Organized by the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection

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.