Maḏayin, a monumental survey of Aboriginal Australian bark painting at the American University Museum in Washington, D.C., opens with the image of a shark, anchored in a sea of black and rust-red brushwork, speared. Next, a crocodile shoots fire across an ocean, wire-thin strokes of white giving way to pools of russet and amber.
The show, its name translating to “sacred” and “beautiful,” comprises more than 80 paintings: most elongated, some figurative, and all deceptively simple. What appears at a distance as a dense field of color is up close a latticework of delicately handled pigment, each stroke intentional.
“We want you to come to the grassroots level, to sit in the sand and let us show you a different way of coming to the paintings,” Wukun Wanambi, one of the show’s curators, writes in the exhibition catalog, insisting on a kind of looking as expansive as the pictures themselves. These works on bark, all from Yirrkala in northern Australia, are layered with meaning, gesturing to—or, precisely, embodying—ancestral beings.
To the Yolŋu, or Indigenous people living in the northeast Arnhem Land region (the word “Yolŋu” translates to “people”), these works are far from folktales; they are alive, thunderously, in the here and now.
In Maḏayin, walls of indigo and white are arrayed with variegated, column-like barks: Intricacy is vividly on display. The curators, some of whom are Indigenous artists themselves, let the Yolŋu speak. The show’s bilingual catalog—a series of artist essays presented first in the painters’ native languages, then in English—foregrounds the artists, who are also authors in their own right. Here are people worth knowing, the show proclaims, here is a story worth telling.
The story begins, in Maḏayin, when five Japanese fishermen were killed, in 1932, at Caledon Bay in northern Australia. Three Yolŋu men, sons of the clan leader Woŋgu Munuŋgurr, were sentenced to prison for the murders. Australian anthropologist Donald Thompson was sent to the community on a peace mission, later organizing for the release of Woŋgu’s sons. In thanks, the clan leader painted for Thompson, in 1935, a lively work on bark—the earliest in the show—peopled with lizards, tortoises, and other abstracted designs, silhouetted against a wash of black pigment.
While bark painting in Australia has a long history—there are nineteenth-century accounts of paintings on the walls of bark huts—Woŋgu’s 1935 picture signaled the beginning of the practice in Yirrkala. Preserved under glass in the exhibition, the only work so presented, Woŋgu’s painting is sacred, jewel-like—a superbly rendered claim on the land.
“Every time [the Yolŋu] have their backs against the wall, they have responded by producing art, by producing masterpieces,” notes Henry Skerritt, curator at the University of Virginia’s Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, which co-organized the show with the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre in Yirrkala. “They have responded to aggression with this beautiful gift of art, and, in the long run, the Yolŋu have prevailed.”
The paintings are more than art. To the Yolŋu, they are a way of keeping ancestral beings alive, of “singing life,” as artist Djambawa Marawili puts it. The poet Mona Tur, writing about Ayers Rock in central Australia, captures something of their pathos: “My heart bleeds, our beloved rock . . . / As evening comes, . . . your haunting beauty / Mirrors beauty beyond compare.”
Midway through the show is a work of electric blues. A departure from the exhibition’s sand-tinged palette, the bark reverberates with a life all its own. Following a car accident, artist Dhambit Munuŋgurr was unable to grind the traditional ochres normally applied as bark pigments and turned instead to acrylics. The effect is arresting. At the azure-blue picture’s center is the sacred rock Dhambit, from which the artist takes her name. Meanwhile, the ground is overlaid with cobalt-blue, Basquiatesque, octopuses. Nothing is still in this bark. Passages of navy and black cut across the visual field like glass shattering.
These bark paintings, Skerritt says, represent “one of the modern and contemporary art movements of our time.”
Indeed, when the National Gallery of Victoria, in 1995, staged a show of Indigenous bark paintings, the director chose to hang Pablo Picasso’s Weeping Woman opposite the exhibition entrance, a nod to the barks’ modernism and their growing popularity.
But this popularity is relatively new. In the preface to a 1965 catalog of Australian Aboriginal bark paintings, the work is described as the “art of primitive people,” adding that the barks are “at first sight simple and ever childlike.”
The Milky Way (2019) is a powerful rejoinder to this. Hanging in the show’s second, half-lit, room, the bark is layered with thick bands of bespeckled black and white pigment. Intercut with four-point stars that seem to emerge and recede, it is suspended, aglow. For artist Naminapu Maymuru-White, the work speaks to two qualities of the Yolŋu aesthetic: shimmering brilliance, or bir’yun, and faintness, or buwayak, the latter harking back to the soul’s transition to the spiritual realm. The work feels hushed, careful not to give itself away. As anthropologist Howard Morphy puts it, the bark exudes “the felt presence of a transcendent spirit seen ‘through a glass darkly,’” referring to Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, wherein truth, in this life, is known only obliquely.
Most of the catalog essays open with a kind of disclaimer: “I can only talk of the surface part of the story,” says artist Noŋgirrŋa Marawili. Her work, of orbs oscillating on fields of dust-pink and brown, contains secret or esoteric meanings. For the Yolŋu, each painting tells multiple stories: some restricted and some public. What is restricted, and known only to initiated men, runs parallel to what is public. As Morphy insists, the Yolŋu’s theory of knowledge is cumulative: “The layering is as important as the secrecy.”
Layers abound in Waŋupini (Clouds), a bark piled high with rippling black flourishes. A signal of monsoon rains to come, the billowing clouds float on a cobweb-like bed of razor-thin brushstrokes. The joy is in following the lines, losing oneself at every turn.
A fluidity of perspective permeates Maḏayin. Forms are elusive, patterns break free of their mold: Everything is tenuous. At first glance Retja I (Rainforest I) is a subtle play of blossoms. Up close, its sumptuous, cranberry-red berries spiral, as if rustling in the wind. In the catalog, Waṉambi writes, “When we see the flowers blossoming, we sing,” each bud a reminder of the ancestors who will “bloom again.”
In Bonba, an energetic field of russet-red and burnt-orange stripes is interrupted by a flurry of white feather-like forms. The figures, we learn, are by turns humans, butterflies, and kites, their very being flitting back and forth. “Their physical identity is unstable,” anthropologist Frances Morphy writes in the catalog. “They move easily between two states of being.” Here, as elsewhere, the world is in flux.
Traversing the show are stories of the ancestors. Known as songlines, these stories are traditionally sung in ceremonies and are recorded in the catalog and the show’s wall text in a kind of prose-poetry. One songline, reproduced in the exhibition book, recalls lost souls: “The wind comes singing for the dead / Hear its song as it chases over the rocks.” Each line transcends what is, thrilling to what has been and will be. “These songlines,” artist Wanyubi Marika remarks, “take you to another world, different from the physical world.”
By singing these prose-poems, by painting them, the center can hold. These stories, Marika stresses, exist within his very being, never to be lost: “Stand in both worlds if you want. But make sure you hold this one first: your roots and your foundation.”
Among the most absorbing works in the show is Dhatam | Waterlily (Nymphaea sp.), a picture of interlocking lace-like spheres softly veiling the deep, receding space. The painting, alive with a silvery tonality, feels impermanent: In a second, it might be gone. Dreamlike, the densely packed water lilies seem to take flight, one after another, then all at once.
The speared shark that opens Maḏayin, we learn in the adjacent wall text, calls out in anguish: “My flesh is broken with weariness / Where is my home?” For a moment, he is lost to us, a mere shadow among forms. But, in the upper half of the bark, we can make out the subtle strokes of his fins, set against the motley pattern of the ground. He has found his way, pronouncing by the text’s end, “Here I am.”
Angelica Aboulhosn is an associate editor for HUMANITIES magazine.
A collection of bark paintings on display at the American University Museum this winter honors Aboriginal Australian people’s connection to their land and promotes the genre’s prominence in the contemporary art scene.
“Maḏayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala” stages paintings created in the Northern Peninsula of Australia by the Yolŋu people. Achieving meticulous detail with fine brushes of human hair, the artists applied ochres and other natural pigments to create scenes on strips of eucalyptus bark, said Director of the AU Museum Jack Rasmussen.
The depth found in the artwork is not immediately evident to the uninformed viewer, said Dhukaḻ Wirrpanda, an artist featured on the Maḏayin exhibit website. When non-Aboriginal people view bark paintings, sometimes they see “only pretty pictures, nice patterns and all that,” he said. Within these pictures of sea and land creatures, weather events and ceremonies exists a series of narratives of ancestral beings that illustrate the Yolŋu people’s connection to their land.
Depictions of unity with the land are more than a cultural display. For decades, bark paintings have been used as legal evidence in court cases for Aboriginal land rights.
In response to a federal plan to build a mine on an Aboriginal reserve in 1963, Yolŋu people created the Yirrkala Bark Petition. These bark paintings became the first documents prepared by Aboriginal Australians to be formally recognized by Parliament, according to the Maḏayin exhibit website.
The use of bark paintings in the fight for land rights continued into the early 2000s, said Lauren Maupin, the manager of education and programs at the University of Virginia’s Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, the organizing institution of the Maḏayin exhibition.
Yolŋu leader and artist Djambawa Marawili, whose work is featured in the Maḏayin exhibition, collaboratively presented a claim for ownership of the intertidal zones so Yolŋu could control who could access those waters and whether they needed permission from traditional owners, Maupin said. Bark paintings were made as supportive evidence for this High Court sea rights case, which was successful in 2008.
Because Maḏayin is composed entirely of art produced within the past 85 years, Rasmussen said the exhibit is an opportunity to view bark paintings as modern art.
“These are all contemporary artists,” said Rasmussen. “They’re living now. They’re choosing to work within this tradition.”
Maḏayin is the first exhibit of Aboriginal Australian bark paintings to tour internationally, and Yolŋu artists participated in the decision-making processes associated with the exhibit, according to an American University news release.
After a history marked by the removal of Aboriginal people from their lands, Rasmussen calls Maḏayin a form of reparations.
Australia is “acknowledging the great importance and beauty of the work,” he said. “Now it becomes a really great symbol of Australia itself.”
The Yolŋu artists involved in developing Maḏayin preferred that their work be displayed in a location that had previously shown Aboriginal art. After hosting the “Australian Indigenous Art Triennial: Culture Warriors” exhibition in 2009, the AU Museum met this qualification.
Maḏayin’s relevance to American University, which is home to the School of International Service, promotes diversity in its strategic plan and has a politically involved student body, also motivated Ramussen’s team to host the exhibit.
The AU Museum is Maḏayin’s second stop on its tour after a premier at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College. The bark paintings are “living things,” Rasmussen said, so the challenge in transportation is preserving their flexibility while preventing cracks in the art. Individual crates housed each piece during the move, and the art must be kept in temperature and humidity controlled conditions, he said.
Yolŋu artists and curators of Maḏayin will visit the AU Museum on March 31 for panel discussions and cultural ceremonies open to the community. The exhibit will be on display at the AU Museum until May 14.
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.
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.
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.
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.
| Ishmael Marika in conversation with Henry Skerritt and Kade McDonald
In September 2022, Ishmael Marika traveled to the United States as part of a delegation of Yolŋu artists to attend the opening celebration for the exhibition Madayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College. Marika played a central role in the exhibition, as both a member of the curatorial team and by creating two major new video installations with Yirrkala’s multimedia unit The Mulka Project. The following conversation between Marika, Henry Skerritt and Kade McDonald was recorded via zoom following the delegation’s return to Yirrkala.
Henry Skerritt (HS): Maḏayin was seven years in the making: after such a long process of development, what was it like seeing to finally see exhibition?
Ishmael Marika (IM): I think the exhibition is great. I was really happy to see all the paintings together. It made me proud to see my grandmother [Ms. M. Wirrpanda’s] paintings and my father [Wanyubi Marika’s] painting and all the others. Seeing all those works, by the old people –they went before me– and seeing my video pieces there alongside them, it was like talking to the ancestors or talking to the spirits.
And I enjoyed talking to people in America and telling them about the Yolŋu people—that we still speak our own languages; that we have our own songlines; and that we do paintings to represent sea Country and inland Country and all that stuff. It was an opportunity to tell them that the painted designs do not exist by themselves – they are a map of the Country and the boundaries – telling you whose songlines and language groups each painting belongs to. The old people documented that in those barks – in the early days – and that practice continues through to today. People don’t know these stories! We don’t document them in a book, we document them on bark. We have been given these stories through the songlines, and we share them through the songlines and through bark painting. We show how the songlines move through the Country, and how we see the reality of the songlines, as they travel from each area, connecting all the places.
Kade McDonald (KM): Your videos are a really powerful component of the exhibition. Can you tell us a little about the ideas behind them? Barrkuŋu Ganydjarr | Strength from Afar (2022) is a four-channel video that is staggered throughout the exhibition. It features a single dancer [Gatjarrarra Marika] who moves between the four screens performing different ceremonial dances. What was the inspiration for this piece?
IM: In 2018, I went to the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection at the University of Virginia with and Mr. Waṉambi. We went to look at the paintings from the early days, from the 1950s and 60s, that were done by the old people. Mr. Waṉambi really wanted to have video in the exhibition, to bring the art to life. There are a lot of paintings in the exhibition, but people don’t know the meaning or background to these artworks. They might see it and think it is good art, but then they must go to the catalogue to find the full story. So, Mr. Waṉambi said, “OK, we need to work with video to explain about our clans, to show, this is the Dhaḻwaŋu clan’s paintings; this is their buŋgul (dance); this is their manikay (ceremonial song); and they all go together. We wanted to show that these things are all linked; that the art, the dance, and the songlines are all connected.
On our way to Virginia, we stopped in Los Angeles. Mr. Waṉambi and I saw a video installation [by the Icelandic artist Ragner Kjartansson]. It had multiple screens with different people playing drums and guitars and other instruments. Mr. Waṉambi said, “I want a video like that, but done our way.” He said, “I’m going to make a video for the Maḏayin exhibition and it’s going to have the buŋgul and manikay for the clans representing the paintings. So, each of the four screens represents a different clan, and it goes around in a cycle. And the dancers will wear the colors representing their clan members. So, for instance, in the Dhaḻwaŋu video, the dancer is wearing red.
Here in northeast Arnhem land everyone is either Yirritja or Dhuwa. Every place is either Yirritja or Dhuwa, as are the plants, the animals and the waters. In the video, there is a Yirritja half, represented by the Maḏarrpa and Dhaḻwaŋu clans, and a Dhuwa half, represented by the Ḏäṯiwuy and Djapu’ clans. The cycle goes from Ḏäṯiwuy to Dhaḻwaŋu to Djapu’ to Maḏarrpa, jumping between each clan, going round in a circle, to represent Yirritja and Dhuwa.
During that trip in 2018, Mr. Waṉambi got sick, and ended up in hospital, but we kept working and planning for the exhibition. I was glad I could be there to help him out. He was sick, which is why I stepped in.
HS: Could you tell us the significance of the title, Barrkuŋu Ganydjarr?
IM:Barrkuŋu Ganydjarr is the strength that comes from far away–the strength that travels. One of the songlines in the video is sung by Djambawa Marawili. He sings of Yarrwarri, the Queen Fish (Scomberoides commersonianus), which travels from far down south, from near Numbulwar, all the way to Blue Mud Bay. It takes great strength to travel this distance. And that is like the art that came from here in northeast Arnhem Land and traveled all the way to the other side of the world. The art has strength, and it traveled this great distance to show everybody in the world who we are. That is why I called the video Strength from Afar.
HS: You mentioned Mr. Waṉambi, who played such an important role in curating and developing the exhibition. It really felt like he was present at the opening celebrations at Dartmouth.
IM: Yes, Mr. Waṉambi, he was there with us in spirit. That was why I acknowledged him in the manikay at the opening dinner. I felt he was present: he was there with us, so I had to say thank you through the songlines. The song I sang is about a spirit man named Wawit from the Marrakulu clan [the same clan as Mr. Waṉambi]. The spirit man was hunting for oysters, going down to the beach and eating oysters on the rocks, while the Djapu’ water is crashing on the rocks. There is gathul—mangrove trees—and also the water, crashing into that sand. So, the song represents the Marrakulu clan and the spirit of the ancestors that traveled to collect oysters down the beach. Through that songline, I thanked Mr. Waṉambi for all the hard work that he put into organizing the exhibition.
Likewise, the song that Djambawa Marawili sang [at the opening ceremony] related to the deep waters of Muŋurru. Muŋurru, the saltwater of Blue Mud Bay mixes with the Marrakulu water named Guṯultja. So, we painted our faces with gapaṉ (white pipe clay), representing the Marrakulu clan, representing Mr. Waṉambi. Djambawa was singing Muŋurru, but we did not have Mr. Waṉambi to sing for Guṯultja, so that is why we put the white ochre on our face, to represent him. We were reaching out to that spirit to join with the other spirit of the water.
KM: That was a very powerful moment at the opening when you were welcomed with song by the Wabanaki leader Chris Newell with the exchange of songs and gifts.
IM: Yes, that was very good, seeing the Native people welcoming us and exchanging gifts. Because they are the landowners, we want to connect with them first—their spirits and souls and mind, because everyone is different and has different culture and Law and ancestors. We wanted to acknowledge the traditional landowners and their ancestors and Law, ceremony and designs. We wanted to connect through our art and our songlines. They were good people, looking after us, and the students, were good students. They will learn about Yolŋu people through the art and songlines in the exhibition. It will talk to their spirit. It’s all about connections– gurruṯu (the Yolŋu kinship system)– everybody is connected through the miny’tji (painted designs) – all the miny’tji – it doesn’t matter if it is Dhuwa or Yirritja, we are all connected through the gurruṯu system.
HS: When visitors enter the exhibition at the Hood Museum, they are greeted by another video installation titled Gapu Muŋurru ga Baḻamumu Mirikindi | Deep Waters of the Dhuwa and Yirritja Moieties, 2022. Could you tell us about this work?
IM: Yes, the big video at the entrance is about Dhuwa and Yirritja welcoming everyone to the exhibition. Beneath the waters are two songmen—Djambawa Marawili and Mawalan #2 Marika. They are singing a welcoming manikay – or rather, a strengthening manikay, a big name manikay. When you enter into men’s ceremony, if you go to the Yirritja side you will hear Yirritja people singing Gapu Muŋurru with the bilma (clapsticks). They use big, long clapsticks and will sing all night, sometimes through till the break of dawn. Listening to those songmen gives you strength; it gives you peace, harmony, kindness and happiness. And sometimes you will feel sorrow and think about special people in your life. So, the song can make you emotional, but it will also bring you strength, just as it strengthens the artworks—Dhuwa and Yirritja—so that everyone can enjoy seeing all the paintings. That is what that video means—it welcomes you and gives you strength before you enter the exhibition.
As I said before, everything is Yirritja and Dhuwa – we are separated by these two moieties, but everyone is connected through the gurruṯu system. Dhuwa can only marry Yirritja; and Yirritja can only marry Dhuwa. We marry the opposite. This also tells us our boundaries. I’m Dhuwa, but my mother is Yirritja, so I must pay respect to my mother and act as a custodian or caretaker for my mother’s clan, to speak on their behalf. But I am Dhuwa, so I can also jump in and talk about my father’s side, and take a role for them, for if my father is gone, I am the next leader of my father’s people. The same goes for my märi-pulu, my mother’s mother’s people – I must speak for their ceremony as well. The same goes for my sister clan or yapa-pulu, which is the Marrakulu clan. I have a role to direct or pay respect to them. Through these connections we have a journey that goes through the generations.
And we must communicate to each other—for instance, I must make other clan members aware that I am coming to their land or that I will be talking about a particular area. I will pass my message to those people, saying “OK, this is your boundary, but I will talk about my mother’s paintings or my mother’s mother’s painting.” It is all connected. And as the songlines travel, they remain connected, but the language changes. For example, for my clan, Rirratjiŋu, the songline travels west and changes from Dhuwal to Djambarrpuyŋu, but the story is the same. It keeps traveling from east to west, but the language is changing. Our systems and our languages are many. Americans don’t know who are Yirritja and who are Dhuwa, or that there are six or seven different dialects. People think we all speak one language – Yolŋu Matha – but Yolŋu Matha has many different languages – Dhuwala, Dhuwal, Dhay’yi, Dhaŋu and so on.
KM: What was the highlight of the trip for you?
IM: The highlight for me was talking to students and lecturing at the university, talking about different artworks to the students. And not just bark paintings: we talked about digital art pieces, working with video and audio and how Gunybi Ganambarr works with metals; and Djuwakan Marika talked about playing yiḏaki (didjeridu) and how that links with the songlines. Yiḏaki is like the click-track to the songlines, giving you the rhythm and strength. You have to follow the yiḏaki, and the songman and the yiḏaki man must communicate, when to take a breath and when to keep going. It was important, talking with the students and the public, not just about the artworks, but about the bilma, the yiḏaki, the manikay and even the sound of the water, the wind blowing through the land or the call of the birds.
The first song I sang [at the media preview for the exhibition] was the song of the brolga. It is a very significant bird. You hear the sound of the brolga in the distance, but you don’t see it. You can hear it, and it feels close to you, but it is in the far distance, circling, looking for food. It is seen on the sun, giving the birds life and bringing new life to the bird. That is what the brolga manikay means–it is about bringing new life into the earth and the land, by the sound of the brolga circling in the distance.
American audiences came to me saying “thank you,” because I was talking and explaining to them about the paintings and the video pieces I’d worked on. It was great to be able to explain about some of the paintings, such as my grandmother’s paintings [Retja I (2017) and Retja II 2018)]which are all about bush food. She grew up eating all that food, but it is not documented, and young people are not learning about it. They are growing up eating shop food and not going out and getting healthy bush foods. That is why she painted it, to document the stories of the food and plants and what they look like, where you find them, in the water or dry areas. She was close to me my grandmother, and I always asked questions about what she was working on. She would tell me stories during my lunch break, and so I kept those stories that she told me, and I shared them with the people who came to see her artworks. I told them the stories she told me.
KM: That strikes me as one of the most important things about the Maḏayin exhibition. At the opening, Djambawa made the point that the older paintings are just as relevant as the new ones, because they tell the same stories and speak to the same gurruṯu connections, and that culture, language, the songlines remain unbroken.
IM: Yes, they are still the same, the same stories. The men tell the stories through the songlines and the same goes for the women, through the milkarri or crying songs. They tell the same stories. If the men sing of the travel of fire from Maḏarrpa to Gumatj Country, the women will cry it through the milkarri, following the spirit as it moves across the land.
Currently touring the USA is Maḏayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Paintings from Yirrkala, a collaboration between the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia and the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre in Yirrkala.
Developed over seven years, Maḏayin (a Yolŋu term meaning sacred and hidden) has been curated with a strong focus on gurruṯu (the Yolŋu kinship system) which extends to people, Country, waterways and all they contain. It is the first major exhibition of bark painting to tour the USA and is entirely overseen by a curatorium of Yolŋu artists and knowledge holders from the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre.
Inspired by an idea instigated by Djambawa Marawili, Maḏayin is designed to bring the included bark paintings to life by incorporating interwoven elements of song, dance and language. “This exhibition is a great opportunity for our people to come together and share our culture, and do research on our paintings,” says Marawili. “Our patters and designs have been laid on a certain Country, when the ancestors passed through naming it: ‘You are Marawili, this is your Country, this is your identity.’ Every individual clan has their own Maḏayin, but there is also a Maḏayin that brings all those clans together.”
Rather than relying on historical or chronological order, the exhibition takes in a much broader cultural context. It features work drawn from international public collections in addition to 33 newly commissioned pieces, including four large video projections of Yolŋu ceremonial dance by filmmaker and co-curator Ishmael Marika. “It’s a type of curation the Yolŋu were born into, it’s part of their system,” says Kade McDonald CEO of Agency Projects. “The works might physically be on the wall, but they must be presented with song, they have a dance attributed to them, they represent a sacred place in Country. Everything interconnects and must make sense.”
Embracing the separate yet interconnected moieties Yirritja and Dhuwa, Maḏayin unfolds in a unified whole with historical works mixed in with contemporary works. The idea behind this was to authentically reflect how Yolŋu see their culture. “We have these paintings for future generations to look upon and gain respect for those people that came before,” explains Marawili. “In that way, today we are making art for the children who are coming behind us, giving a clear message to them. It is something that we really need to make the art move in our eyes and our soul, to make it really do something important.”
Maḏayin will show in the USA at the American University Museum at the Katzen Art Centre, Washington D.C. from 4 February to 11 March; the Kleefeld Contemporary Art Museum at California State University, Long Beach, from 22 August to 2 December; The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia from 25 January to 21 July 2024; and the Asia Society, New York from 24 September 2024 to 5 January 2025.
The following interview was conducted in June 2022 between Jami Powell, curator of Indigenous Art, Hood Museum of Art, and Henry Skerritt, assistant professor in the Department of Art at the University of Virginia and Curator at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Jami Powell (JP): Where did the idea for the Maḏayin exhibition come from?
Henry Skerritt (HS): The idea was devised in September 2015 by Djambawa Marawili, and I can pinpoint the time and date very precisely because he, Kade McDonald, and I were at the Three Notch’d Brewery in Charlottesville. Djambawa had been in Charlottesville for two or three days, and he’d had a chance to look over the Kluge-Ruhe collection. I think he was quite moved to see so many Yolŋu bark paintings there, and also to see all the photographic documentation of the 1996 John Kluge Yirrkala commission.
At Kluge-Ruhe, there are beautiful photos from 1996 of Djambawa and his father, Wakuthi Marawili, as Djambawa worked on his painting Maḏarrpa Miny’tji | Maḏarrpa Clan Designs (1996), which won the Bark Painting Award at the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards that year. That was a big win for Djambawa, but more importantly, it occurred at a pivotal moment in his life. Wakuthi was getting quite old, and Djambawa was rising to become the leader of the Maḏarrpa clan. Djambawa was impressed, moved, and very surprised to see so many Yolŋu paintings in Charlottesville. He said to us, “Oh, that’s good, but what we need is an exhibition that tells the whole story.” For him, it was very clear that that whole story began when Woŋgu Munuŋgurr painted the first bark for the anthropologist Donald Thomson in July of 1935, and that the story extended to the present.
But it was just as important to him that the exhibition include young, up-and-coming artists like Yinimala Gumana and Gunybi Ganambarr. What’s important to understand is that for Djambawa, the “whole story” wasn’t just looking backward at this history, but also looking forward and thinking about the future. In his essay in the exhibition catalogue, he writes a powerful message to the young generation of artists: “To the Yolŋu rising today, do not stop at the surface: you must make your identity a priority for all our elders. And that is why we Yolŋu must work together, because this is an opportunity to learn to curate and show our culture to the world.”
JP: Djambawa proposed a big project. How did you go about developing the project and begin working collaboratively?
HS: From the beginning, we knew that, if we were going to do this, it had to be led by Djambawa. So, we put it to him that he needed to be the lead curator, and it had to be a Yolŋu driven project. He thought about this and then deputized Wukuṉ Waṉambi and Yinimala Gumana to come to the United States to begin that process.
JP: Speaking of beginnings, you mentioned the emergence of bark painting as an artistic practice and how that was entangled with the work of anthropologist Donald Thomson. Can you talk about that history?
HS: That’s a slightly controversial question. In general, it’s clear that Yolŋu people and other Indigenous people across Australia have used bark in many different ways over time. It is a very versatile medium; you can make it into a bag, or a shelter, or a canoe. But I am not sure how common it would have been to paint sacred designs on bark—like you see in this exhibition— in the precolonial times. This, however, is a topic of debate, and I’ve heard Yolŋu make different arguments about this. More often, these designs would have been painted on the bodies of young men when they were being initiated. In the 1930s, these same designs began appearing on bark. The work Mundukuḻ ga Yirwarra Dhäwu | Ancestral Snake and Fish Trap Story (1942) by Mundukuḻ Marawaili is a good example of this. It is a literal transcription of body painting, to the extent that the artist has included bars at the top and bottom, which would be painted on the shoulders and thighs of initiates. So, it is clear that in the 1930s and 1940s, artists were taking body painting designs and transferring them to bark. But very quickly, things started to change as artists began to fill up the whole surface of the bark and bring in different figurative motifs.
JP: We’re fortunate enough to have one of the earliest barks in this show, right?
HS: Yes. In fact, we have the very first painting that Woŋgu Munuŋgurr did in 1935. That’s a special thing to have coming to the United States, leaving Australia for the first time.
JP: As you know, my training is in Native North American art, so this show has presented me with an opportunity to build my knowledge and understanding of Australian Indigenous art, but particularly about Yolŋu art and bark painting. What I’ve come to appreciate about bark painting and this exhibition is that it is really about translating Yolŋu ways of knowing about kinship, relationship to place, and the Law in a way that Westerners can understand. These paintings and designs serve a role within the community, but the emergence of painting on bark and the circulation of this artistic form has been an act of generosity; it has created a means for Yolŋu to share their knowledge and build relationships with non-Yolŋu.
HS: I think that’s right. As our co-curator Wukuṉ Waṉambi says in the catalogue, artists like Woŋgu and Mundukuḻ were painting to communicate their identity to Donald Thomson, to show him who they were and where they came from. Yolŋu have this long history of painting to represent themselves to the outside world, and to show the power and strength of their culture. It is something that Wuku is very clear about; he says that sharing his culture brings him strength. But it is also an enormously generous gift, bringing people into this very special worldview.
JP: This conversation leads me to think about the organization of the exhibition and how the spatial layout relates to Yolŋu ways of knowing and being in the world. Can you talk a bit about that?
HS: From the very beginning, the Yolŋu curators wanted the exhibition to be arranged according to the systems of kinship, which they call Gurruṯu. For Yolŋu, everything is divided into two complementary halves, Dhuwa and Yirritja. If you’re Dhuwa, you have to marry someone Yirritja, and vice versa. Within these two halves, there’s this complicated clan system, which was the next level of separation the artists wanted the exhibition to reflect. So, as you walk through Maḏayin, each room is dedicated to a different clan’s paintings, and each of these clans has a series of designs; we might think of them like a Scottish tartan. These designs, laid down in the earth by the ancestral beings, are imbued with layer upon layer of meanings. The designs are like deeds of title to ancestral places and also a way of saying, “I belong to this place, it was created by my ancestors, and I share its essence.”
JP: One of the things I always try to teach my students and convey through my curatorial practice is that many of the works in our care weren’t created solely as works of art. They have all these other meanings and purposes they serve within Indigenous communities. When these objects come into museums, their other meanings can fall away. The approach to this exhibition and its organization rejects that decontextualization.
One of my favorite works in the show is the diptych by Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda, Retja (Rainforest) I & II (2017), because it is such a great example of the kind of work that was created for the market but also serves these other purposes. In the painting, Mulkuṉ has painted all these medicinal and edible plants. It is a stunning work of art, but Mulkuṉ also maps out the plant species and lists their names and uses. Therefore, this work becomes an important means for transmitting cultural knowledge and understandings, both within the community and beyond it. It also enables a deeper understanding about our relationships, as humans, to nonhuman beings and the reciprocity embedded in those relations, and the diptych does so in a beautiful and meaningful way.
HS: In addition to showing the artists’ identity and connection to place, it was important for the Yolŋu curators to enable audiences to recognize different ways of being in the world.
JP: Is that what you hope audiences, and US audiences in particular, will get from this exhibition?
HS: Definitely. But as an art historian, I would also like visitors to recognize this as an extraordinary artistic tradition—one that has not been still over the last 80 years, but has reacted to its times while also staying true to its traditions and meanings. There’s something amazing about an art movement that can be 50,000 years old and still finding exciting and dynamic ways to repeat the same combinations of diamonds and grids and crosshatching.
I also think that when US audiences approach Indigenous Australian art, they often come to it asking “How can we help these poor, underprivileged people?” Many people do not realize, for example, that the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Center, where many of the works in Maḏayin originate, is not a tin shed; it is a multimillion-dollar company owned and directed by Aboriginal people. Djambawa and the Yolŋu curators see this exhibition as an opportunity for the world to learn from them and the gift of their knowledge. I think the exhibition also presents an opportunity to open up dialogues between Yolŋu and Indigenous nations in the United States and around the world, as well as for other Indigenous peoples to take inspiration from this project and to collaborate with Yolŋu. Maḏayin is their gift to the world, and it is powerful.
Merriam Webster provides a primary and secondary definition of Indigenous: “produced, growing, living or occurring natively or naturally in a particular region or environment” and “of or relating to the earliest known inhabitants of a place and especially of a place that was colonized by a now-dominant group.” Both definitions might be applied to the cultural foundations of two expansive exhibitions running concurrently at the Hood Museum in Hanover, New Hampshire. “Park Dae Sung: Ink Reimagined” and “Maḏayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala” embody the preservation and development of personal and artistic identity in the wake of occupying influence, and the enduring strength of cultural tradition.
Born in Kyŏngsang Province in 1945, the year Japan surrendered its decades-long annexation of Korea, Park Dae Sung was five years old when he lost his parents to wartime violence, and he lost his left hand to the same violent conflict. Park dropped out of school as a young teen to escape the taunting and bullying of his peers. Calligraphy, drawing, and painting became mooring, centering constants for Park, and without access to formal training, he devoted himself to the lifelong pursuit of refinement and knowledge in developing his artistry. Park’s personal quest led him to visit the Diamond Mountains in the North, to walk the Silk Road in China, and eventually brought him to New York where he discovered the enchantment of cityscape.
Park’s work imparts a deep respect for traditional ink painting techniques, calligraphy and true-view painting while boldly incorporating innovative and often prescient approaches to scale, composition and stylistic variation. At The Hood, a single painting on paper spans an entire gallery wall, combining conceptual integrity and balance with almost supra-humanly precise brushwork (“Magnificent View of Samneung,” 2017, ink on paper). There is an inherent gentleness in the ink’s application, and an ethereal transcendence in Park’s landscapes portraying water, sky and vaulted rock (“Mt. Halla,” 2019, ink on paper).
Strongly influenced by Buddhist tradition as well as Christianity, the spiritual dynamics of Park’s practice are understated yet unmistakably present. “I am a Catholic but don’t draw specific figures or buildings for religious reasons,” Park shared in recent correspondence. “I control my mind balance by praying every day, every time. I believe the energy I get from those praises helps me develop as a good artist.
“As an artist, I think the core thing you should do is to practice basic skills constantly and keep the acuity to observe an object correctly,” Park continued. “For example, I never stop practicing calligraphy, which is essential for drawing. Even now, I put a lot of time and effort into writing and drawing right.”
When asked about the effect of personal losses he experienced as a young boy, during a presentation at the Korea Society in 2015, Park stated, “I feel that suffering is actually a prerequisite for developing a clear and peaceful mind. One of my mottos is to ‘lean into the discomfort.’” Continuing, Park said, “I feel that you need to have discomfort in order to have a clear and meditative state of mind to do your best work… I really try to live my life according to the laws of nature so that I can keep on working and keep that inspiration flowing.”
North-eastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia has been continuously inhabited by Indigenous peoples for at least 40,000 years. Among the Yolŋu people, sacred knowledge originating with Ancestors has been passed down generationally as song lines, ceremonies and visual patterns — each of which tell a story, or many stories, and carry indispensable guidance from which members of interrelated, yet distinct clans form their lives, laws and traditions.
Entrusted to the anointed few who guard their secrets, patterns are at once sacred expressions and a mapping of the way of life for all generations. The rituals of marking patterns date back thousands of years, and in the mid-20th century emerged in a new form as painting with locally-sourced pigments applied to strips of bark cut from the Eucalyptus tetrodonta tree. The technique of bark painting has been transmuted into the present day by a dedicated group of artists whose belief in the practice’s intrinsic worth and relevance drives a mission to bring the works to a wider audience of “balanda” (non-Yolŋu) in order to share the paintings’ figurative and literal intelligence, and the beauty they emanate.
“Maḏayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala” is the result of a seven-year collaboration between the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia, partnering with The Hood Museum; the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre in northern Australia, and primarily with the Yolŋu artists/curators themselves. As the only museum outside Australia dedicated to the exhibition and study of Indigenous Australian art, Kluge-Ruhe is uniquely positioned to support “Maḏayin,” and by naming the late multi-media artist Wukun Wanambi as curator, the exhibition became a visionary model in allowing an unfiltered voice to emerge directly from the Yolŋu. As Margo Smith, Director of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, stated in her foreword to the 350-page hardbound exhibition catalogue “We do not pretend to understand Yolŋu art in the same ways Yolŋu knowledge holders do, recognizing and appreciating both their knowledge and the limits we encounter in fully comprehending Yolŋu culture.”
“Maḏayin” includes 90 individual pieces, 33 of which were specifically commissioned by Kluge-Ruhe for the exhibition. Entering the galleries housing “Maḏayin” at The Hood transports the viewer away from any lesser mundane concerns or worldly preoccupation, into a reality which seems to hover in a state of timeless suspension. Transfixing, almost hypnotic in their exquisite precision, intricate and complex patterns appear to reach outward from the undulant surfaces of cured eucalyptus bark, while simultaneously pulling the focus deeply inward, to a place of unspoken communion with all that makes us human. In a visual sense, the curatorial choice to raise each piece — some as tall as 12 feet — with empty space between wall and object, creates a compelling effect of weightlessness contrasting with the potent density of the works themselves.
Djutjatjutja Munuŋgurr’s “Dhuruputjpi,” 1996, natural pigments on eucalyptus bark, depicting the ancestral shark in ancient waters with a surrounding layer of patterned palm leaves, embodies the paradoxes of precision and fluidity, delineation and inclusion. Bright yet somber, there is an elemental reverence in the deliberate application of detail and design. The sinuous order of Barrupu Yunupiŋu’s “Gurtha (Ancestral Fire),” 2010, natural pigments on eucalyptus bark, pushes against boundaries of interrelation and fragmentation, forming an implied unity which supersedes the separation of its individual parts.
“Maḏayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala” represents what is best in intercultural collaboration. By approaching the exhibition in a spirit of appropriate humility and with an openness to learning, museum leadership have allowed each work to directly express its origins and meaning without an imposed interpretive perspective of the societal outsider. As Jami Powell, Curator of Indigenous Art at the Hood Museum, shared in recent correspondence, “For too long Indigenous art has been contextualized and presented within colonial frameworks. Having the Yolŋu artists as the lead curators on Maḏayin was essential to the exhibition’s success. Their leadership and guidance helped focus our attention on what aspects of the work and narrative were most important to the Yolŋu themselves and how they wanted their work to be shared with the public. This centering of Indigenous, and particularly Yolŋu, ways of knowing and being in the world is characterized by an incredible intellectual and aesthetic generosity that benefits all audiences.”
Kinship and cooperative living have stood as the basis for Yolŋu society for millennia, and the importance of communal interest in guiding behavior, in addition to the paintings’ stunning visual impact, are clearly relevant to the intended viewing audience of “Maḏayin.” As Djambawa Marawili AM, Chairman of Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre wrote in his foreword, “We are the Yolŋu people of northeast Arnhem Land. In this exhibition, we are telling this to you in the United States. We are sending our paintings across the sea to share with you that we have our own identity, our own sacred objects, our own songlines, our own patterns and designs, our own maḏayin (sacred system). This is not just an exhibition but is us sharing with you the ancestral knowledge that runs in our soul and our blood. We have been keeping this identity for thousands and thousands of years, and now we are sharing it with you.”
Hanover’s very own Hood Museum of Art is hosting Madayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Paintingfrom 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.
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 Americawhich 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
At the entrance to “Madayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala,” at the Hood Museum of Art, a mural-sized film of crashing waves paired with a melodic song in Yolngu Matha (the Yirrkala language) creates an immersive experience. Voices echo above the rushing sounds of the waves and meld with rhythmic percussion. Against this backdrop, a gently illuminated bark painting is displayed in a vitrine in the center of the entry gallery.
In Yolngu parlance, madayin refers to that which is sacred and beautiful. “Madayin represents the coming together of sixteen Yolngu clans. … These songs are performed to signal the beginning of a ceremony, calling participants to a sanctified space,” a text adjacent to the video says. Yolngu refers to the clans who inhabit Yirrkala, a region in northern Australia.
The exhibition centers on Aboriginal bark painting, and is the result of a collaboration with the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia, among other institutions. It’s a scholarly exhibition and there are copious wall texts describing, often in the artist’s own words, the meanings of the works and how they fit within the greater socio-political context of clan society.
The Hood’s engagement with Aboriginal Australian art began in 2004 when the museum mounted an exhibition titled “Dreaming of Country: Painting, Place, and People in Australia.” In the following decade, the museum acquired the collection of Will Owen (1952-2015) and Harvey M. Wagner (1931-2017) which sparked a series of exhibitions centered around Aboriginal art and culture. For “Madayin,” the museum tapped Djambawa Marawili, an artist and leader of the Madarrpa clan, to oversee the curatorial team.
As you scan the exhibition and read the materials, it becomes clear that the bark paintings are expressions of Yolngu cultural identity. They are more than artworks; they are modes of communication, governmental documents, historical records. The intricate patterns that cover them represent the ways in which every aspect of nature, personhood, political governance and family structure are interwoven.
The tradition of bark painting dates to about 1935, making it essentially a contemporary practice. However, the designs and the meanings are products of millennia of tradition and technique passed down among artisans through generations. As the supplementary material explains, the designs were originally “painted directly on the bodies of young men when they were initiated.” It’s important to keep in mind while viewing the works that they are more than “art for art’s sake.”
The paintings start with large sheets of bark stripped from eucalyptus trees. The strips of bark are then slowly warmed and flattened out and sanded to a smooth, workable surface. Earth pigments like ochre and white clay mixed with binder are traditionally used for the paint. One striking piece incorporates blue acrylic paint. It was the only example in the exhibition that employed synthetic pigment, and it made the piece look more “modern” than the earth-tone works.
Another piece that deviates from the standard format is a monumental wall piece composed of 299 small squares of bark arranged in a massive grid. In character, this work struck me more as a contemporary wall sculpture, something reminiscent of the minimalist works of Eva Hesse. This isn’t a stretch, considering the long history of so-called “ethnographic art” being appropriated by Western artists.
While most of the work is abstract, without recognizable imagery, there are examples that depict human, animal and plant forms. These representations are wonderfully stylized and expressive amidst the labyrinthine networks of lines and shapes that adorn the surfaces. Videos throughout the exhibition show men in traditional dress performing dance and song. These echo the contents of the bark paintings and remind viewers of the multiple dimensions that these works convey. The Yolngu designs are powerful and they evoke a feeling of unity, of oneness, that is rarely captured in visual art.
Eric Sutphin is a freelance writer. He lives in Plainfield.
“MADAYIN: EIGHT DECADES of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting From Yirrkala” presents artworks that are largely unknown in the U.S. While recent decades have cast light on the “dot paintings” made by Aboriginal people in Australia’s western deserts, these works from northeast Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory—also patterned, abstract, occasionally figurative, but visually very different—have had much less exposure. “Madayin” is the first major show devoted to them outside Australia, and is rightly proclaimed by Dartmouth’s Hood Museum of Art as the “most important exhibition of Aboriginal Australian art mounted in the western hemisphere in over 30 years.”
Nearly 90 works, painted on the inside bark of eucalyptus trees, line the galleries, grouped by each of the 16 clans represented here. As the wall texts explain, the artists are from the Yolngu people, and their paintings are considered to be family, part of a kinship system called gurrutu and linked by raki, which connects the land, sea, plants and all creatures. Within the Yolngu relational system are two complementary groups, called moieties, and people must marry someone from the other group. When they make art, each clan uses its own, distinct miny’tji, the design traditions that go back many millennia and that are deemed Madayin—both sacred and beautiful.
Perplexed? Don’t worry. While these and other concepts are critical to Yolngu art, the curators offer help. Noting that they are sharing the paintings to provide an understanding of their world, Wukun Wanambi—a recently deceased artist who was part of the exhibition’s large curatorial team—says in the opening wall text, “Like the surface of the water, beneath is an ocean of knowledge. We can only show you the surface.”
The surface is spectacular. Ranging from 19 inches to 12 feet tall, these vertical paintings are rendered almost entirely in natural shades of white, ocher, gray, maroon, beige and black. Their fascinating designs draw in viewers, and their meanings—as inscrutable as they may be—cause observers to wonder and to linger.
At the simplest level, “Diamond” (2018) by Wurrandan Marawili depicts a dominating diamond created from small diamonds and, within them, tinier diamonds, arranged in lines and curves in a pattern that seems random. The motif is intended to analogize the infinite layers of meaning in the rhomboid form, which often has sacred connotations. But it’s probably not that simple.
“Dugong at Baraltja and Yathikpa” (2017) by a fellow “Madarrpa” member, Napuwarri Marawili, similarly confounds. To Western eyes, it’s an appealing abstraction confected from grays, tans and white—swirls, diamonds and curved lines that suggest nature. But as the label explains, it’s actually a style of painting known as buwayak that hides figurative elements beneath traditional designs, with nary a clue for outsiders. When the initiated view “Dugong at Baraltja and Yathikpa,” they will see 34 hunters of dugong, the marine animals that live in nearby seas.
It might be frustrating to fail to see these stories if their designs weren’t so alluring. “Fish Trap at Gängan” (1996) by Gawirrin Gumana and “Fire Story” (1969) by Wakuthi Marawili swarm with fish, ducks, tortoises and snakes, surrounded by rushing waters. “Naypinya” (1963) by Mithinari Gurruwiwi shows a speckled mother snake and her snakelets splashing in the water. “Rainforest I” (2017) by Mulkun Wirrpanda goes into the dense wilds to portray the edible flora that have always sustained the Yolngu.
Two beautiful works by Naminapu Maymuru-White gleam and pulsate with diamond-shaped stars. Both are titled “The Milky Way,” which refers to the galaxy as well as to a river in Arnhem Land. In one (2003), the stars occupy a central, wavy band that resembles a river, with cross-hatched borders and angled branches flowing to the bark’s edges. Ms. Maymuru-White’s kin know the celestial Milky Way as the place to which souls ascend upon death, joining other creatures and manifesting as stars. Thus this work reflects on death and spirituality.
Her other “Milky Way” (2019) is an all-over design, with large and small stars set against light and dark bands of gray, which might be the night sky or maybe the river, that convey the depth of the universe (or the river).
Attentive visitors to this exhibition may notice that the creativity on view seems to come in bursts—in the ’60s, the mid-’90s, the late aughts. But the dates are misleading. In each of those periods, the Yolngu’s rights to their ancestral lands were especially endangered, by mining interests, assimilation policies, sea-right claims or war. Believing that their art is the most powerful way to document that they have lived on their land since the dawn of creation, they chose to show it and sell it to Westerners to disseminate that message, and the Yolngu curators had those contentious times in mind. Henry Skerritt, curator at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia, which organized “Madayin” with the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre in Yirrkala, said he watched ruefully as certain works were weeded out because of their dates.
It’s hard to imagine more captivating works. Such revelatory exhibitions deserve to travel, and fortunately this one begins a nationwide tour after its time at the Hood. Watch for it; it’s enthralling.
An ambitious Indigenous exhibition is about to be shared
You could say it began five years ago, although the stories of Yolngu culture go so far back that it’s hard to find a beginning, and they certainly show no signs of an end. Waka Mununggurr was on a beach at Yilpara in Arnhem Land with several other leaders. All are custodians of generations of cultural knowledge. They were discussing how to share some of that via one of the most ambitious in years.
The show, called Madayin, covers eight decades of work from the remote region around Yirrkala, about 650km east of Darwin, and will tour the US soon. The term Madayin lies somewhere on the compass between law, beauty and moral virtue.
Suddenly, Mununggurr stood up and started to sing. He commanded that five of the oldest bark paintings in Australia, held in Melbourne University’s Donald Thomson collection, become part of the travelling show.
And so began the painstaking process of consultation, preparation and legal reform required to allow the works collected in the 1930s and 1940s to leave Australia temporarily and join the first international exhibition led entirely by Yolngu curators.
“I feel it’s really good, because it’s sharing the knowledge with the wider world so that Yolngu can be recognised, so you and us, Balanda and Yolngu can be recognised and make a reconciliation,” Mununggurr says.
“Bark needs people” is a Yolngu phrase that may not automatically resonate with Western ears. It means bark paintings occupy a place in the Yolngu cultural tapestry but cannot be understood on their own. They need ceremony and song to breathe.
In a shed at Tullamarine Airport this week, Mununggurr and three other Yolngu painted themselves and sang to the barks to make them safe to leave the country. Two Wirrpanda men joined Mununggurr and Djimbala Ngurruwuthun, who are both descendants of Wonggu Mununggurr, one of the artists.
“To see these works for the first time, and to see the patterns of my clan and the patterns I now paint is a strong reminder of continuity and unbroken identity,” says Bingurr Wirrpanda.
Bandarr Wirrpanda says that works are “older than me, but through seeing them, I can see me and my people.” “I can feel the strength of my clan and the patterns we paint, sing and dance,” he says. “I feel so proud.”
Henry Skerritt, curator of the University of Virginia’s Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection and one of those behind Madayin, says every step of the show’s design has been guided by Yolngu curators and collaborators.
“It is an amazing thing to walk into a major American museum like the Hood, and to immediately see a wall of Indigenous Australian language, to hear Indigenous song, and see the works arranged in a way that makes sense to their creators,” he says.
“This process has shown us an important lesson in listening: if you want to produce something really powerful, that gets down to the deep, extraordinary significance of the work, you need to hand control to those who know it best – and that is the Indigenous people themselves.”
Jamie Powell, Indigenous art curator at the Hood Museum in New Hampshire, where Madayin opens on September 3, says it will be “an exciting moment for US audiences to learn about an important part of global art history.”
Donald Thomson was an anthropologist who worked in Arnhem Land and was involved, with Wongguu Mununggurr and others, in defending Australia during World War II.
Melbourne University academic Marcia Langton says the Donald Thomson collection “represents a unique cultural resource… of national and international distinction.”
Throughout the process of curating Maḏayin, the Yolŋu curators have constantly stressed that every painting has an accompanying manikay (song). These ceremonial song cycles are associated with men, but the women have their own distinctive songs known as milkarri. Here curator Wukun Waṉambi discusses milkarri and how the songlines connect Yolŋu people to Country.
All our song cycles—whether Dhuwa or Yirritja–start from the horizon in the deep sea. Men have manikay, the song cycles which name all the places in our country. Women don’t sing manikay but they cry milkari, which are keening songs. They’re very touching to hear. What I’m saying is that miyalk (women) understand the cycle of the manikay and can feel the spirit moving to his or her destiny, which is their country. We don’t see the spirit but the spirit’s home is stable: it is the spirit’s resting place where it finds peace and quiet. So, when we sing the country, we feel present in the country as we cycle through the songlines for each place.
First, we sing the songs of the deep sea, then we come up onto the shore to sing the song cycles of the inland areas. It is very important for Yolŋu to learn about women’s keening songs, it follows Yolŋu bones on their sacred journey home, telling the place in their own country where their body returns to. That women’s singing is important. We should be encouraging all the young women to learn those songs for ceremonies of the Dhuwa and Yirritja.
Yinimala Gumana and Wukun Waṉambi spent the day resting at the cottage on the hill outside Kluge-Ruhe. Wukun sat outside and observed the deer and squirrels in the field.
As the day led into the afternoon Yinimala insisted that it was time to prepare for the evenings event, the announcement that would mark the official launch a remarkable journey and a generous gift to be shared with the world: Maḏayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala.
Yinimala and Wukun sat outside with a mirror that was bordered in gold and crested with the American eagle at the top. I mixed the rich ochres they had brought across the sea from the lands of northern Australia and the Miwatj region of the Yolŋu people.
Yinimala sang softly in his language as the two prepared to paint ceremonial patterns onto each other’s faces in preparation for the evening’s event. First Yinimala, then Wukun. As the older man put the finishing touches on his designs, he picked up his yiḏaki (didjeridu) and began to play the deep sacred sounds of his people’s instrument. Once again, Yinimala began to sing, progressing through the songlines of his Dhalwaŋu clan, his voice growing in intensity and volume. The song consumed the night as the power of Yolŋu ancestral presence made itself know in the Monacan lands of Charlottesville.
As the last notes of Yinimala’s song rang out into the evening, we made our way up to the museum, where a crowd of supporters had gathered, ready to join us on the first steps of the journey of Maḏayin.
Back in 2015, when Djambawa Marawili first said he wanted an exhibition that told “the whole story of Yolŋu bark painting” it immediately forced us to think about the question of time. What kind of timeline do you need to tell this “whole story”?
On the one hand, the answer to this question is easy. As co-curator Wukuṉ Waṉambi notes in the exhibition catalog, “All the stories start with Djan’kawu and Barama. That is where the story really begins.” From the onset, Waṉambi and the other Yolŋu curators of the exhibition knew they did not want the exhibition to be arranged chronologically. Wukuṉ noted, “Whether I see an old painting or a new one, it’s no different. The pathway is the same. The songline. The pattern. The story. The place. The wäŋa (homeland)— the place where it came from. It’s all the same.”
At the same time, Wukuṉ and Djambawa knew that that they wanted to show the history of bark painting and the legacy left by previous generations of artists. This was clearly part of the responsibility that Wukuṉ saw in his role as curator. Speaking of the knowledge held in the old paintings, he said: “It is what our old people have given us. And here we are, we came [to the United States] with the same load on our back and returned names to the paintings.” Part of researching the exhibition was showing this continuity. Wukun notes: “ I’ve learned a lot from it because it made me think about where these paintings are from and who they belong to, from the past until today, yes indeed. Through collaborating to find out about these paintings, from long ago up to the present, it is clear now, isn’t it, where these powerful paintings come from?”
Telling this “whole story” meant going back to July 1935, when the great Djapu’ leader Woŋgu Munuŋgurr painted his first work for anthropologist Donald Thomson. This might have given us a clear starting point and the date range from which the subtitle “Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala” was derived. But translating this subtitle into Yolŋu Matha was not quite as straightforward. After much deliberation, Dela Munuŋgurr and Bulmirri Yunupingu, who have been the lead translators on the project, suggested: Waltjaṉ ga Waltjaṉbuy Yolŋuwu Miny’tji Yirrkalawuy, which translates literally as “many monsoonal rains of Yolŋu bark painting from Yirrkala.” It was a perfect translation, capturing a seasonal rather than linear sense of time, embodying the sense that these paintings belong in an unfolding trajectory in which County is the constant. As Wukuṉ notes, “whatever you change [in your art], your mind remains in your wäŋa. There’s nothing there that can really change.”
Kluge-Ruhe’s bark painting commissions for Madayin made their Australian debut in October 2019 during Tarnanthi, a city-wide festival of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts hosted by the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide. The exhibition Dhawut (Fly Away) presented 28 contemporary artworks by Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre’s most respected artists. Hung on black walls with dramatic lighting, these bark paintings stood out as the masterpieces they are. The exhibition title makes reference to the commissions leaving Australia for the USA at the conclusion of Tarnanthi.
Artworks by Buku-Larrŋgay artists featured prominently at the AGSA and elsewhere during Tarnanthi. Descending the gallery’s sweeping staircase, visitors encountered a monumental piece of metal etched with miny’tji by Guynbi Ganambarr and Noŋgirrŋa Marawili’s electric pink bark paintings. Another gallery featured a massive wall covered with 75 paintings on paper by Noŋgirrŋa, variations of black and white lines offset by memorial poles painted with the same bold patterns. The gallery adjacent to Dhawut contained an installation of Wukun Waṉambi’s memorial poles and a mesmerizing light show of his signature schools of fish “swimming” through the gallery, across the walls and around the poles. Visitors were literally submerged in his artwork. Yolngu opened the festival with a powerful display of cultural authority asserted through song and dance.
Tarnanthi attracted friends from across Australia and internationally. I was delighted to meet Steve Fox, former Art and Craft Advisor at Buku-Larrŋgay in the 1980s. He presented me with a very rare copy of Baniyala Artworks, a small catalog written by Djambawa Marawili and printed by the Yirrkala Community School Literature Production Centre. Like Madayin, the exhibition Baniyala Artworks was the brainchild of Djambawa, who believed Yolngu artists were creating some of the finest contemporary artworks of the day. It was one of the first major exhibitions from Buku-Larrŋgay to go to Sydney. It is no surprise, therefore, that Djambawa also conceived of Madayin, which will be the first major exhibition of Yolngu bark painting to tour the USA.
Tarnanthi demonstrated that Yolngu bark paintings are among the finest contemporary art being produced in Australia. It is an honor to share this magnificent art form with new audiences in the USA and worldwide through the Madayin exhibition, catalog and virtual resource.
I think of every exhibition as a partnership –or at least, made up of partnerships. Partnerships with artists and knowledge holders, partnerships with my colleagues and our respective departments, partnerships with vendors, contractors and craftspeople. As Maḏayin began to unfold, the depth and breadth of those partnerships came into sharp focus – literally. A partnership with a photographer, in particular.
As the scope of the exhibition and catalog took shape, we knew it would be incredibly important to have stunning photographs of each painting on the checklist. As we considered the enormity of this task, I think we all had the same questions: How do you capture the majesty of bark painting in a way that translates on the screen and on the page? How do you take a media like painting, that people often think about in two dimensions, and help them see that bark paintings are undeniably three dimensional with all their subtle (and not so subtle) topography? Take those questions and multiply them by big paintings in small spaces – paintings so tall, in fact, that they cannot be exhibited on-site at the museum because the ceilings are too low.
Henry and I discussed how the images should look and feel, our pie-in-the-sky hopes for how the images would appear on phones, computer screens and in books. We thought about what we loved, and maybe didn’t love, about existing images of bark paintings. When we met with photographer Neil Greentree, we shared with him the blueprint of our desires and the realities of our space. I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t an infectious grin and an immediate confirmation that it could be done. All of it! In the confines of our gallery spaces!
In the months that followed our initial meeting, Neil and I negotiated our way through countless phone calls and a mountain of emails – and even the onset of a global pandemic. Working through numerous revisions, we formulated a game plan, firmed up the list of equipment and set about the task of making our photographic dreams a reality.
Using Neil’s specialized photography equipment, including a cinematic boom arm with custom 3D printed components, we photographed the paintings flat on the floor using a simple stage made of archival foam core. Despite the space constraints, Neil was able to set up his camera, all the lighting and reflectors, his computer system and the photography stage in one room.
In the adjacent galleries, I worked with a small, skilled team of art handlers to move each painting from its storage location to a staging area where it was assessed by conservator E.D. Rambo. As Neil flexed his photography skills in one gallery and E.D. evaluated the condition of each painting in another gallery, Henry and I were able to take turns reviewing the images in real time on an iPad remotely connected to Neil’s capture software. Like a well-choreographed dance, the art handlers and I moved from gallery to gallery, storage space to storage space. We remeasured each painting to confirm its dimensions, returned paintings to their respective storage locations after imaging, and placed new works under the camera for photography – all without missing a beat.
There were moments during the project when I thought a painting may be too large to photograph here or our space isn’t big enough to accommodate both a painting and the stage. Each time, we found the solution; each time, we found a little more room – in one instance Neil’s camera was raised so high it had to rest against the ceiling to get the shot!
Miriam-Webster defines partner as one associated with another especially in action. Not surprisingly, partnership is defined as the state of being a partner. Mr. Greentree was our partner in this phase of Maḏayin and through that partnership I’d like to believe we achieved what we were after – capturing the majesty of bark painting for the page and the screen!
Finding the right name for an exhibition is always hard. It’s even harder in the case of an exhibition curated by a team of people across two continents! But, from the moment we started work on this exhibitionwe all knew it needed a name. A lot of ideas were thrown around, but it didn’t take very long for one to stick: MAḎAYIN.
Maḏayin is a big word. Generally speaking, it means “the sacred.” But it can also be used to describe something very beautiful or sublime. Yälpi Yunupiŋu described it like this:
What is maḏayin? Maḏayin is the sacred realm that has been told to us by the old people. Maḏayin is sacred. We cannot share those stories. But it is alright, I can tell you the surface of the story.
The decision to name the exhibition Maḏayin was a controversial one. Some of the Yolŋu curators feared that it would discourage women artists from wanting to be involved, fearing that it was concerned with men’s ceremonial knowledge. Others feared that some clan leaders would think the title was inappropriate, indicating the sharing of knowledge that should remain secret. At one point, Yinimala Gumana even argued that the title was too momentous for any exhibition to live up to. He thought it should limit itself to the realm of sacred art—maḏayin miny’tji. These questions were very much at the forefront of the early curatorial discussions, and were invariably the starting point for all our consultations with clan leaders.
In these early days, I often felt like the title was a millstone around the project’s neck. I could sense the way that Wukuṉ Waṉambi—who quickly emerged as the lead Yolŋu curator—would carefully preface the word whenever we were starting discussions with other Yolŋu. It was only on Djambawa Marawili’s second visit to Charlottesville in September 2017 that I realized why Djambawa and Wukuṉ had persisted using this seemingly loaded term. According to Wukun:
Dhuyu and maḏayin are two words that we use for things that are secret and sacred. And we have chosen to leave those secret things secret. But we wanted to open another door for maḏayin, to translate its beauty, to say “this is a beautiful painting, this is a beautiful Country.” That is how we curators explained it to Yolŋu people and eventually they agreed to get involved, and agreed to put the name Maḏayin on our great project. And we will take it to Washington and Los Angeles to show our identity. Then can break this big word into small words, little pieces that people can understand. For the bark tells of our identity, our skinship and our destiny.
Listening to Wukuṉ and Djambawa, it became clear that using this “big” word reflected the seriousness with which they viewed the project, and the seriousness with which they wanted other Yolŋu to view it. It was a clarion call that this exhibition would reflect the values that at the core of Yolŋu being. This did not mean sharing things that were dhuyu, but recognizing its power as the foundation of Yolŋu identity. On his last day in Charlottesville, Djambawa explained it this way:
There are two types of ceremonies: one that is public (garma) and one that is maḏayin (sacred). You can see some things that are sacred: headbands, some paintings and other things publicly, but no one can take them away from me because it is in my soul and my blood and I will die with them. Our patterns and designs have been laid on a certain country, when the ancestors passed through naming it: “You are Marawili, this is your country this is your identity.” Every individual clan has their own maḏayin, but there is also a maḏayin that brings all those clans together.
“I’m serious. This is for your ears only. Can you keep a secret?”
“Um. I guess.”
“Djambawa.” “The bark painting prize?”
“No. The big one.”
It was August was 2019. I was in a hotel in Sydney, trying to shake off jetlag before heading to Darwin the next day. I felt a little like I had left my brain somewhere over the Pacific. I’d texted Will Stubbs, Coordinator of the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre to let him know I had arrived in the country. It was a pleasant surprise to get a call a few minutes later with such momentous news—Djambawa Marawili was the winner of the 2019 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. Will was sharing this top secret information, not just because I was a card carrying member of the Djambawa Marawili fan club, but because the painting that had won the award had been commissioned by Kluge-Ruhe for Maḏayin and was created in response to his multiple visits to the USA. Titled Journey to America, the work shows Bäru, the ancestral crocodile-man bringing fire into the waters at Yathikpa. The fire crescendos up the bark, crossing oceans to meet the Statue of Liberty. In the lower corner, the coat of arms of Australia is also shown. Speaking on the work, he said: “ Everyone can see that I have confidence I have to carry in my soul and in my blood, to reach out to another nation, to another world, with our sorrow, with our love peace and joy.”
I had no idea quite how eventful October 2015 would be when I headed out from my home in Pittsburgh for my first visit to the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection. Five months earlier, I had been in Yirrkala undertaking research for my PhD thesis. This had been a particularly eventful trip. Over the past year, I had become good friends with Kade McDonald—the art-coordinator at Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Art Centre—and he had promised me that this trip we would go out bush on a special camping trip.
My research was on one of the senior women at the art centre—Noŋgirrŋa Marawili—who was just emerging as one of the most powerful contemporary painters at the centre. Kade had a close relationship to Noŋgirrŋa. Having been “adopted” by Noŋgirrŋa’s daughter Marrnyula, he refers to Noŋgirrŋa his Ŋändi (mother). It made sense, then, that any camping trip would include this extended family. When we asked Noŋgirrŋa where she might want to go camping, she was resolute: Baratjala! In recent years, this remote bay on the Gulf of Carpentaria had been her persistent muse. She had grown up there with her father, the warrior Munḏukul and his many wives and children. Unfortunately, it was a place rarely visited in recent years. The Rangers told us it would be a difficult trip, warning that recent cyclones meant it might be impossible to access the site. We relayed this information to Noŋgirrŋa: who looked at us sternly. “No,’ she said with the full force of her matriarchal authority. “You boys are taking me to Baratjala.” The story of that trip is one for another time—I wrote about it in a different essay on Noŋgirrŋa, as did Annie Studd, the manager of the Yirrkala Print Studio, who aptly described it as “the best weekend I have had in ages. Maybe EVER.”
This weekend was in the forefront of mind when I drove down to Charlottesville for the opening of Djambawa Marawili’s exhibition where the water moves, where it rests curated by Kimberley Moulton. I had met Djambawa twice before—on an earlier trip to Yirrkala, I’d had the privilege of previewing the works that were heading to Charlottesville while Djambawa patiently tried to explain to me both the profound connection and difference between his works and those of his classificatory sister Noŋgirrŋa (Noŋgirrŋa’s father Mundukuḻ is the older brother of Djambawa’s father Wakuthi). It is hard to explain what it is like to sit and listen to Djambawa. He speaks slowly, choosing his words with great care, his rich baritone perfectly suited to the profundity of his insights. In thirty minutes in the art centre with Djambawa, I think I learned more about Noŋgirrŋa’s art than I have in the past three years of research. Needless to say, I was extremely excited about the opportunity to recommence this conversation.
In Charlottesville, I quickly encountered the hospitality that Kluge-Ruhe is known for. Margo Smith and the staff were so welcoming and made me feel immediately part of the team. On the first day, I was taken to lunch with Djambawa and the team, who were incredibly generous with their time considering that they had an opening that evening! At the end of lunch, Djambawa asked if there were somewhere he could get new shoes—something more formal for his forthcoming visit with Ambassador Kim Beazley. Being at a loose end, I offered to take him shopping. Little did Djambawa know that my knowledge of the Charlottesville area was even less than his! But, off we went!
Djambawa is a deep thinker: and the trip to America had clearly set him in a philosophical direction. In the car, he spoke at length about young artists, their emergence as leaders, as well as the shifting dynamics within contemporary women’s paintings. He spoke with particular respect for “those two old ladies” who worked at the art centre—referring to Noŋgirrŋa and Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda—who represented the last generation to experience life before the arrival of missionaries in North East Arnhem Land. But the dominant theme of his conversation was the need for young people to return to their homelands where they could learn the deep and sacred meanings of their country.
When we returned to the museum, Margo Smith had a special surprise waiting for us. It was a binder. A simple, white, three-ringed binder. When we opened it, we could hardly believe our eyes. Inside were pages and pages of photographs documenting the creation of the 1996 John W. Kluge Yirrkala commission. There were images of legends such as Gawirrin Gumana, Djutatjuta Munuŋgurr and Mowarra Ganambarr, but also of the next generation: those young guns who were now the clan leaders, such as Manydjarri Ganambarr, Dhukal Wirrpanda, and of course, Djambawa Marawili.
Djambawa was visibly moved by the images he found. He poured over them carefully, laughing at images of his peers in their younger days; reflecting on the wisdom he had learned from older men and how he had assisted other artists finishing their commissions. But there was one photo in particular that he lingered on. It showed Djambawa alongside his father Wakuthi. The older man looked tired, his face gaunt—the younger man radiant with youth. But both were clearly proud of the monumental painting they stood before. Nearly 11 feet tall, Djambawa’s painting Maḏarrpa Miny’tji is monumental in every sense of the word. In 1996 it would be awarded the bark painting prize in the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards. But clearly it held a deeper significance to Djambawa. Later, he described it this way:
They gave me that award, to thank me for these beautiful designs. It gave them pleasure to see this work that came from Yolŋu artists, but for me its significance is that these designs were put into our Country by the ancestors and then passed on down to us by our grandfathers and great-grandfathers, so that now we paint them.
Djambawa Marawili AM
In Charlottesville, he told us how his father had sat by his side during the painting of Maḏarrpa Miny’tji—how he had supervised him to ensure it was “proper” and directed him as laid down the designs. For many decades, Wakuthi had been the powerful leader of the Maḏarrpa clan, establishing their homelands at Bäniyala to keep their connection to Country and Law strong. Now he was passing the reins to his son Djambawa.
Today, Wukuṉ Waṉambi, Kade McDonald and I packed up two troop-carriers and headed towards Gäṉgan, a homeland community about 100 miles south-west of Yirrkala. Kade and I had been through Gäṉgaṉ a couple of months earlier to confirm with Yininala Gumana the selections of artworks from the Dhaḻwaŋu clan to be included in Maḏayin. On that trip, we had discussed with Yinimala returning to Gäṉgän in August so that he could dictate his essay, or “declaration,” for the catalogue.
Yinimala invited us to join him at Garrapara – the saltwater estate of the Dhaḻwaŋu clan where he was running an environmental knowledge camp for Yolŋu teens as part of his role with the Yirralka Rangers. The camp was finishing on the 14th, so Yinimala proposed that he could dictate his essay the following morning, sitting with the saltwater stretching behind him. We were joined for the trip by Wukuṉ’s brother, the artist Yalanba Waṉambi, Dr. Maia Nuku, Curator of Oceania at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, her son TeAonehe and publishers Jason and Luca Lavigne of the website Mamamia.
Arriving at Gäṉgaṉ, Wukuṉ told us to wait in the car, while he headed into one of the house with a packet of cigarettes and a couple of fifty dollar bills. A few minutes later, he was back, minus the cigarettes and cash, and we turned around and headed for Garrapara.
For the first part of the drive, we retraced our steps along the Central Arnhem Road, until Yalanba directed us to turn onto the most meagre of bush tracks. It was slightly harrowing driving into the wilderness in the dark, but Yalanba seemed to know the every twist and turn of the bush track. After about thirty minutes, I managed to get one wheel stuck in a ditch, at which point Wukuṉ decided he would drive. Wukuṉ has never liked my driving. With Wukuṉ at the wheel, we went a lot faster through the scrub, finally arriving at a large clearing. We were greeted by Yinimala, who was waiting for us with a pile of small, individual tents. He told us to follow him, and he led us to the beach where we would camp. He instructed us to park our 4WD’s on the ocean side, providing both a wind and crocodile barrier, and we quickly set to making camp.
It is always great to see Yinimala–and he seemed genuinely pleased to see us too. With the camp finished, he seemed relaxed, and we sat for several hours by the fire drinking milky tea and catching up. It was late when he left our camp, but he told us he would be back early the next morning to make his declaration for the catalogue.
After breakfast the next morning, Yinimala returned. Wukuṉ had been scouting positions to film Yinimala, and settled on a spot. Settling down in the sand, Yinimala proceeded to deliver an extremely animated piece of oratory in Yolŋu Matha. I could make out odd words, but could not understand the content of what he was saying. I could tell, however, that it was being delivered confidence and conviction. For nearly an hour, Yinimala spoke while gesturing to the waters, bays and peninsulas around him His voice never faltered, so clear was the message he was trying to convey. His voice crescendoed in the rhythmic, songlike-mode of Yolŋu oratory. Even though I could not understand him, I knew he was delivering something of great power and significance. At the end, there was silence. Wukuṉ turned to me, and in a low whisper breathed, “manymak.”(Good). Everyone was in a state of stunned silence, when Yinimala replied with a grin, “Probably too complicated, but we can edit it down.”
With the business of the morning complete, we packed up camp while Yalanba fished from the beach with a handline. Soon, he had caught a beautiful yambirrku’ (Choerodon cyanodus, blue parrot fish). His brother Yilpirr set up a fire in the shade and proceeded to cook the fish, while we were told to head to the main camp where a shelter had been set up in front of a clearing. We were told that an impromptu buŋgul was about to occur, a special treat to celebrate the end of the camp and our arrival. Led by Yinimala, a group of a dozen rangers marched towards the clearing singing manikay (ceremonial song).
After leading the group to the clearing, Yinimala sat with us under the shade, where he and a small group of older men directed the dancers through a cycle of songs, culminating in one relating to the Yiŋapuŋapu, in which the participants gathered together in a tight group to eat the yambirrku’, before lying on the ground and mimicking the movement of maggots feasting on the bones of the fish. Being at Garrapara; hearing Yinimala passionately orate the stories of this place; hearing them sung and watching them be danced on these sacred lands of the Dhaḻwaŋu clan as the sea gently roared in the background brought into perspective all the majesty and depth hidden in the zig-zag designs of so many legendary Dhalwaŋu painters. With the buŋgul complete, we said our goodbyes and headed on to Bäniyala.
Evergreens grow around the door of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Djambawa Marawili was leafing through papers when he found a picture of his father. The image accompanied a monumental bark painting that, in 1996, then about nine years earlier, had won him a National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award in Australia.
The mid-1990s were important for Marawili: not only was he gathering renown as an artist but he was also preparing to assume the leadership of his Madarrpa clan from his father, Wakuthi Marawili, who died in 2005.
In the two decades to 2015, when Marawili was in the US on an artist’s residency, he had revised his father’s generation’s beliefs about the way clan designs, known as miny’tji, could be used in Yolngu art. He did so as part of a sea rights battle that ultimately won Aboriginal groups control over 80 per cent of the Northern Territory’s coastline beginning with the landmark Blue Mud Bay decision in 2008.
“My father didn’t really explain himself to our people,” Marawili says. “He left a message through patterns and designs, through painting … (and) when I saw that picture, it awakened my mind to the need to stand up for our culture, to share the wisdom and knowledge of that old fella so it can be meaningful to everyone.”
With that realisation, a plan began forming to demonstrate the strength of Yolngu culture through what could be one of the most ambitious overseas shows in years.
The Kluge-Ruhe at the University of Virginia is the only museum in the US devoted to Aboriginal art. At the heart of its collection are barks gathered across several decades, first by literature professor Edward Ruhe and later by media mogul John Kluge, once America’s richest man. Working on a shoestring budget from the 60s onwards, Ruhe amassed pieces by artists such as Narritjin Maymuru, Mithinari Gurruwiwi, Birrikitji Gumana, Gawirrin Gumana and Wandjuk Marika, now acknowledged as masters of their time. In 1996, Kluge commissioned 28 monumental paintings from Buku-Larrnggay, the art centre in Yirrkala in northeast Arnhem Land where Marawili and others trade, capturing a snapshot of local artists’ work just as they were attaining international prominence. Those pieces have never been exhibited together because of their size.
Marawili saw his father’s picture while exploring Kluge-Ruhe’s archives with Henry Skerritt, a lanky Australian intellectual who was then doing a PhD and is now the museum’s curator. “I think it was both an amazing and also quite emotional, nostalgic thing for Djambawa, looking at those paintings,” Skerritt says. “He said to me, ‘You need to show that the tradition is continuing.’ ”
Marawili is a barrel-chested man who speaks in a commanding basso. “I saw some of our patterns and designs and realised it was just one part of our story reaching out to America,” he says. “Some of the patterns were really old … today, we have the same designs and patterns and stories, but we have new ways of putting them out into the public (domain), of using them to tell people that we have our own rights, our own language, our own way of living … we have our own society, our own world, our tribal roles and responsibilities that have been there for century after century, ancestor after ancestor, because we have our own country and we have been living on our country — we were the first people in Australia before the second family group came. I’m talking about whitefellas.”
From their interactions with Macassan, Dutch and possibly Chinese sailors, through early settlement and on to the Yirrkala Church Panels and Yirrkala Bark Petitions, the Barunga Statement, the Yolngu people have sought to project their identity with this force.
“When Djambawa told us what we had to do, we got hopping and we’re doing it,” says Margo Smith, the Kluge-Ruhe’s director. “We really want to understand these works of art the way Yolngu understand them.”
Madayin means law. According to a dictionary, the word can describe the beauty inherent in ritual objects, important ceremonies or people; as an adjective, it conveys connotations of reverence, secrecy and taboo.
Will Stubbs, Buku’s co-ordinator, says there is no English equivalent but the Greek concept arete (like moral virtue) is similar. “If you see a beautiful woman come out of her bedroom, dressed for her prom, and you are her grandfather, you might say ‘madayin’,” he say. “It’s the idea that moral virtue equals excellence, equates with the idea that moral virtue equals law … what you need to understand is that this is a different universe and that, as an outsider looking in, you are not objectively neutral.”
If all goes to plan, madayin also will be the title of a major new touring exhibition bringing Americans as far as possible on to the Yolngu’s spectral plane. Skerritt says there is “a lot more interest (in the US) in Aboriginal art than there is in non-Aboriginal Australian art”. While some smaller US galleries have begun probing the canon more deeply, so far larger institutions have preferred surveys consisting of a few pieces each of various styles. These museums and galleries, Skerritt and others believe, now have an appetite for something “more tailored”.
Stephen Gilchrist, a University of Sydney lecturer who curated Everywhen: The Eternal Present in indigenous Art from Australia at the Harvard Art Museum last year, says it is an exciting time to work in the US as more institutions open their doors. “In Australia, indigenous art is often seen as oppositional to Australian art,” he says. “Outside Australia, straight away it’s international art … that can be quite freeing.”
One difficulty with Australian audiences is that they often need to learn and unlearn to escape their prejudices, Gilchrist says. “Sometimes, it’s just easier with a blank slate. In Australia, a little bit of knowledge can be very dangerous,” he says. “You can actually get to a much deeper place, I think, with international audiences.”
Madayin’s aim is to offer American audiences their first in-depth look at Aboriginal art from a particular region via a series of shows at top-shelf metropolitan institutions. Earlier this year, Skerritt and others staged a month-long planning tour that stopped, among other places, in Washington, New York and Los Angeles. His intention is to combine the best of Kluge-Ruhe’s collection with works borrowed from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the two biggest public collections of barks in the US after the Kluge-Ruhe.
The Kluge-Ruhe has also commissioned Buku artists to produce 30 paintings. The result is expected to be an exhibition of about 100 works charting seven decades of bark painting in northeast Arnhem Land, including a significant amount of old and new unseen material. Madayin is set to launch in Australia with an exhibition of new works in 2019, then tour the US from 2020 to 2022.
“What I knew was that for this to be a meaningful project, it couldn’t be white guys doing the curation,” Skerritt says. “It’s not a story that belongs to us: it’s a story that belongs to the Yolngu people, so it’s for them to tell.”
The project team now consists of Skerritt, Smith, Stubbs, independent curator and consultant Kade McDonald, who used to work for Buku, and Australian National University professors Frances Morphy and Howard Morphy. Added to those are Yolngu leaders Yinimala Gumana and Wukun Wanambi, respectively representing the Yirritja and Dhuwa moieties, the principal balancing forces of Yolngu life. Together, they are acting as emissaries for northeast Arnhem Land’s 14 Yolngu clans. By other accounts, day one of the project was really when Wanambi and Gumana arrived in the US in April, and from then on it was clear they would be bosses.
Says Skerritt: “To me, that’s what makes this quite a unique show: we are creating the opportunity for something that is, at every level, guided by the community.”
Wanambi is a joker. He calls early; calls late. He leaves silent messages and others with imitation voices. Until recently, his Instagram account, which he acquired while overseas, was a scream of lurid and altered experiments. He is also a fierce steward of Yolngu lore. “We’ve got to get people to understand who we are, what we are and that we are indigenous people living in a way that our culture has passed on through the generations until today. Sometimes it made me angry (looking at old barks in the US) because the stories were stronger in those days. If you look today, they are partly gone; but we still remember that past, those people that have gone, and what they did.”
Gumana seems quieter, more considered. He spends much of his time at Gangan, an outstation community close to some areas with particular spiritual significance to certain Yolngu clans. “Art is our madayin, our foundation, our eternity,” he says. “It’s also our discipline … for example, when someone goes to the men’s business area, they have that discipline to paint their chests and their bodies. In Yolngu society, it’s important to have that discipline not to do things the wrong way, to be confident and learn, to get more knowledge and go deeper into that area where Yolngu people survive now today.”
Touring around the US, Wanambi and Gumana opened and closed every meeting with clapsticks and song.
“One of the things that really attracted me to the Yolngu people is the strength of their culture, the performative aspect of their culture,” Smith says. “The way they embody that strength and push it out into a room, people listening to Yinimala and Wukun singing were very affected. I guess it’s that strength that has enabled the Yolngu to keep themselves together … and move into the modern world.”
Skerritt recalls preliminary banter at high-level meetings, “then all of a sudden Wukun and Yinimala would go into manikay (singing) and then say, ‘Now the meeting begins’. Watching those guys sitting in a room with directors and curators from some of the biggest institutions in the country … able to carry across this enormous cultural gulf the power and significance of what they were doing felt extraordinary,” he says. McDonald jokes that some art-world types can “go on and on, but Wukun knew exactly when to smash those clapsticks together and bring the meeting to an end”.
Madayin is not the first project to involve indigenous curators, but Skerritt and McDonald argue their community-driven approach is novel. Tjungunutja, the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory’s long-awaited exhibition of early Papunya boards, nearly a decade in the making, relied heavily on advice from groups of central Australian elders.
“If you say you want to work with indigenous communities then you have to value people’s input,” MAGNT curator of Aboriginal art Luke Scholes says. At the Tjungunutja opening, MAGNT director Marcus Schutenko called that “a form of repatriation”. Madayin’s scale, collaboration across multiple clan groups and local agency make it “a first definitely for America, if not here”, McDonald says.
Northeast Arnhem Land has perhaps Australia’s longest records of continuous Aboriginal art production. The earliest surviving Yirrkala barks, collected in the 30s and 40s, depict miny’tji some experts believe Yolngu leaders painted for diplomatic reasons.
“When it became obvious the people receiving those works were regarding them not as creating diplomatic bonds but as material items to be hung on a wall or traded for money, the Yolngu self-censored and made a distinction between madayin and painting for the outside world,” Stubbs says.“
The censorship was that one or more elements of the law were reinterpreted figuratively on top of the design to protect the uninitiated.”
A generation of painters created barks whose power radiated subversively from their backgrounds. Then, as Marawili prepared to wage courtroom warfare to defend the coastline around his homeland from seabed mining, he argued for change.
“Djambawa was saying, ‘These guys are gone, and their rules were fine for them, but if we don’t make these designs and this law and use it to protect our land and culture then we can’t win,’” Stubbs says.
“That battle was eventually won by the progressives … a whole generation of artists has grown up thinking there’s nothing unusual about painting a design that’s just miny’tji. But when it first happened in 1995, it caused great controversy.”
Miny’tji are part of the kinship system known as gurrutu through which Yolngu people and groups relate to each other. Many Yolngu artworks reflect those relationships and others between individuals, land, stories and objects.
Marawili likens traditional clan designs to Latin scriptures; Stubbs says they can be read literally by anyone with appropriate knowledge. The perceived value of earlier artworks often lay in the acts of painting and giving themselves; many were not made to survive.
But as markets developed, artists responded to buyers, support staff, one another, and works became more personal and more permanent, materials and techniques more modern. Contemporary Yolngu art from northeast Arnhem Land thus defines a broad sweep embracing cultural continuity and social change. Today, ancient miny’tji appear on glass, metal and paper and in digital forms without diminishing their power, as well as on bark and skin. Some women have begun producing patterns that, according to Marawili, are wholly decorative, contain no law and depict only lived experiences. How to curate such a canon?
“It’s not easy,” says Wanambi. “I didn’t know what I was going to do until I got there. I said (to the non-Aboriginal members), ‘Let me run the show and you walk behind me,’ and that seemed to go OK … it’s not like balanda (non-Aboriginal people), ‘think, think, think’ all the time.“
Yolngu have the confidence to choose quicker and lay the picture down clearer.” Observers say he and Gumana also approached the process differently.
“They were looking at a curation from a very cultural perspective rather than from an academic or anthropological perspective,” McDonald says.
“Yolngu don’t have a tense in their work. The stories they tell are about things that have happened, are happening and will happen in the future.”
Wanambi and Gumana initially ordered the paintings relative to themselves, marking out gurrutu, but that proved difficult for non-Yolngu to understand. Then they changed to a more orthodox, lineal-temporal arrangement, which failed to satisfy on the grounds that it might falsely suggest the show was about change. Finally, they settled on a simple model reflecting the two moieties, using bark paintings to illustrate how continuous aspects of Yolngu culture have been rendered differently at different times. One bark showing a Gumatj clan warrior in Macassan dress highlighted differences of curatorial interest. Such pieces fascinate anthropologists, some of whom believe Yolngu seafarers ventured as far as Singapore before Australia was settled. But Wanambi and Gumana felt it disrupted the picture of beauteous law they saw clearly and were tracing. “The Macassan painting, it’s like a foreign story. It’s described within the Yolngu world when the Macassans arrived in our areas,” Gumana says. “I’m not sure yet how we are going to treat those Macassan pieces — the madayin story is all about our people.”
Wanambi says of the Macassan-inspired work, “it’s strong, but to me it shows no stories … it’s just like trade or something.” Shown a picture of the same painting, Marawili remarks with finality: “That is not the law.”
The plan is for Madayin to evolve through a series of local and cross-cultural exchanges in Arnhem Land, Charlottesville and beyond. Marawili is scheduled to speak at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, in September. Difficult works such as the Macassan painting will go through a cultural advisory process, with the final selection of barks to be made in conjunction with clan leaders. Some Yolngu fear the word madayin may be too sacred for a title, while others say overcoming such objections is essential to the integrity of the show.
Debates about placements, descriptions and other details loom. Buku’s Mulka Centre, a digital archiving project, will contribute multimedia and documentation. When the exhibition finally opens Yolngu leaders, in digital and physical form, will accompany the art to speak about themselves and their collective identity, leveraging a decades-long legacy of art practice and museum collecting to expose the outlines of a culture that resides in people.
“Because of their nature, the Yolngu are attuned to acting together,” Stubbs says. “That’s what comes from not being in an individual-based society: the sense that the world is a tapestry of different identities, and that each of these identities is as rich as any other, allows co-operating artists to act in unison to present a finished representation of the law.”
It was not always so. “I’m not criticising anyone else, but the art has come from this (Yolngu) world and been exported around the world, and only then have people started looking (at it) and doing research,” Gumana says. “Bark needs (Yolngu) people there to represent it because it’s a representation of the people and the places … bark is not just art.”
Yolngu need to see the country, to feel the country, Gumana continues, “so the country might recognise us and we might recognise the country as well. Bark painting is very rich in our life, very important to our people. It gives us strength and power to live on the earth in a particular way, to live and learn so we can give something back and look after the country as well.” But if so much is linked, is there any role for outside interpreters at all?
In 2011, when curator Hetti Perkins resigned from Sydney’s Art Gallery of NSW after 13 years, she said the “mainstreaming of Aboriginal art and culture has largely failed us”.
While reluctant to elaborate or say whether those same difficulties persist today, Perkins is sure indigenous art is not fundamentally different from any other — at least not academically.
One trigger for her 2011 comments was a perception she found within mainstream institutions that “things can’t be seen outside very specific cultural contexts”. She believes indigenous art can differ regarding its maker’s influences, social and historical circumstances and conceptual frameworks, but is otherwise similar to other forms. “Bark painting, that’s a contemporary form of artistic expression,” Perkins says. “Those artists aren’t just cultural photocopiers; they’re engaging with that tradition but making their own voice within it.”
“I don’t think you need to be Spanish to talk about Picasso or indigenous to talk about indigenous art,” Gilchrist says. “But it is important that indigenous people be involved in the curation and share control.”
Back in Arnhem Land, Stubbs spots a Yolngu boy painting a type of “traditionally inspired graffiti” using a 3-D computer program. In a society without text, the responsibility to put the culture you hold into other people’s heads is a life’s work, but the process is evolving. He believes the Yolngu have long been prepared to share their culture, but says Madayin has come about now only through a “maturation of the relationship” in which outsiders have become “less primitive in our assessments”.
Gumana says it was only on seeing the extent of US bark collections that he realised he could “do research for my people. That really felt good and surprised me.” Rather than face repatriation demands, institutions that engage with Aboriginal communities on a fair footing can participate in their cultural maintenance.
Down the coast at Baniyala in Blue Mud Bay, Marawili is preparing ceremonial paraphernalia for his son’s initiation when reached by phone.
“You’re interrupting me,” he says, before the conversation rambles. “You can look at our patterns and see patterns. But our patterns are also connected to stories, to the land, the waterholes, the sea and the songlines. There’s a message coming up through drawings and songs and armbands and dilly bags, and beyond that there are sand sculptures about the country. When you look at art, it’s just art. But if you want to do the research you (then) will see all these things are connected, back to the land.”
Gilchrist says most modern Aboriginal art is inseparable from influences that evolved after Australian settlement. Just as the existence of the Papunya boards shown in Tjugunutja records their creators’ tribal customs, incipient artistic talent and the effervescent, multicultural atmosphere of Papunya at that time, so no traditional piece made for outsiders, with modern techniques, can be entirely removed from the circumstances of its design and acquisition.“
I think people want an easy answer, and the answer is that it’s not either-or, it’s both,” Gilchrist says. “Art is deeply personal and it has emphasis within communities as well: it’s cultural, but it’s also biographical.” Some Yolngu liken cultural exchange to a billabong: they expose themselves to the water’s surface while secrets remain beneath. Art then is the fleeting reflections anyone can see, while its interpretation hints at fish, tree roots, lily bulbs and tangled weed. To non-Yolngu, that pool has no visible bottom. And so long as it remains rich, deep and fertile, it probably never will.