Suddenly, Aboriginal bark painting is becoming very trendy. In September, American eyes are going to be opened wide by the start of a national tour in New Hampshire of ‘Madayin‘, historic and contemporary barks from the Yolngu in Yirrkala. In April, the ANU’s Drill Hall Museum in Canberra opened an exhibition of a private collection of barks, “featuring some of the finest painters of Arnhem Land – Yirrwala, Bobby Barrdjaray Nganjmirra and Wally Mandarrk. In Vienna, the Weltmuseum Wien has just been gifted 58 Aboriginal artworks, saying, “The now-captured collection, with works by 40 indigenous Australian artists including (their spelling) John Maurendjoel, Melba Gungarwanga, Charlie Genmalala Priyanswe, Lena Yarinkura, and Marie Borontatamiri.
And just opened up the road in a Munich museum is a sensational collection of 170 barks from right across the north that were put together by a German dermatologist between 1969 and 2015.
Dr Gerd Plewig, who picked up a kangaroo bark almost accidentally in a mission shop in Sydney in 1969, quickly realised – unlike many Australians at the time – that he was looking at art that was “a reflection of radically different religious beliefs, customs and social structures”, became a highly discriminating collector of the best, mainly historical barks, coming up for auction in the following years.
Now, the Museum Fünf Kontinente (Five Continents Museum ), founded in 1862 as the first ethnological museum in Germany, and originally called, Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde, is showing ‘Inspired by Country. Bark Paintings from Northern Australia‘, donated by the Gerd and Helga Plewig Collection.
How ironic! It was not that many years ago that a German art fair dismissed contemporary First Nations art as ‘Folk art’. Now they are welcoming art that was the origins of today’s creations.
The earliest bark paintings in the Plewig collection were created in the 1920s and 1930s, however, most of them are from the period from 1950 to the mid-1970s. They include magical names such as Yirrwala, Bobby Nganjimirra, Mawalan Marika, Mungurrawuy Yunupingu, Paddy Compass Namatbara, Nym Banduk, Thomas Nandjiwarra Amagula and Alec Mingelmanganu, At that time the artists of the North were trying to convey the importance of Aboriginal culture to the world through their paintings. As ritual leaders of their clans they used their art to demonstrate their close connection to Country and to begin the fight for their land rights.
That first kangaroo image in 1969 was by Dick Nguleingulei Murrumurru, very much a founder of the Kunwinjku painting movement at Oenpelli/Gunbalanya and close to the Church Missionary Society there. His painting, though was of his birthplace Stone Country, its animals and its spirits – one of the former appearing on the 75c stamp in 1982. His kangaroo, a catalogue article by Djon Mundine tells was, was basically the anatomy of the animal for consumption – a form of visualisation that Australian ethnologist AS Kenyon had categorised in 1929 as ‘Intellectual Realism’.
Oenpelli was, of course, the first place where barks were created for sale after Baldwin Spencer encouraged the art in 1912 when visiting as an anthropologist. Previously, the only source had been those paintings that remained on wet-season bark shelter walls – mostly destroyed in the following fire season. The first known came from the Coburg Peninsular in the 1870s and were almost certainly painted to educate children during a long, boring wet.
Nayombolmi came from further east, in Jawon Country, but had the good fortune to become close to Dorothy Bennett, an early collector and dealer, who recorded his art-making in photographs. He was also a rock art painter with some 650 images credited to his name, so his barks came, if you like, straight off the walls on the Stone Country. However, Bennett had initially sold his work as “by a bush artist” until she recognised her artists’ different styles, as well as realising that named artists sold better than anonymous ones! The anthropologist couple, the Berndts were the first to regularly obtain the names of artists they collected.
The catalogue contains a colourful description of art-making and dealing from 1963. “In September 1963 their camp was visited by Valerie Lhuedé, who voiced her interest in Aboriginal art, which inspired Nayombolmi and Nym Djimongurr to gather bark, pigment, and “bush glue” to create some paintings for her. They stripped bark from a nearby stringybark tree, heated it over fire to take the curve out of it and rubbed it with the juice of a local orchid root to get a good surface on which to work. They sought out some ochres and burnt the yellow until it became red —literally terracotta. They made the chewed end of a twig and a feather into brushes and, using tins to hold water, they began the paintings. News came that Mrs. Dorothy Bennett was to visit. Nym and Nayombolmi greeted her with their bark of ‘Lightning Man‘.” – which she bought.
The Plewigs major collecting time after 1997 coincided with many works by earlier collectors like Bennett coming up for auction, encouraged by the ubiquitous Tim Klingender at Sotheby’s. He writes in the excellent catalogue about Karel Kupka, Sandra le Brun Holmes (Yirrwala’s major sponsor), Stuart Scougal, Jerome Gould and Jim Davidson. He obviously admired the Plewigs’ selective methods, aiming only for the best works in each sale and extending their expertise from the West Kimberley – where they obtained works by all five of the earliest Wandjina painters – across to Groote Eyelandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria. It was from the latter that they acquired an 18-bark series by Nandjiwarra Amagula entitled ‘What Happens to a Man when he Dies on Groote Eylandt’.
Another chapter in the catalogue is by Galarrwuy Yunupingu, the senior Yolngu leader, backing up the academic expertise of Luke Taylor and Wally Caruana and curator Michaela Appel with his first hand experience of art, the land and the law. In the absence of a visit to Munich, the 380-page catalogue (published by Hirmer) is a totally valid alternative to understand the growing appreciation of bark art.
Postscript: The Conversation has a fascinating piece about Baldwin Spencer at Gulbalanya in 1912 and the very origins of bark painting for the marketplace.
Artist: Yirrwala, Bobby Barrdjaray Nganjmirra, Wally Mandarrk, John Mawurndjul, Melba Gungarwanga, Charlie Genmalala Priyanswe, Lena Yarinkura, Marie Borontatamiri, Mawalan Marika, Mungurrawuy Yunupingu, Paddy Compass Namatbara, Nym Banduk, Thomas Nandjiwarra Amagula, Alec Mingelmanganu, Dick Nguleingulei Murrumurru, Nayombolmi, Nym Djimongurr, Nandjiwarra Amagula, Galarrwuy Yunupingu,
Tags: alec mingelmanganu , bobby barrdjaray nganjmirra , Charlie Genmalala Priyanswe , Dick Nguleingulei Murrumurru , Dorothy Bennett , Dr Gerd Plewig , Galarrwuy Yunupingu , Jeremy Eccles , john mawurndjul , lena yarinkura , Madayin , Marie Borontatamiri , mawalan marika , Melba Gungarwanga , Mungurrawuy Yunupingu , Museum Fünf Kontinente , Nandjiwarra Amagula , Nayombolmi , Nym Banduk , Nym Djimongurr , Paddy Compass Namatbara , Thomas Nandjiwarra Amagula , Tim Klingender , Wally Mandarrk , Yirrwala ,