Bark Paintings

The painting on natural bark sheets using ochre pigments and natural fixatives was, after rock painting, the next step in the art of the First Australians. It is unknown when it was developed or how widespread it became. Various Australian sources give different and contradictory statements. Certainly it became widespread in the 19th Century when missionaries and ethnologists carried examples of such works back to European ethnological museums.

Northeast Arnhem Land

A number of art styles can be identified in the region of Arnhem Land. The Yolngu, as the First Australians in the northeast of Arnhem Land call themselves, have developed a complex geometrical style, whose origin lies in designs for ceremonial body painting. Connected sequences of rhomboids, squares, ovals and triangles possess different meanings, depending  on their positioning to each other in the painting. In this way, the repertoir of symbols can be smaller than the meanings assigned to them.

An example of this type of bark painting is the 1993 artwork by Jimmy Wululu with the title “Niwuda Honey” (Niwuda is a type of bee). The white lines of the rhomboids represent the wax and the dotted lines are the bees and/or their larvae. These symbols are the basic element of a radically geometrical composition;  precision is the highest imperative. Irrelevant details or representational elements are excluded from the interaction between monochrome and cross-hatched rhomboids, which are arranged in a diagonal pattern.

The Yolngu artists seek a radiant brilliance in their artworks. To achieve this they use the rarrk technique, consisting of extremely fine cross-hatchings. The desired effect is visible in the work by John Mawurndjul from 2003, entitled  “Mardayin by Kudjarnngal”, named after the place from which the Yolngu artists obtain the white pigments for their paintings. The white clay material is important in ceremonies and is considered as a metaphor for the excrement of the Rainbow Serpent, which makes the source of the material a sacred site.

Central Arnhem Land

In contrast to the northeast, in central Arnhem Land the Yolngu iconography relies more on mythological stories and less on individual symbols. Narrative elements are not generally predominant, but do obtain more importance. In order to represent Larger image in new window. Fig. 3: David Malangi, Sacred Sites of Milmindjarr, 1982, ochre pigments on bark, 107 x 79 cm, printed in: Sutton, Peter (ed.): Dreamings. The Art of Aboriginal Australia, Penguin Books Australia, Ringwood 1988, exh. cat., p. 52one of the oral traditions or historical stories, the entire surface of the bark is required, as shown in the 1982 composition by David Malangi. The symbols, as often also found in other works, represent plants, saltwater or freshwater, each of which possesses a meaning in the narrative or song cycle. The importance of the figurative Elements is emphasized by representing them not just as silhouettes, but filled in with lines or cross-hatches. The entire surface is not necessarily covered in these shadings, or in Lines, but rather there are opposing areas of colour. 

The bark paintings of central Arnhem Land are less restricted to a uniform style than those from the northeast. A number of artists work in terms of a monochrome background colour, segmented with robust lines, creating a laminar painting style with unabashed neglect of symmetries, untrammelled by tradition.

West Arnhem Land

The bark painting in west Arnhem Land clearly draws its inspiration from the local rock paintings. Like the painting by Dick Murrumurru, from 1975, the artworks show figurative elements which illustrate above all the creator ancestors. The background of such pictures is always a monochrome red-brown, yellow, white or black (the original earth pigment coloiurs). Only very rarely is the bark background left untreated. Up to the beginning of the 1970s, the background was almost exclusively red-brown and even today this colour still predominates.

Dick Murrumurru creates bark paintings in the so-called X-Ray Style, in which the inner organs of the figures are indicated. This style floats the figures against a background colouring. It stands in contrast  to the styles in northeast Arnhem Land, where the figurative elements are smaller, possesses less importance and are firmly embedded in a completely cross-hatched background. In the Northeast, the symbols carry the meaning of the painting, whereas the X-Ray style, with its detailed figures against a monochrome background, tries to make the invisible visible, the intangible graspable, and to unite both in a transcendent vision of the visible world.

Larger image in new window. Fig. 5: Ginger Riley Munduwalawala, The Limmen Bight River – my mother’s country, 1993, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 190 x 191 cm, printed in: Ryan, Judith: Ginger Riley, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne 1997, exh. cat., p. 92Even if this article does separate the art in Arnhem Land into a few relatively simple categories, this formalism in no way captures the real art world. Individual artists have long since developed personal techniques which break any such academic moulds. An example is provided by the work of Ginger Riley Munduwalawala.