Organized by the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection

UVA Arts Magazine: Maḏayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala

First published in UVA Arts Magazine, May 16, 2024.

Ceremonial performance by the Yolgnu delegation: Gunybi Ganambarr, Barayuwa Munuŋgurr, Ishmael Marika, Wurrandan Marawili, Mayatili Marika, Dhukumul Waṉambi, accompanied by Joshua Thaiday, Lavinia Ketchell and Solomon Booth from the Torres Strait Islands. Photo: Coe Sweet.

Lots of great ideas are hatched around an open fire. Ask Henry Skerritt. At The Fralin Museum of Art, he might tell you about one that was hatched at the former Three Notch’d Brewery, now the site of Charlottesville’s City Market, that helped open a cross-cultural portal in the art world and changed lives in the process – starting with his.

Skerritt, then a PhD candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, came to Charlottesville to spend time with Aboriginal Australian artist Dr. Djambawa Marawili AM, who was undertaking an artist residency at Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection sponsored by Australia Council for the Arts.

“When Djambawa saw the bark paintings at Kluge-Ruhe, he was quite taken aback,” Skerritt said. “The way he put it was that a fire came into his belly seeing them.” He recalled Djambawa’s baritone voice sagely delivering marching orders that night that would send them on a remarkable eight-year shared journey, bringing together artistic leaders from Aboriginal homelands across the globe with curators at some of America’s leading museums and opening the eyes and minds of arts lovers to a growing and powerful movement and moment.

“What you need to do,” Djambawa told Skerritt and Australian curator Kade McDonald, “is go and organize this touring exhibition that tells the whole story of Yolŋu bark painting.”

Maḏayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala at The Fralin Museum of Art. Photo: Stacey Evans.

That meeting marked the beginning of Maḏayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala, the most significant exhibition of bark painting ever to tour the United States. Maḏayin is the result of years of collaboration between Kluge-Ruhe and Indigenous knowledge holders from Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre in northern Australia.

Now at The Fralin, after widely acclaimed stops at Dartmouth’s Hood Museum of Art and American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, Maḏayin encompasses more than eight decades of work representing one of Australia’s most significant contributions to the global art world. The bark paintings, drawn from Kluge-Ruhe’s celebrated collection and museums and private collections in the U.S. and Australia, are an outgrowth of a long-held tradition of the Yolŋu people in northern Australia of painting sacred clan designs on their bodies and ceremonial objects. With the arrival of the Europeans in the 20th century, Yolŋu turned to readily available eucalyptus bark and launched a creative explosion that transformed ancient designs into compelling and contemporary art.

Maḏayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala being launched at The Fralin Museum of Art. Photo: Coe Sweet.

The title, suggested by one of the artists represented in the exhibition, was originally a placeholder. Maḏayin, meaning sacred and beautiful, is a very important term. Some worried it would be inappropriate as an exhibition title. As the process went on, the exhibition grew into the term. It would include magnificent paintings telling historical and genealogical stories for the Yolŋu. Did it meet the serious bar the term sets?

The more the debate went on, the more it became clear that the authority and gravitas the project was gaining every step of the way seemed to fit the word, which in turn put a level of expectation that served as a sort of guiding star to all involved.

Skerritt knew that if this story were to be told, it would need to be told by Djambawa and other representatives of the artistic and cultural communities from where it came. They engaged with Wukuṉ Waṉambi, who, along with Djambawa, would become the project’s heart and soul, weaving common threads among intermarrying clans of artists. It was their story to tell.

By the time of his second or third visit to Yirrkala, watching as Djambawa and Wukun engaged in an animated planning session, Skerritt realized Kluge-Ruhe’s role in all this had become simple: Just say yes. Yes to everything, including a request for a bilingual exhibition catalog featuring a language spoken by around 6,000 people. “We basically created a cottage industry of translators to distribute a book in a language no one in the United States reads. But it was the right thing to do.”

Reality soon intervened. COVID slowed the project’s wheels as it slowed the world. Yet, at the same time, the Black Lives Matter movement, the global protests around George Floyd’s death, and the greater visibility of Indigenous groups made the exhibition’s theme of connectivity more important than ever.

Maḏayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala at The Fralin Museum of Art. Photo: Stacey Evans.

“This is a story that dates to the 1930s about a group of people who, every time they have had their backs against the wall and faced the prospect of annihilation and dispossession, have responded by putting an immense amount of beauty into the world,” Skerritt said. “They have the power of their ancestral connections and ancestral narratives, and they share them as a kind of gesture of goodwill to bring people together and to accentuate what brings us together as opposed to what divides us. It’s a particularly powerful message in today’s world.”

Committing to tell this whole story was one thing. Deciding how to do it was a different story. The story was social. It was political. It was cultural. And most importantly for these artists, it was intensely personal.

That is why it was so critical to Wukuṉ that he represents the effort, from the earliest days of meeting with artists in Yirrkala to working with museum curators, to make sure it would be told correctly and in the right spirit. He worked with Kluge-Ruhe’s education staff to develop the school education materials, edited the catalogue, wrote the labels, and picked the wall colors.

He did it all, Skerritt said, while carrying a heavy physical burden of pain amid failing health, spending weeks in the hospital during one visit to Charlottesville. Wukuṉ would not live to see the results of his passionate labor, passing away not long before the exhibit’s debut at Dartmouth. His last message to Skerritt was an approval for the catalog’s cover, which would feature his artwork.

Dhukumul Waṉambi, Joshua Thaiday, Mayatili Marika, Barayuwa Munuŋgurr, Gunybi Ganambarr, Solomon Booth, Wurrandan Marawili, Ishmael Marika and Lavinia Ketchell backstage at The Fralin Museum of Art. Photo: Coe Sweet.

Before it opened to the public, there was one more debate around cultural norms to be had. In preparing for the Dartmouth opening, the Hood’s curator, Jami Powell, had decided to include in the artists’ gift bag a t-shirt they had made that featured the cover artwork. Skerritt had sent one to his ailing friend, who wore it every day in his last months. The issue was that in Aboriginal cultures, sharing such work by a recently deceased artist is not accepted. A brief panic was stopped for good by Djambawa, who inspected the shirt and said, “This is great. We are honoring this man, and we will wear them to the opening celebration!”

The decision, Skerritt said, was evidence of how the strictness of cultural laws and traditions can be superseded by the compassion inherent in this art and in this man whose commitment to crossing cultures is now being appreciated so many miles away.

The Daily Progress: Generations of family stories and songs inform Aboriginal art at The Fralin

Originally published in The Daily Progress February 3, 2024.

Madayin exhibition opening, The Fralin Museum of Art, February 1, 2024. Photo by Tom Cogill.

A new exhibit opening this weekend begins by sweeping viewers back in time.

“Madayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala,” which opens Saturday at the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia, premiered at the Hood Museum of Art in Dartmouth in September 2022 before heading out on a national tour that led it back to its Charlottesville connections.

The idea for bringing the paintings together and sharing them with the world came to Yolŋu artist and leader Djambara Marawili in 2015 during his residency at Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection at UVa. But the origins of the artworks, and the generations of creation stories and family bonds that give them life, go back far deeper into history.

When asked Thursday how long it takes to complete one of the intricate paintings on painstakingly prepared and cured eucalyptus bark, Henry Skerritt, Kluge-Ruhe curator and assistant professor of art history at UVa, responded, “About 65,000 years.”

Madayin exhibition opening, The Fralin Museum of Art, February 1, 2024. Photo by Tom Cogill.

A six-member delegation of Yolŋu artists and curators who attended a media preview Thursday at the Fralin explained how the paintings on display reflect not merely aesthetic principles, but also a rich oral history handed down from parent to child and grandparent to grandchild.

“It’s art to an outside eye, but to us, it is text,” said Mayatili Marika, who will present the W. Wanambi Distinguished Lecture at 4 p.m. Saturday in the Dome Room of the Rotunda. “It’s multifaceted and multidimensional.”

Even her talk will make connections, tying in “Madayin” with another exhibit, “Waŋupini: Clouds of Remembrance and Return,” which will remain in the Upper West Oval Room at the Rotunda through July 8.

Madayin exhibition opening, The Fralin Museum of Art, February 1, 2024. Photo by Tom Cogill.

In the Yolŋu culture, storytelling is an important way to convey intricacies of family history and the behavior of natural world. What can sound like a tangent to someone outside the culture can offer vital information about connections among family and community members to someone who cherishes the stories.

“We talk in spirals. To get from Point A to Point B is not linear,” Marika said. “Each and every thing that exists — everything on the seas, the land — fits into a finite space in the cosmos. Just as the tides go in and out, so do guests, and knowledge.”

A video of crashing ocean waves, accompanied by traditional singing paired with didgeridoo and percussion, spans a wall to greet visitors climbing the stairs to see “Madayin” at the Fralin. It extends a welcome to visitors as they enter the realm of the paintings and their stories of connection.

Dhukumul Wanambi, 20, took time to explain the background of “Destiny,” a bark painting by her father, Wukun Wanambi. A small mullet-like fish swims through rivers, creeks and oceans in search of his destiny, which he discovers while he is surrounded by his family.

Madayin exhibition opening, The Fralin Museum of Art, February 1, 2024. Photo by Tom Cogill.

Other paintings document the traditional motifs that would have been painted on a human body during ceremonies. “The shimmering power of it is the ancestors still occupy your mind,” Skerritt said. “You’re only seeing the surface.”

Attention shown to the artworks serves different purposes in different cultural environments. Westerners often are far more impressed by prestigious international accolades the artists have won for their paintings, while the artists themselves are more gratified to see how modern technology and wider exposure can bring the stories they treasure to wider audiences and new generations, Skerritt said.

Marika’s lecture is one of a dozen events connected to the exhibition. The artists led a tour of “Madayin” on Friday afternoon, followed by a First Fridays reception.

Madayin exhibition opening, The Fralin Museum of Art, February 1, 2024. Photo by Tom Cogill.

Other local galleries have opened complementary exhibitions, including Second Street Gallery’s “First Nation Australia: Contemporary Artists from the Buku-Larrngay Mulka Centre, Yirrkala,” which can be seen through March 22, and “Ukapalamin: Eti Ko Eti: Resilience: Stories from the Torres Strait,” on view through April 22.

Already on view at the Fralin is “Voices of Connection: Garamut Slit Drums of New Guinea,” which features handmade drums capable of communicating over long distances to connect people in remote areas who otherwise could be hard to reach.

“Madayin” is organized by Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection at UVa in partnership with the Buku-Larrngay Mulka Center in Australia and curated by Djambara Marawili, W. Wanambi, Yinimala Gumana, Waka Munungurr, Henry Skerritt and Kate McDonald.

“Madayin” can be seen at the Fralin through July 14 before moving to the Asia Society in New York, where it will open in September.