Over the past few years, bark paintings from Groote Eylandt have been appearing on the secondary market with increasing frequency, but to me they still seem one of the last mysterious outposts in the domain of Aboriginal art.
One reason for this might be the rupture in the painting tradition on Groote that followed the post-war boom in manganese mining on the island. One of the best resources for the history of contact on Groote remains Andrew McMillan’s An Intruder’s Guide to East Arnhem Land (Duffy and Snellgrove, 2001, reprinted by Niblock Publishing in 2007). In it, McMillan tells the story of missionaries and mercenaries, including the legendary Fred Gray, a man on the margins of many of the sad tales spread around the waters of the western edge of the Gulf of Carpentaria. On Groote Eylandt, Gray seems to have been a cross between a secular savior who tried to minimize the negative impact of colonization and a man who would be king, creating his own sovereign realm apart.
But as elsewhere in East Arnhem Land, the lure of metals was to prove the undoing of the Indigenous population. Large deposits of manganese had been discovered on Groote Eylandt in the first decade of the twentieth century, but remained largely untapped. During the Second World War, Groote became a strategically important refueling stop for the Catalina aircraft that played a significant role in the defense of the Top End from the approaches of the Japanese. And after the war, the giant mining company BHP moved in to exploit the manganese, which is used to harden steel. As happened on the mainland at Nhulunbuy, the presence of the mine and its attendant influx of white men and grog was to have a destructive impact on the local society.
One devastating side effect of the mining operations was the deterioration of the native population’s health as the manganese dust resulted in an enormous increase in lung diseases. ”Manganism” is a syndrome that results from inspiration of the dust and is characterized by weakness, trembling, clouded thinking, and impotence. Added to the effects of chronic alcohol abuse and petrol sniffing, this is a diabolical recipe for disaster.
But the opening of the manganese mines had yet another, less conspicuous effect on the Anindilyakwa culture of the island: it destroyed a basis of their art.
The most distinctive feature of paintings from Groote Eylandt is the deep, rich, sensuous black background that covers the bark supports of the work. While the figuration in these paintings–totemic animals, constellations, or abstract patterns that represent the winds that command the seasons in the Gulf–bears a notional resemblance to other Yolngu painting with its dashed hatching, there is none of the shimmer and brilliance of mainland design to be found in most paintings from Groote Eylandt. Instead, these designs float on inky seas or emanate from cosmic depths. This defining blackness is created out of manganese. And when the ore deposits came under the control of BHP, the fundamental material of Anindilyakwa art was lost to the people of Groote. Even in recent times, as the growth in the art industry has brought about a minor resurgence in painting on the island, the new work bears only a tenuous resemblance to the masterpieces of the 40s and 50s that have lately come to grace the walls of Australian auction houses.
I suspect that there are two reasons for this renewed interest in the art of the Anindilyakwa. One is simple economics: the art of Groote Eylandt is the latest “discovery,” a resource not yet exploited and now ripe to appease the art market’s appetite for novelty. The other reason, I would like to think, is that there is still an air of mystery, a suggestion of the unexplained and impenetrable to these paintings. Yes, there are many simple marine themes, boats and fishing scenes reminiscent of familiar Yolngu depictions of encounters with Macassan praus, with the Groote Eylandters had extensive contact. There are stingrays and sawfish and shovel-nosed sharks, the creatures who created Groote. But there are also those spectral starscapes, those geometric avatars of the prevailing winds that are in many ways alien to the visual vocabularies of the rest of Aboriginal Australia, and that are barely documented.
There is an astonishing lack of information recorded about most Anindilyakwa art. There are a few artists whose names might be familiar to aficionados of bark painting: Thomas Nanjiwarra Amagula or Bill Namaiyangkwa Wurrawilya. But the vast majority of paintings simply bear the legend “artist unknown.” Interpretations of the subject matter rarely extend beyond a simple identification of the animals portrayed. Comprehensive studies of the traditional culture are rare. The largest body of literature from the “early” days of contact was produced by Keith Cole, who was for many years resident on Groote Eylandt in connection with the Church Missionary Society (CMS) Groote Eylandt Mission. While Cole does record traditional stories, the links with the art remain largely undocumented.
Some recent exhibitions have helped to illuminate artistic traditions on Groote. In 2006, the Ian Potter Museum mounted Creation Tracks and Trade Winds: Groote Eylandt Bark Paintings from the University of Melbourne, featuring thirty-two paintings from the important Leonhard Adam Collection. Two years later, barks from Groote featured in the MCA’s vast survey They Are Meditating: Bark Paintings form the MCA’s Arnott’s Collection. The catalog from that exhibition contains an excellent essay by Lindy Allen that chronicles fifty years of Groote Eylandt painting through the 1970s.
The Anindilyakwa Arts and Cultural Centre has recently been supporting a resurgence of painting on Groote Eylandt, and Alfred Lalara’s Castle Rock (right) hung in the 26th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. Lalara’s acrylic paintings capture some of the compositional patterns and mystery of the old style, but there is a heavy inflection of mainland Arnhem Land technique in his work and the work of other contemporary painters. The use of cross-hatching has been widely adopted, and the fluid compositions of many artists other than Lalara call forth connections to (intriguingly) the arts of Western Arnhem Land and the ochre-on-Arches production from Injalak Arts in Gunbalanya.
Much as I enjoy Lalara’s work, I remain captivated by the older, darker style of painting of which Thomas Amagula remains the finest exponent. The painting above shares the basic qualities of Amagula’s classic style, though its author, subject, and date of creation remain undocumented. I stumbled on it five years ago in Gabriella Roy’s Aboriginal and Pacific Arts Gallery in Waterloo and was instantly charmed.
The inner (painted) surface of the bark has been rather roughly finished, at least in comparison to mainland works, even those of the 1960s. It’s a small work, 34 by 54 cm, and there isn’t much curvature to the plane of the bark. However, there’s a deep pit in the lower right quadrant: it looks like the memory of an incipient branch that hadn’t emerged from the tree trunk at the time the bark was stripped. Similarly, there is a small lozenge-shaped protrusion in the upper right quadrant, visible where the black manganese underpainting has been abraded off over time.
I’m not by any means an expert in tool marks, but the surface of the bark looks as though it may have been scraped with stone, rather than metal, tools. The markings are undulating, a series of grooves that suggest the bark offered some resistance to the tool; there’s no evidence of final sanding or smoothing to be seen.
Likewise, I’m no expert on australoid insect morphology. Eight legs suggested a spider, but the circular object on the left made me wonder if I was looking at a hive or some kind of sugarbag. Then again, given the cosmological nature of some Groote Eylandt subject matter, I wondered about the moon. Luckily, a conversation with Matthew McDavitt, a fellow American enthusiast of Anindilyakwa art provided support for the spider thesis (as does the small circular orifice at the base of the creature’s abdomen: the “spinneret” from which the web is extruded). Matthew sent me the following excerpt from Keith Cole’s Groote Eylandt Stories: changing patterns of life among the aborigines on Groote Eylandt (Church Missionary Historical Publications Trust, 1972).
The events took place on Warramarrba lands in the south of Bickerton Island. [Note: Bickerton lies off the northwest coast of Groote, south of Blue Mud Bay.] Spider, dadikumawarrkuwarrka [lit. "weaver"], a female ancestral being, traveled from inland to the coast searching for yams to eat. She found round yams, but these are hard to prepare (like cycad nuts, you have to grate them and soak them for many hours to make them edible). Near the coast she found long yams, which can be eaten raw or cooked like potatoes. The story explains why round yams require preparation, but long yams don’t. There is no doubt much more detail to this tale, explaining why the two yam species must be treated differently.
Spider also interacted with Dove at the coast, offering to use her web strand to allow Dove and others to cross a bay.
Matthew went on to speculate that the round object to the left of the spider might represent the less desirable round yam. I’m grateful to him for providing me with a convincing interpretation of this mysterious painting. Perhaps it’s not too late for scholars to take up what exists of the historical record of contact on Groote Eylandt to support an art historical research project that can resurrect the lost meanings of the classic works from the mid-twentieth century.
Recently, tourism has come to the island in the form of “safari sport fishing,” and Amuwarngka Cultural Tours offers half-day excursions to rock art sites. After decades of dismal history following the opening of the mines, perhaps there is a renaissance imminent on Groote.