The Yolŋu women in Bark Ladies: Eleven Artists from Yirrkala at the NGV International have changed the course of bark painting. Introducing new materials, colours and motifs, they’ve altered not only how bark paintings are made but who gets to make them and how these paintings are understood.
Entering the NGV’s main entrance hall, you’re vertically immured by a massive floor and ceiling installation. A grid of mirror-film panels is fixed overhead while underfoot is a grainy reproduction of one of Naminapu Maymuru-White’s Milŋiyawuy (a river of stars in the sky) designs. It’s not a bark painting at all.
Maymuru-White usually renders the Milŋiyawuy – or Milky Way – in white, grey and black natural pigments on bark and larrakitj (memorial poles). Here the scale of her hand has been removed entirely, undermining her work’s ethos. As the design is printed onto composite floor tiles and reflected overhead by mirrors, the river of stars that courses through the ground and the sky in Maymuru-White’s painting, divorced from its original materiality and scale, is reduced to a mawkish literalism.
Just to the side of this installation – so close in space, so distant materially – are five larrakitj painted by Maymuru-White, all titled Milŋiyawuy (River of stars) 2020-21. Beads of white stars trail along each pole, like rivers streaming skyward. The natural pigment is gritty, as is the way it sits on the stringybark log, each small dot a memory of the artist’s hand, stars in the sky, bubbles of air rising and popping at 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 by the Gay’wu Group of Women, the marks Maymuru-White makes are echo-forms reflecting waves of ancestral energy, the life force that is in everything.
There is a glaring incongruity between the larrakitj – which share an intimate relationship to the artist and her story, being made with natural materials from or nearby homelands – and the supporting elements of the installation, made with synthetic and composite materials disconnected from the unnamed “elsewheres” that they come from. With the foyer installation, Maymuru-White’s work is subsumed by the gallery’s architecture, becoming something like what Chelsea Watego calls “Black cladding”. While the intention seems to be to immerse a viewer in the work, you’re distanced from the material reality of 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. In the first exhibition room hangs paintings such as Nancy Gaymala Yunupiŋu’s Bäru story (1990). This bark comprises vertical diamond tresses (ancestral fire) and two figurative crocodiles painted in earth tones (bäru is a Yolŋu word for crocodile). Around the corner, two of Gulumbu Yunupiŋu’s larrakitj are walled into the interior architecture, partially encased by mirrors. A bilaterality that is intensified by the refraction of mirrors, walling off the larrakitj, denies the capacity to walk around the wrapping, endless designs and trunk forms of the hollow logs.
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 hovering away from the wall, suspended by vertical wires. Her subdued paintings of the everyday, such as the bark Circles, black and greys (2018), which is described perfectly by its synoptic title, absolutely rupture the topographical impulse present in Indigenous art criticism. Disappointingly, the works are consigned to frontal viewing, diminishing their materiality as tree bark and their depth of meaning.
Parsed across the exhibition are Noŋgirrŋa Marawili’s paintings, including Lightning in the rock (2015). The background is painted in a translucent wash, as if this tall brown bark is in part draped in a sheer silk. Two large white rectangles at each end of the paintings’ vertical axes are rocks formed by thin layers of white ochre. Each is streaked with sandy, brown and yellow dots – the lightning – which extend past the perimeter of each rock and connect the two. A flash of lightning, the immensity of vast rocks: a moment and a place are condensed, palpably destabilising any notion of disconnection between Country, time and being.
Hung simply on a white wall, the painting doesn’t succumb to the curse of the white cube, which the NGV seems to be trying to avoid. Instead, it permits a moment of spectatorial 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 that study the intricate ecologies of termite mounds; Eunice Djerrkŋu Yunupiŋu’s brilliant mermaid paintings made using printer toner, with leaves and barks blooming with pastel bouquets of colour; and Dhambit Munuŋgurr’s acrylic paintings of sea creatures and trails of diamonds painted in shades of powdery blue. Djerrkŋu’s and Munuŋgurr’s uses of colour vividly announce their deviation from traditionally used natural pigments.
Then there are paintings by Malaluba Gumana, Dhuwarrwarr Marika (widely considered the first Yolŋu women to author bark paintings), Barrupu Yunupiŋu and Nancy Gaymala Yunupiŋu. They all work through Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre, the Yolŋu community-run art centre at Yirrkala in north-eastern 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 might be considered representative of kinship as a mode of creative practice.
These artists and Buku have an essential role in the history of bark painting and are at the forefront of a shift at Yirrkala towards bark paintings and larrakitj authored by women. More recently, they have introduced luminous new palettes made possible by their 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 painted sacred themes on bark or larrakitj (memorial poles) in their own right”. Why women didn’t make bark paintings earlier is a complex story, extending back to when the first bark paintings were commissioned by anthropologists and missionaries in the early 1900s and, beyond Yirrkala, to the art market’s preference for individual authorship.
Academic Jackie Huggins argues that “Aboriginal women remain discriminated against due to their race rather than their gender”. This is coupled with the historical exclusion of women artists from the art market, particularly before the 1970s. The colonial imposition of binary, hierarchical conceptions of gender on Indigenous communities that have their own cultural and social systems for organising people of different sexes into specific roles, responsibilities and relations means there can be no simple reading of the gender dynamics of bark painting.
What could have been a complex study of women bark painters from Yirrkala is ultimately lost in the NGV exhibition’s heavy-handed design. The final room of the exhibition features a grid of larrakitj on plinths enclosed in a perplexing carnival house of mirrors. There are distorted reflections everywhere you look, competing with and distracting from the painted hollow logs.
The exhibition becomes a stage for the proliferation and remediation of a viewer’s individual selfhood and a low-cost marketing apparatus. When I visited Bark Ladies, the large mirrors framing the artworks encouraged viewers to take selfies with the bark paintings and larrakitj, to see themselves as integrally visualised in the work and extend the curation to their chosen social media platform.
Bark paintings and larrakitj resist the logic of image circulation. They’re objects with a very specific material relation to the artists who paint them that is embedded in a complex structure of language (matha), kinship (gurrutu) and emplacement. The mirror too has a specific role in art, specifically in European modernism: the representation and fragmentation of discrete narrative selfhood.
There is an air of fete at Bark Ladies: it’s a confectionary event that tries to co-opt these complex, irreducible, contingent, materially specific works as modular furnishings. How Bark Ladies – comprising mostly previously exhibited works from the NGV’s collection – enriches the commodious history of bark painting is at best uncertain. It seems keenly focused on incorporating bark paintings and larrakitj as extensions of the gallery’s decor and, by extension, its image.
Bark Ladies: Eleven Artists from Yirrkala is at NGV International, Melbourne, until April 25.
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EXHIBITION James Capper: Prototypes of Speculative Engineering
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INSTALLATION Dean Cross: Icarus, My Son
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BALLET Ballet International Gala
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EXHIBITION Hundreds & Thousands
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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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