Posted: 09/22/2022 03:42:52
Modified: 09/22/2022 03:42:14
At the entrance to ‘Madayin: Eight Decades of Yirrkala Australian Aboriginal Bark Painting’ at the Hood Museum of Art, a film mural depicting crashing waves paired with a melodic song in Yolnu Matha (the Yirrkala language) creates an immersive experience . . The voices echo above the rushing sounds of the waves and mingle with the rhythmic percussion. In this context, a slightly illuminated bark painting is displayed in a display case in the center of the entrance gallery.
In the Yolnu language, madayeen refers to what is sacred and beautiful. “Madayin represents the coming together of sixteen Yolnu clans. …These chants are performed to signal the start of a ceremony, calling participants to a sanctified space,” reads text adjacent to the video. Yolnu refers to the clans that inhabit Yirrkala, a region in northern Australia.
The exhibit focuses on Aboriginal bark painting and is the result of collaboration with the University of Virginia’s Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, among other institutions. It is a scholarly exhibition and numerous wall texts describe, often in the artist’s own words, the meaning of the works and how they fit into the larger socio-political context of clan society.
The Hood’s involvement with Australian Aboriginal art began in 2004 when the museum mounted an exhibition entitled “Dreaming of Country: Painting, Place, and People in Australia”. Over the next decade, the museum acquired the collection of Will Owen (1952-2015) and Harvey M. Wagner (1931-2017) which sparked a series of exhibitions focusing on Aboriginal art and culture. For “Madayin”, the museum called on Djambawa Marawili, artist and leader of the Madarrpa clan, to oversee the curatorial team.
As you walk through the exhibit and read the materials, it becomes clear that the bark paintings are expressions of Yolnu cultural identity. They are more than works of art; they are modes of communication, government documents, historical archives. The intricate patterns that cover them represent how all aspects of nature, personality, political governance and family structure are intertwined.
The tradition of bark painting dates back to around 1935, making it an essentially contemporary practice. However, the designs and meanings are the products of millennia of tradition and technique passed down between artisans from generation to generation. As the supplemental material explains, the designs were originally “painted directly on the bodies of young men when initiated.” It is important to keep in mind when viewing the works that they are more than “art for art’s sake”.
The paintings begin with large stripped bark sheets of eucalyptus trees. The strips of bark are then slowly reheated, flattened and sanded down to a smooth, usable surface. Earth pigments like ocher and white clay mixed with binder are traditionally used for painting. A striking piece incorporates blue acrylic paint. It was the only example in the exhibition that used synthetic pigments, and it gave the piece a more “modern” look than the earth-toned works.
Another piece that deviates from the standard format is a monumental wall piece made up of 299 small squares of bark laid out in a massive grid. The character of this work seemed to me more like a contemporary wall sculpture, something reminiscent of the minimalist works of Eva Hesse. This is no exaggeration, given the long history of the appropriation of so-called “ethnographic art” by Western artists.
While most of the work is abstract, with no recognizable imagery, there are examples that depict human, animal, and plant forms. These depictions are wonderfully stylized and expressive amidst the labyrinthine networks of lines and shapes that adorn the surfaces. Throughout the exhibit, videos show men in traditional dress performing dances and songs. These echo the content of the bark paintings and remind viewers of the multiple dimensions conveyed by these works. Yolnu designs are powerful and they evoke a sense of unity, unity, which is rarely captured in visual art.
Madayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala is on view at the Hood Museum of Art until December 4. A series of public events around the exhibition begin Thursday at 12:30 p.m. with an introductory tour led by Curator Henry Skerrit, Assistant Professor in the Department of Art and Associate Curator of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection at the ‘University of Virginia. An opening reception is scheduled from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Friday. And on Saturday afternoon, the Hood will be hosting two events: a “Community Day” from 1-4pm on Saturday afternoon on Bark Painting Making, and a Yolnu Artist Conversation from 2-4pm at Hood’s Gilman Auditorium. The programs are all free and open to the public. Information about the event can be found at hoodmuseum.dartmouth.edu/events and the exhibition website is madayin.kluge-ruhe.org.
Eric Sutphin is a freelance writer. He lives in Plainfield.