What Is Bark Painting?
For millennia, Yolŋu people around Yirrkala in northern Australia have painted their clan designs on their bodies and ceremonial objects. These designs—called miny’tji—are not merely decorative: they are the sacred patterns of the ancestral land itself. Yolŋu describe them as maḏayin: a term that encompasses both the sacred and the beautiful. In the twentieth century Yolŋu people turned to the medium of painting on eucalyptus bark to express the power and beauty of their culture. The result was an outpouring of creativity that continues to this day as artists find innovative ways to transform their ancient designs into compelling contemporary statements.
How Are They Made?
Every part of a bark painting comes from the land. First, the bark of the Eucalyptus tetradonta tree is cut with an axe and stripped from the trunk. It is flattened by heating it over the low coals of a fire or with a blow torch. The bark is weighted on the corners and dried into a more rigid form. Then, the interior side is sanded to produce a smooth surface.
Natural pigments, also called ochres, are gathered and ground into a powder. The black, red and yellow pigments are hard like a rock and the white pigment is a chalky clay. Water and an adhesive binder are added to the pigment to create paint. Brushes, often made from a native grass or human hair, are dipped in the pigment and skillfully pulled across the surface to create the intricate patterns characteristic of miny’tji.