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.   

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 Cavalier Daily: Become enriched in Yolngu Aboriginal culture through the Fralin’s “Madayin” exhibit

Originally published in The Cavalier Daily, February 8, 2024.

Madayin at The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia. Photo by Robbie Favaro/The Cavalier Daily.

A pounding voice chants rhythmically alongside a projection of waves crashing as one enters the Fralin Museum of Art. The museum’s newest exhibit, titled “Madayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala,” is an all-encompassing sensory experience that showcases traditional bark paintings of the Yolngu Aboriginal Australians.

For millennia, Yolngu people have been partaking in this ever-flowing, continuous art. The method of creation for bark paintings involves stripping Eucalyptus bark, which is flattened, dried and sanded to create an optimal surface for painting. 

Then, Yolngu artists use natural pigments and ochres alongside water and an adhesive binder to create a material that can be used for paint. They use this paint to depict their respective family’s deeply important clan designs — called miny’tji — onto the bark. 

When it comes to the name of the exhibit, “Madayin” roughly translates to mean the sacred, or something extremely sublime or beautiful. From the bark paintings to the connections being created by Yolngu artists, this exhibit fully encompasses the meaning of “Madayin”.

A big misconception in Western interpretations of Aboriginal and Indigenous art is that it cannot be modern. However, the paintings in “Madayin” are indeed contemporary art. While these pieces are deeply rooted in a rich artistic tradition, they are ever flowing and ever evolving — all while honoring the legacies of ancestors by preserving their techniques. 

U.Va. is the home of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, which is the only museum outside of Australia purely dedicated to art from Aboriginal Australians, thanks to the donated collections of John Kluge and Edward Ruhe. 

Because of the presence of Aboriginal art in Charlottesville, Yolngu leader W. Wanambi wanted to strengthen the rich relationship between these two vastly different geographical regions. He played an integral role in the creation and curation of “Madayin,” but passed away three months before the exhibition opened in 2022 at the first venue of its tour, the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth. In his lifetime, Wanambi took many long journeys from Australia to Charlottesville where he masterfully developed the exhibit. 

“[The exhibit] is an incredible testament to his courage and willingness to cross boundaries, and work with institutions to change the ways in which museums operate,” said Henry Skerritt, assistant professor and Kluge-Ruhe curator of Indigenous Arts of Australia. 

A part of the innovation and change that Skerritt is referencing is the structure of the exhibit. Both unique and extremely intentional, the physical space is meant to represent vital Yolngu systems of belief. 

“Madayin” is based on a key Yolngu concept known as Dhuwa and Yirritja. This concept splits everything in the world into either Dhuwa or Yirritja, similar to Yin and Yang. To demonstrate this quintessential duality, “Madayin” is split in two. As one enters the actual gallery space, you choose which way to go — either left for the Yirritja side or right for the Dhuwa side. The art displayed on each side is symbolic of your choice, and at the center of the gallery Dhuwa and Yirritja meet as one, representative of the Yolngu belief in the interconnectedness of the world, known as “Country.” To try and put a very complex and significant term into just one sentence, “Country” describes how everything living and in nature and spiritually is connected. 

Artist Gunybi Ganambarr explained that this total, all-encompassing idea of reality and connectedness is the reason why the flowing water visual is displayed at the entryway. As Ganambarr describes, water connects us all, and we all interact with it.

“We cross the river and we bring water from that end to this end to meet other people and other nations … sharing the knowledge and carrying the knowledge,” Ganambarr said.

Mayatili Marika, a deeply influential Yolngu leader for education and advocacy, further articulated this idea of connection. 

“We are not just related to each other as humans, but we are related to everything else within the cosmos as well,” Marika said. 

Many of the pieces in “Madayin” are themselves concerned with human connection — specifically connections across cultures. One piece — “Journey to America” by co-curator Djambawa Marawili — serves as an example of the contemporary nature and bridging of culture in Yolngu bark painting.

In Marawili’s piece, there is a depiction of the Statue of Liberty at the very top, while the Australian coat of arms is emblematically placed in the lower left. The combination of imagery from the United States and Australia highlights the ever-growing connection between the two nations, and the history of bark painting shows the connection of past to present. 

Symbolic of this international connection is Dhukumul Wanambi, daughter of W. Wanambi. She traveled to the United States for the opening of “Madayin” at the Fralin in honor of her father and his love for sharing his community’s art and deeply-rooted traditions.

Marika discussed the importance of this long-lasting familial legacy for Yolngu artists working as a part of “Madayin.”

“[The elders] paved the way for us to be able to come here to places like Charlottesville and other places in America through mediums like the “Madayin” exhibition … it is a great honor to be able to keep showing our art and culture to audiences throughout the world,” Marika said. 

The curators of “Madayin” — Marawili, Wanambi, Skerritt, Yinimala Gumana, Wäka Mununggurr and Kade McDonald — alongside the Yolngu artists and innovators who have contributed to the exhibit, have effectively elevated the voices of Aboriginal artists on an international scale in the art world.

The “Madayin” exhibit is a part of Charlottesville’s Indigenous Art Takeover — a program that includes five different Charlottesville-area exhibits, all of which center Indigenous art in Oceania and Australia. Each exhibit in the Indigenous Art Takeover will be open at different times, with the final one closing on  July 14 — giving audiences ample opportunities to experience internationally famous and profound pieces. 

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. 

Wukun in America

Wukun Waṉambi and Yinimala Gumana outside the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC

The differences between American and Australian cultures are evident across people, places, and events. Being one of the lead curators for Maḏayin has meant that Wukun Waṉambi has traveled to the US twice: first in April-May 2017 and again in October-November 2018. In this blog, Waṉambi reflects on the differences between Australia and the U.S:

Before I first came to America, I thought of America as a no-good country. But as I walked around, I saw a lot of different types of people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, African-American, Chinese: all sorts of people.

Wukun Waṉambi in Times Square

When I went across to America, everything was all different. It amazed me how different everything is, it’s not like Australia. For a start, it’s all city and no bush. If you hurt yourself in Australia, the government will pay your hospital bills, but in America it’s independent and you have to pay for yourself. That’s another thing that’s different. America excites me because it’s a different country with a different flag, different waŋa (houses), and different people. Some are tall, some are skinny, and some are fat. The National Museum of African American History and Culture really excited me because there were a lot of African and Native American people there, and the exhibits included famous musicians, sports people and celebrities who starred in films. I didn’t see any celebrities, but I did see Bruce Lee’s star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame, which was terrific.

But when I went into the museum, I saw our bark paintings and it just reminded me of back where my people come from.

Wukun Waṉambi and Yinimala Gumana speak at the opening of The Inside World at the Frost Museum of Art at Florida International University.

Curating at Kluge-Ruhe

Djambawa Marawili AM returned to Kluge-Ruhe with clan leader Wäka Mununggur and project manager Kade McDonald in September 2017. This visit was a whirlwind of activity in which Djambawa and Wäka formalized the curatorial rationale and checklist for Maḏayin. In establishing the order of works to align with Yolŋu categories and knowledge systems, they mapped out commissions of new bark paintings to address gaps in the representation of Yolŋu knowledge. In addition, they corrected documentation errors about paintings in the Kluge-Ruhe collection. Djambawa and Wäka accomplished this in five days!

Wäka and Djambawa performing manikay for UVA Arts Council at Kluge-Ruhe, 2017. Photo: Coe Sweet.
Djambawa and Wäka arranging Maḏayin artworks according to Yolŋu classification system with Kade McDonald, 2017. Photo by Callie Collins.

UVA Arts Council was in Charlottesville for their bi-annual meeting and we hosted a reception at Kluge-Ruhe in which Djambawa and Wäka performed manikay (song) next to Nawarapu’s sculptures. We couldn’t have asked for a more receptive audience of arts supporters and enthusiasts and can’t wait to share Maḏayin with them when it comes to The Fralin Museum of Art.