Wednesday, September 7, 2022. Copyright 2022 Rob Strong

For decades, the Yolŋu people have painted their clan designs on themselves and other ceremonial objects. These ancestral land designs of intricate patterns are maḏayin, a term that means sacred and beautiful. With some paintings standing over 12 feet tall, the paintings are created on sheets of eucalyptus bark using natural pigments. Although the color scheme of these paintings only consists of a few natural colors, the patterns and meanings behind these paintings are vibrant, drawing viewers in to learn and understand.  

“Maḏayin” incorporates older pieces dating back to 1935 and some newly commissioned paintings created by Yolŋu Aborigial Australian artists specifically for the exhibit. As visitors move throughout the exhibit, they will also experience the use of film. Produced by Ishmael Marika, a Yolŋu filmmaker and integral person in the curation of “Maḏayin,” there are four floor-to-ceiling projections of Yolŋu ceremonial dance. The combination of new media and sacred, ancestral paintings blend beautifully. 

During the press event for “Maḏayin,” Ishmael and Djuwakan Marika, a Yolŋu father and son team, ceremonially performed a song about birds before viewers were guided through the exhibition and given an authentic history of a few specific bark paintings. 

Madayin at the Hood Museum of Art in Hanover, NH, on Wednesday, September 7, 2022. Copyright 2022 Rob Strong

“Destiny” (2019) is a piece by Wukun Waṉambi, a member of the Marrakulu clan. From far away the piece looks like dots on a large piece of eucalyptus bark. However, as the viewer moves in closer, the detail of hundreds of small fish becomes clear. Through this piece, Waṉambi tells the story of a fish called Wawurritjpal that swims through the water, wondering where his path is. Going alone at first, the fish traveled from river to river until he found his own family. Then, the fish returned to the rock and laid down his spirit with his family. 

According to Djuwakan Marika, a Yolŋu musician, dancer, artist and the grandson of the great artist Wandjuk Djuwakan Marika, “Destiny” displays more than just the story. 

“It brings the rain,” Marika said. “[The Yolŋu] typically like stories. Story comes with the songlines.” 

The designs presented by the Yolŋu people make viewers feel the Yolŋu’s rich tradition and family ties, while also providing a platform for them to educate viewers in a setting that has never heard the voices or stories of these people. 

Will Stubbs, the director of the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Arts Centre in Yirrkala, Australia summarized the power and beauty of “Maḏayin.” 

“This exhibition traces the trajectory of sharing by allowing people who will never understand the intricacies of Yolŋu culture a window into what might exist on that other side of that fence through the power of visual art,” Stubbs said. “This is ‘Maḏayin’: sacred, secret, law and maḏayin, beauty.” 

“Maḏayin” will remain at the Hood Museum of Art until Dec. 4. After Dartmouth, the exhibition will embark on a nationwide tour.