Organized by the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection

The Washington Post: Australian Aboriginal Art that transports you to another world

The Washington Post

Maḏayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala, American University Museum, Washington, D.C. Photo by Tom Cogill.

Populated by sharks, snakes and kangaroos, but mostly by densely arrayed lines and shapes, the pictures in Madayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting From Yirrkala represent the universe. The enigmatic designs in the American University Museum show conjure a vastness that contrasts with the smallness of the area in which the artworks were made: the eastern side of Arnhem Land, a craggy peninsula that juts from Australia’s northern coast.

Indigenous Australian art, in the form of carved or painted rock, is known to be at least 40,000 years old. But Yirrkala’s madayin miny’tji – designs deemed both beautiful and holy – were revealed to the wider world less than a century ago. After several 1930s incidents in which outsiders were killed, Australian anthropologist Donald Thomson traveled to the area to seek reconciliation. He earned the trust of an elder of the Yolngu clans, Wonggu Mununggurr, who made a painting of sacred designs and gave it to Thomson.

That 1935 picture is included in this traveling show, which was organized by the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia and the Indigenous-owned Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Center in Australia. The painting is characteristic of the Yolngu style. Their pictures are densely patterned with natural pigments in black, white, and shades of tan and brown, and rendered with a human-hair brush on the inside of a sheet of eucalyptus bark.

Maḏayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala, American University Museum, Washington, D.C. Photo by Tom Cogill.

Most of the nearly 90 pictures are recent, and a few demonstrate the influence of modern technology or global travel. Dhambit Mununggurr’s Ocean employs synthetic blue paint to depict the sea and its creatures, notably octopuses. The Statue of Liberty appears at the top of Journey to America by Djambawa Marawili, one of the show’s curators.

More typical, though, are pictures that simultaneously depict and embody the north Australian landscape. Since their canvases are stripped from tree trunks, the formats are always vertical and sometimes towering. Imperfections in the bark are preserved and incorporated into the compositions. The pigment colors are both symbolically and literally earthy.

Less traditional but no less engrossing are two near-monochromatic paintings, both titled The Milky Way, by Naminapu Maymuru-White. They depict stars as well as a particular river in Arnhem Land, or perhaps stars reflected in that river. The diamond-shaped celestial lights twinkling within gray ribbons also exemplify life and death, since Yolngu lore says that terrestrial creatures are transformed into ethereal entities.

Maḏayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala, American University Museum, Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy American University Museum.

The exhibition includes several videos that document ceremonial dances and song cycles, and illustrate the significance of the sea to the Yolngu, which is one aspect of the people that distinguishes them from other Australian Indigenous groups.

The anthropological aspects of Maḏayin are interesting and useful, if perhaps not essential. Yolngu cosmology is a lot harder to grasp than the visual power of the clans’ art. To ponder these intricate paintings is to be transported to another land, even if it’s one that can’t fully be understood.

MAḎAYIN and Australia’s New Cultural Policy

On January 30, 2023, the Commonwealth Government of Australia released its new National Cultural Policy. It has been 10 years since the previous National Cultural Policy was released, so it is big news! Particularly noteworthy is the degree to with First Nations art is front and center of the Government’s policy. So, it was a huge honor to find special mention of MAḎAYIN in the new policy document under the heading: Engaging international audiences and building export markets:

Australia’s cultural and creative sector helps to explain who we are and what we value and stand for, in all our variety and complexity, as a nation. It is often through our art and media that we ask the important questions of ourselves. Australia’s self‑expression internationally has grown in confidence over time and there is an opportunity to engage international audiences even more.

CASE STUDY: Showcasing First Nations Cultures to the World

Maḏayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting (or Waltjaṉ ga Waltjaṉbuy Yolŋuwu Miny’tji Yirrkalawuy, which translates literally as ‘many monsoonal rains of Yolŋu bark painting from Yirrkala’) chronicles the rise of a globally significant art movement from the perspective of the Yolŋu people. The exhibition was created through a unique six-year collaboration between the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia and First Nations knowledge holders from the Buku Larrŋgay Mulka Centre in Yirrkala, Northeast Arnhem Land. Partly funded by the Australian Government, the exhibition is touring the United States from 2022 to 2024.

For millennia, the Yolŋu people have painted sacred clan designs on their bodies and ceremonial objects. Yolŋu people describe these works as maḏayin: both sacred and beautiful. With the arrival of Europeans, the medium of painting on eucalyptus bark became an important medium to express the power and beauty of their culture. With ninety works spanning eight decades, this exhibition provides a rare opportunity for audiences in the US to experience one of the world’s oldest and richest artistic traditions.

Maḏayin began in October 2015 when leader Djambawa Marawili AM visited the Kluge-Ruhe as a resident artist and was surprised to find works of his uncles, father and grandparents, as well as his own pieces held in collections: ‘It’s really important to show those old paintings and to recognise that we Yolŋu have enduring patterns that connect us to our Country. I’m really proud to make the connection to America. The art went first – all those old paintings in the gallery. What follows is reconciliation – and passing the knowledge to America through our art. Because art is really important to us. It represents our soul and our mind.’

The exhibition features works from the Kluge-Ruhe collection as well as the University of Melbourne, the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. In addition, thirty-three new works were specially commissioned. The works are accompanied by an extensive media component, including archival recordings, video and photographs.

Cultural tourism, education and Australia’s migrant and multicultural diaspora communities are also effective foundations for building understanding and strengthening networks with overseas communities and shaping global perceptions of Australia. Cultural tourism is increasingly important for Australia’s regions and First Nations communities. Celebrating and preserving First Nations cultures presents opportunities for higher value-added tourism, skills development and job creation. Between 2013 and 2017 there was a forty-one per cent increase in international tourists engaging with First Nations arts and culture (Australia Council for the Arts 2018). Greater synergies between the visitor economy and the arts and cultural sector will drive exports, grow and diversify our tourism offering, and increase international and domestic visitation.

Cultural diplomacy can lead to increased access to international markets and growth in Australia’s cultural exports, including through exhibiting, touring, participation in international fora, and cultural exchange opportunities, particularly for First Nations peoples. In the context of post‑pandemic recovery, there is a need for the sector to adapt to remain competitive.

Follow the link to find out more about the National Cultural Policy.