Organized by the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection

C-ville Weekly: Essential to the Soul

Originally published in C-ville Weekly, May 29, 2024.

The Fralin’s Maḏayin traces the routes of songlines.

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

“They’re more than art—they’re like the Bible, Google Maps, and ancestry.com all rolled into one,” says Henry Skerritt, curator of the Indigenous Arts of Australia at University of Virginia’s Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection. Skerritt is describing what bark paintings represent to the Yolŋu people of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia. It’s an apt description to keep in mind when viewing Maḏayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala at The Fralin Museum.

The exhibition, which is the largest showing of bark paintings ever presented in the Western Hemisphere, took seven years to produce—a remarkable endeavor given the scope of the exhibition and the challenges along the way, including a global pandemic and legislative changes governing the export of Australian cultural heritage objects.

Maḏayin is a collaboration with the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, but it was in Charlottesville, in 2015, that the idea for this exhibition took root. Djambawa Marawili, Chairman of the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre, was at the Kluge-Ruhe Collection on an Australia Council for the Arts artist residency. Astonished at the number of bark paintings in the collection—many containing stories he recognized—he became intent on producing a show that would tell the history of Yolŋu bark paintings.

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

Bark painting is a relatively new innovation in an artistic continuum that stretches back at least 50,000 years. But it wasn’t until the 1930s that the Yolŋu began painting their artwork on large expanses of flattened eucalyptus bark. Prior to this, they placed their symbols and figures on the body or ceremonial objects, or they incorporated them into sand-sculptures. 

Aboriginal artwork is centered on storytelling passed down through generations, and Aboriginal artists cannot paint stories that do not belong to them through their clan. Songlines are walking routes which traverse the country with important stops like water holes and sacred sites denoted along the way and are essential to the storytelling. Each songline is specific to a certain Aboriginal clan and is memorized and sung. 

As an opening and closing practice, a song is sung to include the spirit. “Every one of those paintings has an accompanying song and an accompanying dance,” says Skerritt. “It records these epic ancestral stories and also testifies to the type of ownership of those places. ‘This is my mother’s brother’s land, so I can camp here and I can use the natural resources here,’ and the people living there say, ‘Well, okay, sure. Do you know the song or dance that goes with this place?’ And if they don’t know the right song and dance, they don’t have a right to be there.”

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

Yirrkala and its bark paintings played a central role in establishing Indigenous land rights. When a section of the Arnhem Land Reserve was opened to bauxite mining in 1963, clan elders responded by producing petitions on bark that presented their claim to the land. The petitions featured text in both Gupapuyŋu and English surrounded by sacred clan designs. The effort to stop the mining failed, but the petitions were significant in establishing indigenous ownership in the Northern Territory Land Rights Act of 1976 and the 2008 Sea Rights case.

Maḏayin is curated by the artists themselves and the late Wukuṉ Waṉambi, to whom the exhibition and catalog are dedicated. They know how the work relates, its purpose and its meaning, which paintings go together and which must be kept separate, and which should be removed from public view altogether. Designed to be as accessible as possible to the Yolŋu back home, the extensive 348-page catalog is bilingual and the show is online.

The Yolŋu people divide everything into either Dhuwa or Yirritja moieties, separate groups that operate collaboratively. Ceremonies always include both Yirritja and Dhuwa, and members of one group can only marry someone from the opposite moiety. These principles, central to how the Yolŋu people live, also guided how they chose to arrange the exhibition.

It was important to the curators to hang old paintings alongside contemporary works to show the continued vitality of the Yolŋu artistic and spiritual traditions. “Whether I see an old painting or a new one, it’s no different,” says Wanambi. “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.” 

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

The works feature an earthy palette of red—ranging from dark brick to pink—black, tan, white, and mustard, and distinctive Yolŋu marks like cross-hatching, diamonds, and dots. Viewers can spot animals, plants, and people in the older works, but other references to topography, cosmology, and spirituality are beyond our understanding. The newer pieces read like abstract paintings but are composed of patterns, sometimes made up of recognizable objects like fish, and, in some cases, the designs are placed over figurative imagery, obscuring it.

From the Aboriginal perspective, “Madayin” is far more profound than an art exhibition. The word itself means sacred and sublime, and the Yolŋu, in addition to sharing their ancestral knowledge, are showcasing a different way of seeing and understanding. 

The Yolŋu spirit of collaboration extends to their artwork, which represents a relationship between the Yolŋu and the land. You see this in a small way with the pigments they use, which are derived from natural ochre and iron clay, but as Marawili explains, it’s far more profound than that: “The land has everything it needs, but it could not speak. It could not express itself, tell its identity, so it grew a tongue. That is the Yolŋu. That is me. We are the tongue. Grown by the land so it can sing who it is. We exist so we can paint the land. That is our job. Paint and sing and dance so that the land can feel good and express its true identity. Without us, it cannot talk, but it is still there. Only silent.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published in The Daily Progress February 3, 2024.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“One Straight Line.” An interview with Marrnyula Munuŋgurr

Marrnyula Mununggurr fishing near Yirrkala.
Marrnyula Mununggurr fishing at Binydjarrŋa (Daliwuy Bay), 2019. Photo by Henry Skerritt.

The following interview was recorded with Henry Skerritt and Kade McDonald in Darwin, April 26, 2023. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Nhamirri bukmak. How are you everybody? First, I am going to introduce myself. I am an artist, and I will tell you where I come from and about my family: my mother, father and sister are all artists. Yo! But first I will tell you about myself and about when I was young and started to do my art, on small barks. And then my father saw it and gave me another bark. That was how I learned, and how my father taught me about painting. That is what I am going to talk about. Yo! But first, I am going to introduce myself. Ma.    

My name is Marrnyula Munuŋgurr and my homeland is Wäṉḏawuy. I was living at Wäṉḏawuy when I first became an artist. Wäṉḏawuy is in an outstation, it is inland, freshwater and it belongs to the Djapu’. Mäṉa (the Shark) is our totem. It traveled from Djambarrpuyŋu Country, all the way to Djapu’ Country at Wäṉḏawuy. Sometimes I tell the story of Mäṉa, but sometimes there is too much in my head.

Marrnyula Munuŋgurr. Photo by Henry Skerritt.
Marrnyula Munuŋgurr. Photo by Henry Skerritt.

Yes, I learned at Wäṉḏawuy from my father [Djutjatjutja Munuŋgurr]. He showed me how to cut the bark, how to straighten it out, and then how to use sandpaper to smooth it up for painting. I was watching my father, wondering what to do next. He gave me a paint brush to paint on a small bark. “What can I do Dad?” I was asking my father. And he said, “Any picture you want, you can draw on the bark.” So, I said, “I’ll do a painting about hunting, about how Yolŋu go catch fish, or hunt turtle; about how we get the spear for fishing, and cook the fish on the fire, sitting under the tree, like a picnic nhäwi.”

And then I asked, “What’s the next drawing, nhäwi?” My father got a pen and paper and said, “You can draw our designs, Djapu’ designs,” and he drew them on a piece of paper for me. Then he handed me marwaṯ and gapaṉ to do the outline, yes, hairbrush and white clay. I took the brush and started doing my painting on bark. Then, my father gave me a big bark. He said, “Try and paint on this big one.” And so, we worked together. My father sat close to me and told me what to do, and showed me how to draw the shark and the liver on the shark. All the time, he was telling me stories about the paintings and designs. 

So, I kept painting. At the same time, I taught the children at school, telling them about our designs, Djapu’ designs. And when I finished a painting, I would take it to Buku-Larrŋgay Art Centre to sell it. Buku-Larrŋgay is our art centre. We bring our art to Buku so they can send it to all the galleries. I worked at Buku-Larrŋgay with Steve Fox for a long time, and then with Andrew Blake. While I was working at the art centre, Andrew Blake went out and cut all these big barks and brought them back for all the artists. All the artists came to Buku-Larrŋgay to paint, sitting inside the museum working on big barks. And me, and my sister Rerrkiwaŋa, and my mother Noŋgirrŋa, we all worked together, helping my father with his paintings.

That was when we painted that bathala ṉuwayak [big bark]. On the top is my Dad’s painting, Bol’ŋu, the Thunderman. Bol’ŋu is the Thunderman, yo. In the middle is the shark liver, the Yothu Djukurr. Like, we adopted you, so you are the Yothu Djukurr, the liver of the shark. Yothu Yindi [mother and child]. Yindi is the shark, Yothu is the liver of the shark, djukurr. That is djukurr in the middle. That is all Djapu’ miny’tji – one straight line, from the old paintings to the new ones. It is the same miny’tji you can see in that painting by the old man, my grandfather [Woŋgu Munuŋgurr]. You can see, the story is still the same. One straight line from that old man to his sons and grandchildren. Like rain coming down.

Bol’ŋu brings the rain. His spear is the cloud. When you see him holding his spear, it is the clouds. And you can see people dancing that cloud, holding the spear above their head. It is the cloud dance for Bol’ŋu who brings the rain. Yes, Bol’ŋu brings the rain, filling the river with gapu (water), freshwater. The miny’tji comes from the rain and the water. It is important to know where the paintings belong, where they come from. Paintings tell a story and they belong to that place. The miny’tj comes from that place, Wäṉḏawuy. We are Djapu’ people working on Djapu’ miny’tji. So, when people come to Wäṉḏawuy, they cannot steal our designs, because it is for our land. That miny’tji belongs to that place. Ŋanapurru. It is ours!It is our design, ŋanapurru miny’tji. Those designs belong to us, the Djapu’ clan.

Wäṉḏawuy is my homeland, but I was living at Yirrkala for a long while, working on my art. And then I started working in the Print Space, maybe in 1996. I worked there with Basil Hall, he came to help me set up the print machine and studio. I was working with Basil Hall and we had a workshop with all the old ladies. They’re gone now, all those old lady artists. Then I went to train as a printmaker, and Diane Blake helped me. We were both working together at the Print Space, working with the old ladies. Young people started coming in, they wanted to work on prints too. The old ladies loved doing printing and so did the young people. It was a good way for young people to learn about their designs. It’s still the same, you see, like painting on bark. It’s the same story, outside nhäwi, but it’s a good way to show it to kids, how to do our art, so that later they can learn to be painters.

Marrnyula Munuŋgurr, Ganybu, 2015, installation view, Gertrude Contemporary, Melbourne,
January 31–March 14, 2015. Image courtesy Gertrude Contemporary.
Marrnyula Munuŋgurr, Ganybu, 2015, installation view, Gertrude Contemporary, Melbourne, January 31–March 14, 2015. Image courtesy Gertrude Contemporary.

I had been working at the art centre for a long time, helping my father and mother with their bark paintings, and also doing my own. And I began to see lots of leftover bark pieces, just lying on the ground. They were all the leftover bits, you know, when you cut the bark where it is cracked. I looked at those pieces and wondered, “How can I do my art? I don’t want to leave those pieces on the side.” So I started picking up those little pieces and working on them. I was cutting those leftover strips, making small barks and working on them while I was doing printing at Buku-Larrŋgay.

And then, one day, I asked Kade McDonald if it was alright to paint my hairbrush outline on these small ones and put them all together, like a puzzle. That was my idea. And he said, “Ma! It’s your idea, sister, you can do whatever you like.” So, the first one I did was for an exhibition in Melbourne. As I was putting it up on the wall, I was thinking, “What can I do?” And then I realized, I could do Ganybu (the fishtrap). That was my first exhibition of small barks. Then, when I came back from Melbourne, I kept thinking, “What can I do next?” I thought about the shark, and about yothu djukurr. And so, I made that out of small barks. That one went to Outstation Gallery in Darwin. The third one I did was Wukiḏi. And then you asked me to work on a really big one for America, that’s gapu, the freshwater miny’tji.

Marrnyula Munuŋgurr's Muṉguymirri (2020), Winner of the Bark Painting Prize at the 2020 Telstra National Aboriginal Art Awards.
Marrnyula Munuŋgurr’s Muṉguymirri (2020), Winner of the Bark Painting Prize at the 2020 Telstra National Aboriginal Art Awards.

I’m still working on small barks, but now I am also painting the small ones on big barks, like the Telstra one. Because that’s my idea and it’s my designs, and I am doing my own designs on those barks. It’s a different way, but you can see what I am doing: the same miny’tji, Djapu’ miny’tji. It’s a different way of showing it, but it is still the same story. Freshwater miny’tji. I need to do it differently because there are lots of women working now, all my sisters. You see, they all want to be artists. Many mob in my family are doing Djapu’ miny’tji. Like Yimula [Munuŋgurr], she’s doing Djapu’ miny’tji. You can see her paintings at Buku-Larrŋgay. But I am painting in a different way now. The same miny’tji, but just in different ways. It’s just my style. Because they’re doing it their way, I’m doing a different style. I still want to do that other style, but I don’t know, I’m always thinking. And it’s hard to work now because I am staying in Darwin. But as I said, if you put all those Djapu’ paintings side by side, you will see it is the same story. The story doesn’t change, from the old man, my grandfather, to my father and then myself.

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

My father and mother, we all worked together, giving each other our knowledge. Gurruṯu is how we are all connected. So, for instance, my ŋäṉḏi (mother) is Yirritja, and she knows her Maḏarrpa miny’tji. My mother’s country is at Yilpara. That is my ŋäṉḏipulu. Maḏarrpa is our one mother clan. So Noŋgirrŋa is doing her miny’tji, my ŋäṉḏipulu. But for a long time, she was helping my dad with his Dhuwa miny’tji. After he died, she got her bark, and we asked her to do her own Yirritja designs. She doing these designs now, her own designs for Baratjula. That’s her design, her hand and her knowledge, and those designs are hers to do what she likes with.

Me and Rerrki, we are doing our own Dhuwa miny’tji. But sometimes, Rerrki does Yirritja miny’tj. She does both Djapu’ and Gumatj miny’tji, Dhuwa ga Yirritja. Sometimes Dhuwa, sometimes Yirritja, because she got permission from her husband Yälpi [Yunupiŋu] to paint his Yirritja designs. Yes, your malu asked her to do that Gumatj miny’tji. I can’t do Yirritja miny’tji, I just paint Djapu’ designs. But you can paint Yirritja designs if they ask you. Like, if they asked me to do Maḏarrpa miny’tji, because that is my mother’s clan, my ŋäṉḏipulu. I would ask a Maḏarrpa person, “Is it alright for me to do my mother’s painting?” And they would say, “Yes,” because I am a djungaya. For my father and my sister, Maḏarrpa is our mother clan. Gumatj is also our ŋäṉḏipulu. Madarrpa and Gumatj have the same manikay but different ḻikan. When you look at their miny’tji, they have different diamonds: the Gumatj have the small diamonds. But they are both ŋäṉḏipulu. Our märi’pulu [mother’s mother’s clan] is Gälpu and our wakupulu [child’s clan] is Dhaḻwaŋu. That is how Gurruṯu works, connecting us.

Marrnyula Munuŋgurr being interviewed by Henry Skerritt for MAḎADYIN: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala. Photo by Maia Nuku.
Marrnyula Munuŋgurr being interviewed by Henry Skerritt for MAḎADYIN: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala. Photo by Maia Nuku.

This is our culture, our Rom. It is the Law for Yolŋu people. Strong culture and strong Law for Yolŋu. We want to make art to show all the people, everywhere in the world, that we hold this knowledge. And so we can teach our children, that they can learn how to live in the right way. Yolŋu need to understand about their culture and Law. They need to know that it is important. Our miny’tji and our djakiri are our foundations, passed down from what our old people taught us. That is our knowledge, our culture, our art. And we can teach others, for the future. Yes. That’s our culture. Ma.

Humanities Magazine: Aboriginal Expressionism

Originally published as “Aboriginal Expressionism” in the Spring 2023 issue of Humanities magazine, a publication of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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

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.

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

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.”

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

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.”

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

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.”

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

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.”

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

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.”

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

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.

Her Campus: AU Museum Highlights Global Status of Aboriginal Australian Bark Paintings

Her Campus

MAḎAYIN: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala at American University Museum, 2023. Photo by Tom Cogill.

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.

MAḎAYIN: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala at American University Museum, 2023. Photo by Tom Cogill.

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.

MAḎAYIN: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala at American University Museum, 2023. Photo by Tom Cogill.

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: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala at American University Museum, 2023. Photo by Tom Cogill.

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.

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

The Washington Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MAḎAYIN and Australia’s New Cultural Policy

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

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

CASE STUDY: Showcasing First Nations Cultures to the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ishmael Marika reflects upon the opening of MAḎAYIN at the Hood Museum of Art

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.

Ishmael Marika and Djuwakan Marika at the Hood Museum of Art in Hanover, NH, on Friday, September 23, 2022. Photo by Rob Strong

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.

Visitors watching Ishamel Marika’s video piece Barrkuŋu Ganydjarr | Strenght from Afar (2022) at the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth.
Photo by Rob Strong.

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.

Ishmael Marika and Djuwakan Marika perform at the Hood Museum of Art in Hanover, NH, on Friday, September 23, 2022. Photo by Rob Strong.

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. 

Ishmael Marika, Gunybi Ganambarr, Djuwakan Marika, Dr. Jami Powell, Chris Newell, Liawaḏay Wirrpanda and Dr. Djambawa Marawili AM at the opening of Maḏayin, September 23, 2022. Photo Rob Strong.

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.

Madayin at the Hood Museum of Art in Hanover, NH, showing Gapu Muŋurru ga Baḻamumu Mirikindi | Deep Waters of the Dhuwa and Yirritja Moieties, 2022. Photo by Rob Strong.

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.

Ishmael Marika discusses the work of Yalanba Waṉambi at the Hood Museum of Art in Hanover, NH, on Friday, September 23, 2022. Photo by Rob Strong.

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.

Djuwakan and Ishmael Marika rehearse outside the Hood Museum of Art in Hanover, NH, on Friday, September 23, 2022. Photo by Rob Strong

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.

Art Collector reviews MAḎAYIN

Art Collector Magazine

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.

Did you miss MAḎAYIN at the Hood Museum?

On December 4, 2022 Maḏayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala completed the first leg of its national tour at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth!

The exhibition received rave reviews from numerous publications including The Washington Post, Artscope Magazine, and The Valley News. Curators Ishmael Marika, Jami Powell and Henry Skerritt even appeared on the evening news, with features on WCAX and NBC5. It was even named one of the must-see exhibitions of the Fall by The New York Times.

Although it is not the same as experiencing the exhibition in person, thanks to the Hood Museum of Art we are able to share an virtual 3D Matterport tour of the exhibition. Move through the museum and galleries by clicking on the transparent circles on the floor. Click on the gray icons to learn more about the exhibition and works on view through additional materials.

Artscope Magazine: “An Inspirational Pairing”

Published in the November/December 2022 edition of Artscope Magazine

Naminapu Maymuru-White working at the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre, Yirrkala, 2021. Photograph by Leicolhn McKellar.

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.

Kade McDonald, Waka Munuŋgurr, Djambawa Marawili and Henry Skerritt curating Maḏayin at Kluge-Ruhe, 2018. Photo by Callie Collins.

“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 at the Hood Museum of Art. Photo by Rob Strong.

“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.” 

Curator Jami Powell discusses MAḎAYIN.

In this video by Chris Johnson, the Hood’s Curator of Indigenous Art, Dr. Jami Powell discusses what she says is “the most significant exhibition of bark paintings to ever travel the United States.” It is co-curated, she notes, by Indigenous Australians.

The video features music by Ishmael Marika and Djuwakan Marika.

The Hood Museum of Art is home to the debut of “Maḏayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala through Dec. 4.

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

The Dartmouth Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From a Volunteer’s Vantage Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dartmouth: Maḏayin makes history at the Hood

The Dartmouth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valley News: Aboriginal Offerings continue at the Hood Museum

The Valley News

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

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.

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

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.

Wall Street Journal: Madayin: Sacred Patterns, Celestial Images 

The Wall Street Journal

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

“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.

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

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.

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

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.

Finding A Path to Keep Stories Alive, in The Australian

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.”

Wukun on Milkarri

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.

Painting Up to Launch Maḏayin

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.

Many Monsoonal Rains of Yolŋu Bark Painting

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.”

Flying High at Tarnanthi 2019

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.

Photographing the Maḏayin Paintings

Image 1 (Left side) Minyapa Mununggurr, Mäna at Wandawuy, 1996, Natural pigments of barks, 83 3/8 x 32 3/8 x 1 3/4 in. (212 x 82 x 4.5 cm), Collection of John W. Kluge, 1996.0035.008 Image 2 (Right side) Menga Mununggurr, Mäna in Fish Trap, 1996, Natural pigments on bark, 95 3/4 x 27 7/8 x 1 3/8 in. (243 x 71 x 3.5 cm), Collection of John W. Kluge, 1996.0035.010

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.

Gambali Ngurruwutthun’s Munyuku Wänga, 1996 (1996.0025.027) on set to be photographed.

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.

Narritjin Maymuru’s Yingapungapu, before 1972 (1993.0004.857) waiting for conservation assessment.
Left: Djambawa Marawili’s Madarrpa Miny’tji (1996.0035.014) and Right: Gambali Ngurruwutthun’s Munyuku Wänga (1996.0025.027) waiting to be photographed.
Live feed of Djambawa Marawili’s Madarrpa Miny’tji (1996.0035.014) on the iPad remotely connected to Neil’s digital capture software.
Detail of Minyapa Mununggurr, Mäna at Wandawuy, 1996, Natural pigments of barks, 83 3/8 x 32 3/8 x 1 3/4 in. (211.77 x 82.23 x 4.45 cm), Collection of John W. Kluge, 1996.0035.008

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!

What’s in a name?

Yilpirr Waṉambi, Wäka Munuŋgurr and Djambawa Marawili perform ceremonial song to consecrate the curatorial decisions made at Bäniyala, May 2019. Photo by Henry Skerritt.

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 exhibition we 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.

Members of the curatorial team, Kade McDonald, Gunybi Ganambarr, Yinimala Gumana and Wukuṉ Waṉambi discuss the exhibition title. Photo by Ishmael Marika.

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.

Yolŋu in Los Angeles

Visiting Los Angeles with Djambawa Marawili, Wäka Munuŋgurr and Kade McDonald was an adventure. Our first stop was the Fowler Museum at UCLA where we were greeted by their extraordinary director, Marla Berns, and Terry Geis, Director of Education and Interpretation. The Fowler staff was completely on board with Maḏayin, having learned about its significance from an earlier visit with Wukuṉ Waṉambi and Yinimala Gumana. There is even a strong University of Virginia connection there because former Provost Gene Block has served as UCLA’s Chancellor since 2007. After our meeting, we all agreed that the Fowler where we wanted to show Maḏayin in Los Angeles.

Of course, no trip to Los Angeles is complete without visiting the stars on Hollywood Boulevard, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and the favorite Yolngu eatery – Pampas Grill Churrascaria at the Farmer’s Market

The most memorable part of the trip, however, was our visit with Kathryn Deyell, Australia Council’s North American liaison who had been instrumental in supporting Djambawa and Wäka’s trip. She invited us to take a sunset cruise on her sailboat at Marina del Rey. Our motley crew of Australians included filmmaker Catriona McKenzie, her son Callum and their friend pilot Eleanor Ruby Moon, and Kathryn’s husband, composer Cameron Deyell, and son Tana.

As Djambawa steered the boat past the breakwater, he and Wäka recalled their adventures sailing a dugout canoe from Baniyala to Groote Eylandt. These memories brought both of them such joy, evident in Djambawa’s radiant smile. Seeing the effect this voyage had on Djambawa, I felt tremendous joy too, and such gratitude to be along for the ride.

A Trip to the American Museum of Natural History

When I went across to America, everything was different. Yes, especially in New York. It felt very strange to me, because it was all city, no bush. But then in the museums we saw many bark paintings, which brought my mind back to where my people come from.

Wukun Waṉambi

A bright, sunny day in New York City and everyone is feeling somewhat exhausted after the exhibition launch the previous evening, but work must go on! At 11am we meet Jacklyn Lacey, Curator of African and Pacific Ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and Maia Nuku, Curator of Oceanic Art at the Metropolitan Museum at the 77th Street entrance to AMNH. In her email, Jacklyn had described it as the “canoe” entrance and rightly so: suspended in the foyer is a 63-foot canoe of the Heiltsuk and Haida Nations. Hard not be awed by the sheer scale and beauty of the “Great Canoe.”

Henry Skerritt, Wukun Waṉambi and Margo Smith at AMNH.

Behind the scenes, AMNH is a labyrinth of 19th century hallways, every corner revealing weird and wonderful surprises. Finally we reach the area where Australian materials are held. We are here to look at a series of bark paintings from c.1958, collected at Yirrkala by Professors Ronald and Catherine Berndt on behalf of the AMNH. We are surprised to find that these barks have been flattened and glued onto backing boards. This has led to considerable cracking—and in some instances the glue has discolored the surface of the barks.

After having surveyed literally hundreds of paintings at Kluge-Ruhe and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Wukun has honed his classificatory short-hand. Holding court on spinning office chair, he was presented with each work, before quickly declaring paintings “real” or “tourist” paintings. For the exhibition, Wukun and Yinimala were looking for works that related to the maḏayin miny’tji (sacred clan designs), not necessarily works that expressed the artist’s individual vision:

Yinimala Gumana, Wukun Waṉambi and Kade McDonald at AMNH.

When we went to America and went to museums going drawer to drawer, some of the paintings are real, and some of the paintings are not real—they are just paintings done for tourists. Those designs don’t come from Yolngu manikay (songlines) or Yolngu miny’tji (clan designs). They won’t take your mind back to the water, to tell you how far you can go, or your destiny to follow. I know how to curate the real paintings into an exhibition. Real paintings are not a “once upon a time” story, just made up by the artist. I’m not criticizing other people as artists—but those paintings are just how they see. So when I saw those tourist paintings I didn’t want to include them in the exhibition because they don’t say anything to me. If a balanda (non-Indigenous person) was curating the exhibition, they might have kept them in, but for Yolŋu, it’s a different understanding.

Wukun Waṉambi

Nevertheless, there are many exquisite paintings—particularly from Rirratjingu artists. A number of paintings particularly interest Wukun and Yinimala, most notably a pair of works depicting the tail of a whale. (80.1/ 3765 and 80.1/ 3823). There is some discussion as to which clan this painting belongs to, the consensus being that it is a Warramiri design related to Nanydjaka (Cape Arnhem). Another was an beautifully fine Ngaymil clan painting (80.1/ 3815)—most likely by the artist Larrtjanga Ganambarr. As with previous museum visits, Wukun and Yinimala left inspired by the cultural legacy left by their forebears.

A Most Meaningful Ceremony

When Ambassador Kim Beazley contacted me in 2015 to plan my induction as an honorary Member of the Order of Australia, I realized that by waiting a few months, Djambawa Marawili AM could attend the ceremony. Djambawa was coming to Kluge-Ruhe to undertake an artist residency in November that year. Everything fell into place and we planned a trip to Washington DC as part of Djambawa’s residency. This enabled us to also see the Yolŋu collections at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and visit the National Museum of the American Indian.

Margo Smith, Kade McDonald and Djambawa Marawili examining Yolŋu paintings collected in 1948 at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, 2015.

It was during this residency that Djambawa came up with the idea for the Maḏayin exhibition. He said, “I came to America and found my maḏayin (in the museum collections at Kluge-Ruhe and NMNH) and I want to share it with the world.”

Djambawa Marawili, Barü, 2015, natural pigments on paper, 16 x 16 in., collection of Margo Smith.

The ceremony took place on November 2nd at Ambassador Beazley’s residence. Kluge-Ruhe staff, Advisory Council members, University of Virginia administrators including President Teresa Sullivan, and my family were all present. The investiture involved a formal presentation by the four branches of the Australian military and the Ambassador. But the highlight for me was the ceremony Djambawa conducted with bilma (clapsticks) and manikay (song). He later told me the song was intended to make me a strong leader and enable me to carry forward with the important work of Kluge-Ruhe.

Margo Smith AM and Djambawa Marawili AM during the investiture ceremony, November 2, 2015.

After we returned to Charlottesville, Djambawa presented me with a painting he had been working on secretly during evenings in the Kluge-Ruhe guest cottage. It is a 16 x 16 inch painting in natural ochres on paper depicting Barü, the ancestral crocodile, holding two clapsticks pointing upward. Djambawa’s distinctive Madarrpa clan design emanates from the bilma. When he presented the painting to me, Djambawa explained that Barü was him and the clan design represented his song. “This is me singing for you at your ceremony.” I was speechless. The ceremony is still one of the most memorable occasions of my life and Djambawa’s rendering of it is my most valued possession.

John Wilkerson, Lauren Maupin, Terry Snowball, UVA President Teresa Sullivan, Margo Smith, Ambassador Kim Beazley AC, Djambawa Marawili, Nicole Wade, Fenella Belle, Marc Sobel at investiture, November 2, 2015.

In producing Maḏayin in collaboration with Yolŋu artists and knowledge holders, we intend to realize Djambawa’s vision. This project, with its touring schedule and budget, is Kluge-Ruhe’s most ambitious undertaking to date. Although I have sometimes felt overwhelmed by the responsibility it entails, I have also felt empowered by Djambawa’s song. And we have been fortunate that doors have opened and friends have appeared as if on schedule to keep us moving forward.