Bark Ladies | The Saturday Journal

The Yolŋu women in Bark Ladies: Eleven artists from Yirrkala at NGV International have changed the course of bark painting. By introducing new materials, colors and motifs, they have not only changed how bark images are made, but also who can make them and how those images are understood.

Upon entering the NGV’s main entrance hall, you are walled in vertically by a massive floor and ceiling installation. A grid of mirror film panels is affixed above the head, while beneath the feet is a grainy reproduction of one of Naminapu Maymuru-White’s Milŋiyawuy (a river of stars in the sky) design. It’s not a bark image at all.

Maymuru-White usually renders the Milŋiyawuy – or the Milky Way – in white, gray and black natural pigments on bark and larrakitj (memorial poles). Here the scales on her hand have been completely removed, undermining the ethos of her work. Because the design is printed onto composite floor tiles and reflected off of mirrors, the stream of stars that flows through the ground and sky in Maymuru-White’s painting, detached from its original materiality and size, is reduced to a somber literalness.

Right next to this installation – so close spatially, so far away physically – are five larrakitjs painted by Maymuru-White, all titled Milŋiyawuy (River of Stars) 2020-21. Beads of white stars tide down each pole like rivers pouring into the sky. The natural pigment is coarse-grained just as it sits on the stringy stem, every tiny dot a reminder of the artist’s hand, stars in the sky, air bubbles rising and bursting on the river’s surface. All of this is connected: the sky, the ground, the river, the artist’s hand. To paraphrase the 2020 Yolŋu book song spirals from the Gay’wu Group of Women, the footprints Maymuru-White leaves are echoforms that reflect waves of ancestral energy, the life force that resides in everything.

There is a glaring incongruity between the larrakitj – who have a close relationship to the artist and her story as they are made from natural materials from or near homelands – and the installation’s supporting elements, which are made of synthetic and composite materials, those of the unnamed “somewhere else” from which they come. With the installation in the foyer, Maymuru-White’s work is subsumed into the gallery’s architecture and becomes something like what Chelsea Watego calls “Black Cladding”. While the intention seems to be to immerse a viewer in the work, one is distanced from the material reality of the bark painting and the social world in which it is produced. This is emblematic of the exhibition as a whole.

The fixation with mirrors continues through the galleries. Paintings such as those by Nancy Gaymala Yunupiŋu hang in the first exhibition room Bäru story (1990). This bark consists of vertical curls of diamonds (ancestral fire) and two figural crocodiles painted in earth tones (bäru is a Yolŋu word for crocodile). Around the corner are two of Gulumbu Yunupiŋu’s Larrakitj built into the interior design, partially encased in mirrors. A bilaterality, enhanced by the refraction of mirrors that shield the larrakitj, denies the ability to circumvent the sheaths, endless patterns, and trunk shapes of the hollow tree trunks.

On the other side of this wall, N Yunipiŋu’s bark paintings and larrakitj are grouped together. The larrakitj on a small platform jostle with barks floating off the wall and suspended on vertical wires. Her muted images of the mundane, like the bark circles, black and gray (2018), perfectly described by its synoptic title, absolutely breaks the topographical impulse present in Indigenous art criticism. Disappointingly, the works are left for frontal viewing, reducing their materiality as tree bark and their depth importance.

The exhibition analyzes paintings by Noŋgirrŋa Marawili, including Lightning in the Rock (2015). The background is painted in a translucent wash, as if this tall brown bark is partially draped in a sheer silk. Two large white rectangles at each end of the paintings’ vertical axes are rocks composed of thin layers of white ochre. Each is streaked with sandy, brown, and yellow dots — the lightning bolts — that extend beyond the perimeter of each rock, connecting the two. A flash of lightning, the immensity of huge rocks: a moment and a place are condensed, noticeably destabilizing any notion of a separation between land, time and being.

Simply hung on a white wall, the painting does not succumb The Curse of the White Cube, which the NGV seems to avoid. Instead, it allows for a moment of viewer generosity, in which a viewer reciprocates the artist’s creation with their time and contemplation.

Also on display are Mulkun Wirrpanda’s almost translucent bark paintings examining the intricate ecology of termite mounds; Eunice Djerrkŋu Yunupiŋu’s brilliant mermaid images, made with printer toner, featuring leaves and bark blooming with bouquets of pastel flowers; and Dhambit Munuŋgurr’s acrylic paintings of sea creatures and diamond tracks painted in shades of powdery blue. Djerrkŋu and Munuŋgurr’s use of color vividly heralds their departure from traditionally used natural pigments.

Then there are paintings by Malaluba Gumana, Dhuwarrwarr Marika (widely regarded as the first Yolŋu women to write bark paintings), Barrupu Yunupiŋu and Nancy Gaymala Yunupiŋu. They all work at the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre, the arts center run by the Yolŋu community in Yirrkala, north-east Arnhem Land. The creative output there is bewildering, developed from the rich cultural traditions in and around Yirrkala. More than a collective of 11 individual artists, these women could be seen as representative of kinship as a form of creative practice.

These artists and Buku play an integral role in the history of bark painting and are at the forefront of a shift in Yirrkala towards bark painting and Larrakitj written by women. More recently they have introduced vibrant new palettes made possible through the use of acrylic paint and repurposed printer inks.

NGV’s senior curator of indigenous art, Myles Russell-Cook, says that “before 1970 no Yolŋu women independently painted sacred subjects on bark or larrakitj (memorial poles)”. Why women did not make bark paintings earlier is a complex story, stretching back to when anthropologists and missionaries commissioned the first bark paintings in the early 1900s, and beyond Yirrkala to the art market’s preference for individual authorship.

Academic Jackie Huggins argues that “Aboriginal women continue to be discriminated against on the basis of their race and not their sex”. This goes hand in hand with the historical exclusion of female artists from the art market, especially before the 1970s. The colonial imposition of binary, hierarchical notions of gender on indigenous communities, which have their own cultural and social systems to organize people of different sexes into specific roles, responsibilities, and relationships, means that there can be no easy reading of the gender dynamics of the bark painting.

What could have been a complex study of Yirrkala bark painters is ultimately lost in the clumsy design of the NGV exhibition. The final room of the exhibition features a latticework of larrakitj on pedestals surrounded by a stunning carnival mirror house. There are distorted reflections throughout, competing with and distracting from the painted hollow tree trunks.

The exhibition becomes a stage for the dissemination and restoration of the viewer’s individual self and a low-cost marketing apparatus. At my visit Bark ladies, the large mirrors framing the artworks, encouraged viewers to take selfies with the Bark paintings and Larrakitj, to see themselves visualized as integral to the work, and to extend the curation to their chosen social media platform.

Bark Paintings and Larrakitj defy the logic of pictorial circulation. They are objects with a very specific material relationship to the artists who paint them, embedded in a complex structure of language (matha), kinship (gurrutu) and location. The mirror also plays a specific role in art, especially in European modernism: the representation and fragmentation of independent narrative selfhood.

There is a festive atmosphere Bark ladies: It is a confectionery event that seeks to unite these complex, irreducible, contingent, material-specific works as modular furnishing items. As Bark ladies – enriched with mostly already exhibited works from the NGV collection – the extensive history of bark painting is uncertain at best. There seems to be a strong focus on incorporating bark paintings and larrakitj as extensions of the gallery’s decor and hence its image.

Bark Ladies: Eleven artists from Yirrkala is with NGV International, Melbourne until April 25th.


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Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, 27 Jan-6 Jan February

VISUAL ART Visions of India: From Colonial Times to the Present

Monash Gallery of Art, Melbourne, until March 20

EXHIBITION James Capper: Prototypes of Speculative Engineering

MONA, Hobart, to April 18th

INSTALLATION Dean Cross: Icarus, my son

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BALLET Ballet International Gala

QPAC Playhouse, Brisbane, 26-30 January

Last chance

EXHIBITION hundreds and thousands

Fremantle Arts Gallery, through January 23

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 22, 2022 as “A practice of kinship”.

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