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 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.”

Review: Maḏayin: An Unveiling of Essence and Strength 

Madayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala at the Fralin Museum of Art, 2024. Photo by Stacey Evans.

Uniquely solid against a backdrop of intricate patterns, the shark’s russet body is what first draws attention. A closer look reveals he is impaled, four spears protruding from his conical head and sincere pain reflected in his eyes. As the viewer shifts their gaze upward, time elapses. The injured shark seeks solace by burrowing into the land at Gurala (Buckingham Bay). His body, once opaque, assumes the ancient Yolŋu designs called miny’tji. He abandons the physical to form the Gurrayala river system, his anatomical features breaking up and his skin peeling to create the rocks and Casuarina trees along winding water banks. 

Here I am,” the shark sings out.    

This is the ancient story of Djambarrpuyŋu Mäna. It is told in the form of a bark painting by Wilson Manydjarri Ganambarr and it encapsulates the very exhibition of which it is a part. Maḏayin, currently showcasing at the University of Virginia’s Fralin Museum of Art, is a manifestation of the Yolŋu culture’s essence. It unites bark paintings from Indigenous northern Australia and foregrounds the culturally rich histories conveyed through the art form. As one of Maḏayin’s curators, Henry Skerritt, puts it: “the right people had to speak for each painting.” Just as the wounded shark unfurled to become the spirit of land, Maḏayin expresses deeply ingrained Aboriginal histories. A true show of enduring power, every aspect of the exhibition is intentional and every piece within it records an endless encyclopedia of knowledge.

Manydjarri Ganambarr working on Djambarrpuyŋu Mäna, 1996.

Tracing back its origins, Djambarrpuyŋu Mäna was created in 1996 using traditional and entirely natural methods. Sections of outer bark were cut from eucalyptus trees to make the canvas. It assumed flatness and rigidity through a tedious process of shaping: with its corners weighted down, the bark was heated over a low-burning fire or carefully passed through the flame of a blow torch. Thorough sanding produced the smooth surface along which the artist could meticulously pull his brush. Powdered ochres and adhesive binder comprised the paint’s formula and were responsible for the earthy coloration so characteristic of these pieces. In every sense, Yolŋu people rely upon the land to paint the land. 

Manydjarri painted Djambarrpuyŋu Mäna in his homeland but brought it to the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala to join a large commission for American collector, John W. Kluge. The intention with this work was always to share Yolŋu culture outwards and to give audiences a glimpse into the sacred story Manydjarri calls his märi (grandmother). 

“Anyone might look at it,” Manydjarri said, but “they are not to covet it.”

The story’s significance is precisely why it has a place in Maḏayin. Though he remains entrenched in the earth as a spirit for some time, Mäna’s journey does not end here. He ultimately reclaims his corporeal form and continues searching for a home, a place to rest. Several bark paintings detail the latter legs of Mäna’s travels: his ventures in Dhuruputjpi, where he changes his language and sacred name, then to Wäṉḏawuy, where he creates a bend in the river whilst breaking free from a fish trap. These subsequent paintings come from within the geographic bounds dictating which works appeared in Maḏayin and which did not. Despite Djambarrpuyŋu Mäna originating slightly west of the borderline, the Yolŋu people working on the exhibition quickly realized that they needed that initial piece. 

“[The] curators were very serious about telling this story in the most complete way possible,” Skerritt said. Djambarrpuyŋu Mäna proved vital to that story.

Gunybi Ganambarr and Binygurr Wirrpanda working on a maquette of the Fralin Museum of Art.

The fervent need to achieve completeness extended beyond Mäna to Maḏayin as a whole. Following the lead of Wukuṉ Waṉambi and Djambawa Marawili, the curatorial process for this exhibition was one of piecing together the right paintings in the right places to form gurruṯu, a system of unity and kinship. According to Skerritt, many late nights were spent first getting a sense for which paintings went where using sheets of paper, then testing different arrangements virtually during the pandemic, and finally, adjusting the exhibit on a maquette. What resulted from this long process was an authentic display of Yolŋu perspectives akin to when Mäna splayed across the land. 

“This exhibition taught us that the most meaningful curating isn’t about just placing paintings on a wall. It’s actually about creating spaces in which people can tell their own stories the way they want to tell them,” said Skerritt.

Milminyina Dhamarrandji explaining Djambarrpuyŋu Mäna to visitors at American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center.

As Maḏayin concludes its time at the Fralin and gears up to exhibit at the Asia Society in New York City, the hope is that it continues enlightening audiences. It will be the first major exhibition of Aboriginal Australian art in New York in fifteen years and the first exhibition of Aboriginal art not drawn from a private collection in twenty-two years. Maḏayin has an important opportunity to show more people the compelling commentary Yolŋu people make on the world through their contemporary art. Not only that, but it persists in revealing how powerfully Yolŋu voices can speak when given the platform to be heard.