What Is Bark Painting?
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.
The tree we use for bark is called gaḏayka and it belongs to my clan, the Marrakulu. It is sacred to us, and we use it in ceremony, calling it by its special, secret name. Whenever I drive around, I look out for suitable tree. When I see one, I stop the driver. “Stop! Stop! Stop!” I say. “Let’s have a look here at this bark.” And I peel it back from the tree and it goes “kkkkkssshh” oh! That’s good! It can open. So I measure the length–how tall and how big that I want it to be. And sometimes I cut them really tall and straight and sometimes I cut them in the middle so they’re two or three separate pieces. I love cutting bark.
All the colors we use—red, yellow, white—they come from natural colors: rocks and clay that we get from the beach.
White ochre—gapan—can also be used as medicine to cure a stomach ache. We paint using brushes made from human hair: it has to be very straight hair if it is to be used for fine line work, so that the paintings are really powerful. We used to bind the pigments with orchid sap, a long time ago. But today, it’s time for us to move on, so we use glue.
That is how we shine the bark.
I’ve been sharing this knowledge with younger generations, teaching them how to harvest, prepare and paint bark. We want to put that powerful story down for the future, for our children so that they will pass it on to their children, and they will pass it on in turn.
- WUKUN WAṈAMBI
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