They Are Meditating: Bark Paintings from the Museum of Contemporary Art's Arnott's Collection

Posted by Aboriginal Art Directory | 28.05.08

Larissa Behrendt reviews the first expanded showing of over 200 bark paintings at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney.

"If these paintings are sacred, how can they be done for Balanda (Europeans) to buy? The Balanda can buy the painting, they can see the image and understand what it is about on the surface, they will learn from the painting about Yolngu land, life and beliefs. But they will not learn about the deep meanings of the paintings they buy."

These are the words of R. Marika, a member of the renowned Aboriginal family of artists from Arnhem Land and a teacher and translator. Her observations articulate the divide between the multi-layered role that the artistic process and product plays in Aboriginal culture and the way in which Aboriginal art is understood and viewed by the outside world.

The Expression of Bark

The Museum of Contemporary Art's, They Are Meditating: Bark Paintings from the MCA's Arnott's Collection, invites reflection on this tension.

"They have physical resemblances to Western painting and yet also physical differences. They show interior conceptual resemblances and yet also are markedly different conceptually from Western painting and philosophy." Co-curator Djon Mundine has said of bark paintings.

Bark painting is a striking form of creative expression. The canvas is warped with irregular edges and on it, the delicate lines, the intricate patterns are vibrant, energetic. Figures seem to dance, fish to swim.

And while the pieces individually are eye-catching, they remind the viewer that while we can see clearly the animal or spirit represented, and even decipher through the intricate x-ray etchings of the artist the important organs inside or the distinct markings of a particular totem, the deeper meanings of the symbols are lost on us.

The unique markings have their origins in the ancient traditions of the Aboriginal nations that many artists remained faithful to. As art moved from being solely for ceremonial and religious purposes to having a creative and economic value, the artist incorporated and continues to use imagery that has meaning within their own cultural heritage.

The childlike simplicity of the shapes of the subjects is deceptive; the pictures tell stories about values and law, about connection to country, proprietorship, responsibility and place. Every fish, kangaroo, goanna or crab tells a story of belonging. As aesthetically beautiful as they are, they are also strong political statements about rights to land, heritage, language, culture and self-determination.

The Arnott's Collection

The works in this collection play on the different layers of understanding a viewer might have about the picture they are looking at. In one room of the exhibition, the walls are lined with what seem like eye-catching but eclectic paintings. Yet each is a totem - an animal, insect or a plant - that represents the artist's worldview about their interconnectedness to nature, a reminder of the way in which the ancient traditions have been incorporated into a contemporary Aboriginality.

The artwork includes works from the major creative communities in and around Groote Eylandt, Yirrikala, Elcho Island, Arnhem Land, Wadeye and the Tiwi Islands. Amongst those represented are some of the most influential artists, many of whom have since passed away.

It includes one of the largest holdings of the work of Yirawala and a selection from some of the other great bark painters including Mathaman Marika, Mawalan Marika and David Daymirringu Malangi whose hypnotic rainbow serpents and snakes look as though they might slither off the bark.

The Morning Star Poles Room

Ironically, one of the major highlights of the exhibition is not the bark paintings themselves. One room has been dedicated to a collection of Morning Star poles. They stand in the space like an army, painted and adorned with feathers. Silent, haunting and almost still as the feathers flutter almost imperceptibly.

A Gift to Australia's First Peoples

The collection was a gift from Arnott's Biscuits Ltd who, in the year of Australia's bicentenary, wanted to celebrate the unique culture of Australia's first peoples through the purchase from Californian businessman and graphic designer Jerome Gould of a collection of over 260 bark paintings he had been assembling since the 1960s. While the intention of the company had been to return the collection to Australia in 1988, the use of the landmark anniversary as a focus of protest rather than celebration by many Aboriginal people led them to delay the plan, out of respect.

The collection was donated to the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1993 but this is the first time that a substantial number of the bark paintings have been prepared for exhibition. The CEO of Arnott's Biscuits A.S. Dawson, said: "These bark paintings are of immeasurable value in appreciating the history of art in Australia. They are timeless and represent the important foundations that have led to the success of Aboriginal art today."

Accompanying the collection is a stunning catalogue that sees the paintings complemented by a series of essays explanations about the cultural importance of bark painting, the process of its creation. It includes an explanation of the way that the practice of painting on rock, inner bark and bodies became a contemporary cultural practice and reminds us that until the 1950s, Aboriginal art was a curiosity for anthropologists and ethnographers.

A Reminder of Contemporary Aboriginal Culture

The collection is a powerful reminder of the way in which Aboriginal art, particularly bark painting, remains a way of reinforcing the vitality, vibrancy and variance in contemporary Aboriginal culture and creative expression.

That it is being held in the Museum of Contemporary Art is a provocative challenge to those who see bark paintings as "traditional" Aboriginal art as distinct from an art practice that continues to be created as an expression of a contemporary and evolving culture.

- Larissa Behrendt

They Are Meditating: Bark Paintings from the MCA's Arnott's Collection is showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art from 14 February until 3 August 2008.

Larissa Behrendt is an Aboriginal lawyer and writer. She is a Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Chair of their Indigenous Advisory Committee. Her novel, "Home", was awarded a Commonwealth Writer's Prize. Larissa is also the Chair of National Indigenous Television.

They are Meditating: Bark Paintings from the MCA's Arnott's Collection installation view.
Courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney © the artists 2008. Photographs: Jenni Carter

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Last modified: May 28, 2008 3:24 PM