Rhys Williams, currently studying for a Graduate Certificate in Art Curating
Eleven Yolngu women nation-build with their bark art on a scale never seen in an Australian gallery.
Over several decades, the National Gallery of Victoria has acquired artworks from Yirrkala, a remote Aboriginal community in East Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. Under the guidance of current curator Myles Russell-Cook, ‘Bark Ladies: Eleven Artists from Yirrkala’ is an exploration of the founding mothers of Yolngu art and their journey, from being forbidden to paint until the 1970s by The Elders, to the mastery each has achieved today. All are witness to the greatness of the oldest cultural civilisation on earth, resonating with significance and reverence in each piece of hewn Stringybark Eucalyptus. Ochre is the predominant material used to animate stories passed from generation to generation, encompassing broad topics spanning daily life, creation spirits, animal totems, nutrition and even personal dreams. Australia is no exception to the western worship of ‘White Empire’ in all its marble glory, but collectively these works cast a long, elegant shadow over the Elgin Marbles, almost making those sculptures contrite and an immodest, vain folly. Instead, this collection invites us to walk among the natural and be immersed in the heart of our own civilisation’s cultural greatness.
Upon entering, the exhibition visitor finds themselves walking on the printed tiles of Naminapu Maymuru-White’s floor work Ringitjmi gapu (2021), an epic monochromatic piece that fills Federation Court. This night sky stretches before you and, on looking up, is reflected in a mirrored roof. The effect is wondrous as you are enveloped by eternity. To stand on and underneath the river of stars is to be suspended in time to reflect on our own place in the vast constellations of bright and unseen stars in the distance. Celestial storytelling and the night sky are powerful unifying themes, and universal where our relationship with the heavens and earth are concerned.
This entrance feels like a deliberate statement, almost an equaliser for what is to come. Rivers denote movement and, as the eye travels, visitors are swept past larrakitj memorial poles and into the ensuing exhibition. This natural world opens itself ever so gently. Nothing about the exhibition is overtly educational, yet everything that can be shared has been. It is easy to become lost in the monumental night sky only to realise later that those memorial poles relate directly to the heart of the story. 'Each star is a representation of the ancestors of the Mangalilli clan whose souls become stars,' the caption for Maymuru-White's Milniyawuy (River of Stars) (2020-1) explains, while the memorial poles were originally ossuaries containing the bones of the deceased. Maymuru-White uses a skewer stick and marawat (human hair paintbrush) to create these deeply textural ochre works in sacred white and deep black.
Natural themes continue to tantalise as the exhibition moves from the night sky to Dhuwarrwarr Marika’s Birth of a Nation installation. Culturally, this work’s importance cannot be diminished as a living history and the story of the Djan‘kawu Sisters, major creator deities who are significant to Dhuwa moiety people. Aesthetically, it is also important as a creation of Dhuwarrwarr, credited as the first Yolngu woman to paint on bark. This geometric vision in red, black and white ochre, the caption tells us, references 'sand sliding down the dunes with each footstep the sacred sisters made upon emerging from the sea, as well as saltwater drying on their skin.' Six bark paintings create an overlaid backdrop for six larrakitj memorial poles. In combination, the entire work almost dances before the eye in an illusory effect.
Key to this work is the transition from dots to geometric shapes, reinforcing the artist’s sophisticated thought process – a mathematical equation for which only a genius could conjure an answer. A perfect installation where the pattern allows no room for error to hide a single misplaced detail.
Both Dhambit Mununggurr and Eunice Djerrkngu Yunupingu forge new styles at the intersection of traditional artistic storytelling and defining personal styles. We are told that Mununggurr’s art is 'synonymous with cobalt blue,' a colour sourced from ink cartridges and reinforced with synthetic polymers in bold and striking strokes, often against a white background with black detailing. Using these materials enabled Mununggurr to continue to paint after a terrible accident made it impossible for her to mix ochres. This privilege was bestowed by The Elders and cobalt blue has become a beacon for change within Aboriginal art, applied to bark and eucalyptus.
Likewise, I am a Mermaid (2020) artist Eunice Djerrkngu Yunupingu has introduced playful pink in relation to a personal story and dream, whereby she was 'accidentally speared by her father in mermaid form' when he mistook her for a fish. These works in their chunky and textured format are a glory to behold and culturally significant for the record they provide of the notion of 'self' separate to civilisation. New explorations of self are beautifully juxtaposed with Mulkun Wirrpanda’s deep knowledge and recording of edible plants from Arnhem Land.
Termites and meat ants seem to float on the surface of the bark, surrounded by a black void of negative space, presented perhaps as pure consciousness where creation lies.
‘Bark Ladies’ is the ephemeral embodiment of the feminine storytelling of Australia’s only historical cultural civilisation, through Yolngu eyes. To view this exhibition is to walk in the presence of greatness and to gain a deeper connection to one part of our rich history. In time the very nature of these natural materials will mean that these artworks too will succumb to the passage of time, reaffirming the importance of witnessing them in their prime. There are no hard, gently illuminated marbles in sight. No gilded Corinthian columns holding the might of empire on high looking down upon us. But greatness nonetheless waits for those with the curiosity to walk within it. We are afflicted with white people’s cringe, in this country yet these eleven women artists signal to a greatness that in my opinion outshines that of Greece and Rome. Perhaps you cannot compare the two. I do so here because we are currently witness to the rewriting of Australian history and, suddenly, my awe for the ancient classical world begins to pale. Will yours?
Rhys Williams is currently studying for a Graduate Certificate in Art Curating at the University of Sydney, having previously completed a Bachelor of International Relations and minor in International Marketing at Richmond College, The American International University in London. Rhys is also a Fellow of The Chartered Institute of Marketing (FCIM), which recognises a 22-year career as a classically trained strategic marketer. Having worked across exhibitions, financial services, B2B, FMCG and underground coal mining industries he is returning to develop an education that supports the two great loves in his life: art and writing. Rhys is particularly interested in Indigenous Australian art as a contemporary artform and its relationship with nation-building in an Australian context.