A momentous event occurs in the tiny New Hampshire town of Dartmouth next week. And it’s part of a surprising pattern in which Australia’s Aboriginal art is clearly taken more seriously by institutions in America than it is by public galleries and museums here. Significantly, both ‘Madayin’- the big Yolŋu bark show opening in Dartmouth – and the ongoing celebrations of 50 years of Papunya Tula ArtistsÍrrititja Kuwarri Tjungu’ – have been masterminded by the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection at the University of Virginia – an institution dedicated to First Nations art.

Could it be that the imminence of such specialist museums in Adelaide and Alice, and possibly in Perth and Canberra, could drive Australia’s Indigenous curators to the same levels of proactivity???

Here’s how Dartmouth’s Hood Museum promotes its effort:
“Madayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala’ is the first major exhibition of Aboriginal Australian bark paintings to tour the United States and the first curated by Yolŋu for an international audience. It traces more than 80 years of significant contributions to global modern and contemporary art by some of Australia’s leading artists”.

Please note the bold statement.

A key component of Madayin is a commission of 33 new works by 29 important Yolŋu artists including Djambawa Marawili AM, Dhuwarrwarr Marika, Guynbi Ganambarr, Noŋgirrŋa Marawili, Naminapu Maymuru-White and Wukun Wanambi. These works were at least seen in Australia at the SA Art Gallery’s Tarnanthi Festival in 2019. And this was but half way through a process which began in 2015 when Djambawa Marawili, the great cultural leader at the Buku Larrnggay Art Centre in NE Arnhemland, was resident at the Kluge-Ruhe Collection and began to appreciate the Yolŋu history that they had in storage. For both Ed Ruhe had collected Yirrkala barks early and John Kluge had commissioned monumental barks from the community in 1996. They were last seen at the NGV the following year in a show entitled ‘Paintings from the East’.

By the way, reading the mighty 384 page ‘Madayin’ catalogue allowed me to discover that Marawili’s predecessor as cultural leader, Gawirriṉ Gumana, had come up with the name for Buku-Larrŋgay, derived from “the feeling on your face as it is struck by the rays of the sun rising in the east”. Doesn’t that suggest so much about the poetry integral to Yolŋu thought, as well as indicating just how important it was that, according to legend, their culture came from the east.

Over eight decades, you would expect that an isolated community like the Yolŋu, forced to come to terms with colonisation, mining, Christianity, alcohol and so much more from an alien world would also change – as shown in their art. But one of the most senior academic commentators on Yolŋu culture, Howard Morphy, has this to say in the catalogue:
“I had prepared for my research by photographing the collections of Yolŋu paintings held in Australian museums—from the earliest, collected in the 1930s by the anthropologist Donald Thomson and the founding missionary at Yirrkala, Wilbur Chaseling, to more recent ones. One evening early on in my research, I sat with Narritjin Maymuru (the painter who died in 1981) and went through the paintings one by one. After a while, we paused and, looking at me, he said, “I know what you are trying to do, showing us that our art has changed. We will show that it has not.”

Buku’s current director, Will Stubbs, has thoughts on mutability:
“What was passing through the mind of Woŋgu Munuŋgurr as he painted for the anthropologist Donald Thomson roughly eighty years ago? We cannot summon the lyrical poetry of manikay that flowed through Woŋgu’s mind as he painted the supernatural creative forces. We will never experience the usurpation of our entire social system by foreign strangers in our lifetime. But the triumph of these artists and their supporters is that just as Law can be beauty and beauty can be Law, there need not always be one answer. This sophisticated, grown-up, infuriatingly complicated approach comes naturally to the Yolŋu philosophy”.

And the catalogue goes out of its way to share these complications via the Yolŋu language, its poetry and its deep philosophy. Here’s Waka Munuŋgurr son of the great Woŋgu, pictured in the catalogue in 1934 with at least 11 of his wives:
“The word maḏayin means sacred and hidden. In the olden days, women and children were not even allowed to say the word maḏayin, because it was sacred and never to be spoken. But today, some of these things have been brought into the open. It’s like this: when you look at a painting on bark that contains our sacred clan designs, whether Dhuwa or Yirritja (the two Yolŋu moieties, each divided into 8 clans), these paintings are maḏayin. They have sacred and hidden meanings, but they also show connections between people and places, illustrating the kinship system we call gurruṯu. Maḏayin is the unbreakable foundation of gurruṯu. The gurruṯu system stands strong through the maḏayin system”.

So, even calling the exhibition ‘Madayin’ was daring. Worse, according to Will Stubbs, “The conundrum of Maḏayin is present in the very word. How to write about something that is simultaneously Law and beauty? That bifocal perspective inflects everything to do with Yolŋu and balanda (non-Yolŋu) interaction”.

It’s a lot clearer for the Yolŋu. As the late Milirrpum Marika instructed his son, Wanyubi:
“Stand in both worlds if you want. But make sure you hold this one first: your roots and your foundation. Hold on to your foundation. For here is the foundation and the Law that will be passed on to you and your children, and they will pass it on to their children, passing from generation to generation. For this knowledge is your birthright: it was given to you by the ancestors, and you must hold on to it. Hold on to your language and your miny’tji [traditional designs] and do not change it. Do not go off track, following Western society, because there is too much to attract and corrupt there. You must have some understanding of Western culture, enough to translate English and to earn some money, but you cannot step too far into the Western world. You must balance both Yolŋu and ŋäpaki [non- Yolŋu] worlds”.

And if you think that such a concern is from times past, then consider the words of today’s elder, Djambawa Marawili, inspiring the painting of the Blue Mud Bay barks that won the Yolŋu sea rights (as Milirrpum fought for land rights):
“The paintings’ purpose is to protect the Law, and we can do that by making them hit viewers’ eyes with their full power. We can bend and shape these designs into a sword or a shield and proactively use them for what they were intended to do. These designs show the identity of the land and the people who paint them—their authority over that land, to speak for it. And if we don’t get over our fear, if we don’t use the full power that has been given to us, we will disappear, and the land that was meant to be protected by us will be destroyed”.

And all this art and accompanying wisdom is exclusively aimed at Americans!

The exhibition opens next Friday in Dartmouth, though a grand ceremonial opening takes place on September 23rd, when I’m sure the curatorium of Djambawa Marawili, Wukuṉ Waṉambi, Yinimala Gumana, Wäka Munuŋgurr, Henry Skerritt and Kade McDonald will all gather to sing and dance.

Such an effort requires generous support – and the list includes the US National Endowment for the Humanities, the Australian Government, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Australia Council for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts and Crozier Fine Arts. Wonderful to link Warhol and Milirrpum Marika!

After the Hood Museum, Madayin tours to the American University Museum at the Katzen Art Center, Washington, D.C., the Kleefeld Contemporary Art Museum at California State University, Long Beach, the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia, and finally the Asia Society, New York in 2025. It was of course, the Asia Society which began America’s association with Aboriginal art through 1988’s influential ‘Dreamings’ show, mainly from the Deserts. All those museums offer long and thoughtful residencies for our barks – but so far from Australia!

Serendipitously, it turns out that New Hampshire is hosting another Australian Indigenous art show this month – the Mariposa Museum and World Culture Center in Peterborough, New Hampshire, is exhibiting Djinong Djina Boodja (Look at the Land that I have traveled), the work of the late Shane Pickett – also originating from the Kluge/Ruhe Museum in Virginia.