An Exaltation of Barks

The title of this post is a play on that of a book published in the 1970s, for those of you who were around (in America?) to remember it, entitled An Exaltation of Larks, a whimsical parlor game of a publication based on the possibilities afforded by collective terms of venery (hunting): a pride of lions, a gaggle of geese, a murder of crows. An exaltation of larks. Mutatis mutandis, the term works well to describe the riches of the exhibition of paintings on bark from the Arnott’s Collection that is about to enter its last month at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Sydney. The exhibition is called They Are Meditating and was well reviewed by Nicolas Rothwell a couple of months ago (“Silence and Slow Time,” The Australian, May 10, 2008).

The mid-1960s, when American Jerome Gould built this collection, was certainly a golden moment in the accumulation of bark paintings. Karel Kupka was concluding a decade of visits to Arnhem Land that resulted in the romantic scholarship of Un Art a l’Etat Brut (Guilde du Livre/Editions Clairefontaine, 1962; in English, Dawn of Art) and collections now in the Basel Ethnographic Museum and the Musee du Quai Branly. Another American, Ed Ruhe, a professor of English at the University of Kansas, put together an enormous collection of bark paintings and ceremonial objects that is now at the heart of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection. Gould’s collection was brought back to Australia by the biscuit-makers Arnott’s. The purchase was originally conceived as a bicentenary gift, but delayed five years when the politics of Aboriginal protests over the 1988 celebration convinced those involved that the timing was injudicious. It has been in the possession of the MCA ever since, but like the Papunya collection at the National Museum, has never before been exhibited on this scale.

Curated by Djon Mundine, the current exhibition inevitably recalls Mundine’s earlier blockbuster for the MCA, The Native Born, which in 1996 displayed that institution’s other major collection of Indigenous Art. The Native Born was more focused temporally and geographically: it grew out of a commission from Bula’ Bula Arts in 1984, when Mundine was the arts advisor in Ramingining. But it was also more inclusive, representing the variety of artistic output from the community, including sculpture, weaving, and ritual paraphernalia.

Morning Star Poles at the MCA

They Are Meditating, at least as represented in the catalog, restricts itself to bark painting. (The exhibition also includes a spectacular display of morning star poles or banumbirrthat may be the commission executed by artists from Elcho Island in 2002.) The works come from all across Arnhem Land, and represent approximately a decade’s creative output from roughly 1965 through 1976.

The catalog opens with a series of essays that form a somewhat confounding whole. First up is a brief excerpt from a 1990 speech by R. Marika made at the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala, which is the source of the exhibition’s title (“When the old people paint, it is as if they are meditating”) and which introduces the themes of sacred art. Marika’s remarks are followed by excerpts from Wandjuk Marika: Life Story (University of Queensland Press, 1995). Typographically set out in short lines that causes them to resemble modern poetry, like Ezra Pound’s Chinese Cantos, they speak of deep history and modern history and the sensibility that unites the two.

Marika’s remarks provide an eloquent counterpoint to Mundine’s own historical excursus in the next essay, “An Aboriginal Soliloquy.” I have never been an enthusiast when it comes to Mundine’s impressionistic, collagist literary style. He tells us (in a paragraph exemplary of most of the essay)

In May 1927 Parliament House in Canberra was officially opened by His Royal High the Duke of York and a performance by Dame Nellie Melba: there was no Aboriginal acknowledgment or significant presence. David Maymirringu Malangi was born on the eastern bank of the Glyde River opposite Milingimbi and the Methodist Mission. The following year painter Binyinyiwuy was born on the mainland on the eastern side of the Glyde River mouth.

Yes, but what of it?

John von Sturmer’s contribution, “A Limping World: works in the Arnott’s Collection–some conceptual underpinnings,” concludes the opening set of essays and perhaps offers a clue about the overall intention of this introduction. It too is a collage of brief, personal reflections on the art, on contemporary Indigenous politics (art as an “intervention” into our normal ways of seeing), and on the artists behind the works on display. It strikes me as the most appropriate style that could be imagined for visitors to the MCA: those who come equipped with little knowledge about Indigenous traditions yet who are conversant with the idiom of the contemporary art catalog will be reassured that they are on familiar ground here.

The second section of They Are Meditating, “From East to West: bark painting across the Top End” is reserved largely for the glories of the collection. The paintings themselves are beautifully presented, most often in full page reproductions Four more essays introduce the stops on this route across Arnhem Land, following the sun and the route of the Wagilag creators across the country. 

Lindy Allen’s contribution on Groote Eylandt painting is a useful companion to David Turner’s essay in One Sun, One Moon (AGNSW, 2007). Together with Creation Tracks and Trade WInds, the exhibition of Groote Eylandt barks at the Ian Potter Museum of Art at Melbourne University in 2006, the works in the Arnott’s collection helped to construct a long-overdue history of the development of painting in the western reaches of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Djon Mundine returns to provide the introduction to “The Spirit Within: North-eastern and Central Arnhem.” This section of the catalog covers a lot of ground, geographically as well as artistically. The paintings included here represent the work of painters from Ramingining and Milingimbi east to Yirrkala. And it is here that I wish that some sort of organizing principle had been applied to the presentation (or made explicit if it exists). 

Although all works by a single artist are grouped together, works from the entire region are mingled with no apparent logic. Thus Gawirrin Gumana’s austere Barama (a painting that might have been excised from the Yirrkala Church Panels) appears opposite swirling goannas by Charlie Gunbana. On the other hand, ten pages separate Dawidi’s Wagilag Sisters Myth from Gimindja’s The Gadadangul Snake, which might profitably have been seen in proximity to one another.

Luke Taylor provides an all-too-brief introduction to the art of Western Arnhem Land and the rock art traditions that underlie it. This third section is dominated by a generous collection of works by Lofty Bardayal and Yirawala. It also contains some stunning barks by Bobby Barrdjaray Nganjmirra. Three paintings by Nganjmirra and a fourth by Samuel Garnarradj Manggudja occupy a two-page spread in the midst of Taylor’s essay and offer a startling tutorial on traditions that presage the work of Peter Marralwanga and John Mawurndjul in their figuration and use of space inside the frame provided by the sheet of bark. 

It is here that the real richness of the Arnott’s Collection begins to emerge. Perhaps because there is more coherence to the artistic style presented in this section, perhaps because major artists are so inclusively represented, one begins to grasp an aesthetic vision that was muted in the presentation of more easterly art. One looks at the series of changes Yirawala rings on the depiction of a set of wallabies and begins to appreciate the sacred, abstract mardayin designs. The different ways in which Bardayal and Yirawala impart motion and liveliness to their animals becomes clear. The many ways in which rarrk is treated by the artists offer insights into how patterning operates to impart volume and vitality as well as instructions to the hunter on how to share the hunt’s yield.

A pair of paintings from Wadeye forms a coda to the exhibition, and Kim Barber’s essay on Christopher Pugar’s small oval painting, Life, attempts to draw together history, geography and biography to explicate its origins. Sadly, she offers no commentary on the most immediately striking aspect of this painting. Its designs elicit striking and perhaps inexplicable comparisons to classic motifs of desert painting. In its shape, this little bark resembles a coolamon or a wunda shield. The design is a set of dotted circles connected by short, dotted lines, and the negative spaces between those lines are filled with two different colors of ochre, recalling again the bush tucker or Tingari designs of the desert. All in all, it is a most intriguing and mysterious painting.

The book’s back matter includes excellent maps that locate the many communities from which these barks were collected, along with a thumbnail presentation of the works in the show. It is here that the reader must turn for detailed information about the artists, their dates, and their countries of origin. And as you browse these pages, don’t neglect to turn the page after you’ve reviewed the two Wadeye paintings. For there, at the very end, are four small barks from the Tiwi Islands that are otherwise overlooked in the catalog.

The surprising discovery of these tiny masterpieces at the very end of the book brought home to me one more time the particular genius of Jerome Gould as a collector. Although he clearly had favorites among the artists whose work he went after, it is the breadth of his interest that informs this exhibition and that makes its presentation in this comprehensive show so important. Although missions had been selling bark paintings for decades, the presence in Arnhem Land in the 60s of men like Gould, Kupka, and Ruhe must have had a tremendously stimulating effect on the painter’s output and the richness and excitement of that period shines through the pages of this catalog.

There’s only a little over a month left to see this extraordinary collection in person at the MCA: They Are Meditating closes on August 3, 2008.

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