Organized by the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection

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

The Dartmouth Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From a Volunteer’s Vantage Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dartmouth: Maḏayin makes history at the Hood

The Dartmouth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.