Explicating Bark Painting

grogerwurmTwo years ago, during the turning of 2011 into 2012, I took my customary holiday break from serious thinking and produced a pair of posts in which I looked back at what I thought to be some of the core texts and catalogs that a student of Aboriginal art and culture might want to have on the shelf and under the belt.  On list enumerated significant works of anthropology in my personal education, the other was a catalog of great art books.

In retrospect I can see that there was one title that should have been on both lists, and its omission from either is therefore all the more striking.  I was reminded of it a few weeks ago while perusing the beautiful bark paintings in the National Museum of Australia’s exhibition, Old Masters: Australia’s great bark artists.  Especially in the early days of my studies of Yolngu painting, Helen Groger-Wurm’s Australian Aboriginal Bark Paintings and their Mythological Interpretation, volume 1: Eastern Arnhem Land (Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1973; Australian Aboriginal Studies, no. 30) was an indispensable guide to the stories and iconography of the region.

A decade ago, before the long tail of the book market became as well exposed as it is today, this was a difficult book to find at all; when copies did turn up they were usually expensive, over A$200 for a slim (139 page) paperback.  I was fortunate that the library where I work owned a copy, and am even more fortunate today to have found a more reasonably priced copy I can call my own and consult whenever the mood strikes me.

The volume contains black-and-white plates reproducing 194 bark paintings (16 of which are also shown in color) collected by the author from Milingimbi, Yirrkala, Numbulwar, and Maningrida between 1966 and 1969.  The paintings are arranged in three major categories: “Sacred Bark Paintings of the Dua Moiety”; “Sacred Bark Paintings of the Jiridja Moiety”; and “Secular Bark Paintings.”  The first category encompasses the Djang’kawu and Wagilag stories, as well as the wild honey, shark, mosquito, and thunder man ancestors.  The Yirritja section includes, among others, the stories of Barama and Lany’tjung, and “the gathering of the Wongar beings in the Plain Country at Arnhem Bay.”  The “secular’ paintings discuss death and mortuary rites or offer illustrations of a particular story or myth, and thus are far more than what one might think of a “secular.”

What distinguishes this book from so many others in the extensive detail which Groger-Wurm provides about each painting, both in terms of the story that is being told and in the way that it is represented in the particular work at hand.  Indidvidual actors are identified, cross-hatching explicated, the meaning of dots in the designs surfaced.  At the risk of quoting too extensively, allow me to computer the treatment of Mathaman Marika’s Rirratjungu Mortuary Ceremony (1967) as it is presented in the NMA’s Old Masters, and in Groger-Wurm’s catalog.


The painting appears on page 142 of Old Masters; it shows a number of human figures against a cross-hatched design in its lower portion; the upper third of the painting consists of broad, radiating bands of solid color.  In the introduction to this section of Old Masters devoted to the Marika family, it is described as follows.

Mathaman  paints another set of Dhuwa ancestors, the Wäwilak Sisters.  In the upper panel of Rirratjungu Mortuary Ceremony the rays of the sun capture diet rising from the ground as people dance in the ceremony depicted below.  Here, the spirit of the deceased is taught how to make paddles and is given a canoe to row to Dhambaliya (Bremer Island) in its way to the ancestral realm (Old Masters, p. 136).

This description is based on the one provided by Groger-Wurm (she collected the painting in question), but necessarily abbreviates the annotation.  In Groger-Wurms publication, the plate is accompanied by a diagram which identifies various figures by attaching numbers to them, and explains the relationships among them at length.  The 1960s orthography may take a moment to get used to, but the effort is well worth it.  Here is the story as Groger-Wurm presents it.

When a Riradjingu person of the dua moiety dies, his or her spirit goes immediately to Munumbarlwui, a jungle swamp on the western side of Melville Bay.   Here [the upper-left corner of the lower section of the panel] the spirit is awaited by two mogwoi [mokuy] Wuluwaid and Bunbulama, who guide it along to meet all the assembled relatives who predeceased it.

In the centre is the new spirit surrounded by four women crying and “feeling sorry” for it.  On the bottom left, old Bunbulama is beating his clapping sticks, bilma, and on the right is Dolunganda with his didjeridu, jitagi [yidaki], which he holds against a paperbark pad for better resonance.  These two old men start very slowly to clap___ clap___ clap___ doo___ doo___ doo___.  After some time the rhythm becomes faster and then all the spirits start dancing to make the new arrival happy.  In the bottom corners are two dawo trees.

The coloured bands in the upper panel are symbolic of the dust that rises from the ground while the mogwoi are dancing.  In the evenings, when the sun is setting, one can see these bands of rays in the reddish sky and this indicates that the sprites are dancing at  Munumbarlwui.

The dead sprites stays there for about two days.  The Bunbulama mogwoi (this term can also refer to a group of mogwoi) teach the new spirit how to make paddles and then give it a canoe for the journey to Dambalia, Bremer Island.   Nganug, the paddle-maker, rows the spirit acres and there it remains for three or four dats hunting and corroborating until it departs for Bralgu where it remains forever (Groger-Wurm, p. 110)

The extraordinary amount of information contained in this annotation and the many other likes it that fill Australian Aboriginal Bark Paintings and their Mythological Interpretation have always raised two questions in my mind.  How did Groger-Wurm achieve the degree of intimacy with Yolngu elders that allowed the sharing of such “inside” information?  And what ever happened to the projected other volumes implied by the subtitle of this one?

The answers to these questions can be found in Margie West’s essay “‘The Woman with Men’s Business’: Helen Wurm,” which was published as Chapter 19 of The Makers and Making of Indigenous Australian Museum Collections (Melbourne University Press, 2008: 537-553, edited by Nicolas Peterson, Lindy Allen, and Louise Hamby), in which West refers to Groger-Wurm’s notes on the expedition.

The collection was initiated at a time when it became apparent that the traditional way of Indigenous life in Arnhem Land was on the threshold of considerable change through the pressure of western civilisation. The age old unbroken chain of handing on tribal wisdom knowledge and law in a series of initiation cycles each lasting many weeks, became threatened. Though ceremonies were shortened it became apparent that the day was approaching fast when the chain would be broken. And once this happened it would be the end of the old traditional life.  This fact, by the way, worried the old men in eastern Arnhem Land particularly because it would mean that all their knowledge and wisdom would be lost to future generations (quoted in West, pp. 541-2)

Most significantly, [Groger-Wurm] said that the Yolngu considered ‘that I knew the “business” like a man and anyway, that I was an “old” married balanda (European) woman’.17 So it was her perceived status as a female elder that in part allowed her access to certain privileged information, especially the detailed ancestral narratives that accompanied the artworks (West, p. 548).

West notes that Groger-Wurm considered the collection of paintings from northeastern Arnhem Land published as “volume 1″ to the the most rewarding and challenging” part of the larger project, which additionally  included fieldwork and collecting in Gunbalanya, Groote Eylandt, Melville Island, and Wadeye.  West goes on to say this:

Her decision to publish on the northeastern Arnhem Land segment of the collection first was no doubt influenced by this experience. After the volume was published by the AIAS in 1973, there was, however, concern about the sensitive nature of its contents. The book was subsequently classified as semi-restricted, with a published note requesting the reader’s discretion because ‘much of this material is secret/sacred’. However, Howard Morphy, in a personal communication (2006), mentions that he attended a meeting at Yirrkala between the then Principal of the AIAS, Dr Peter Ucko, and senior Yolngu men to discuss the status of the Wurm publication. At the meeting, only one painting in the book was considered conten- tious, due in part to the passing of the senior custodian of the site in question. Later on, the artists decided to paint this segment of the story again. As previously mentioned, Morphy’s own extensive field research in northeastern Arnhem Land has shown how fluid the classification of paintings can be over time, with different clans releasing imagery or restricting previously public imagery due to political considerations of the time. Today there appears to be little in the Wurm publication to warrant its restriction (West, p. 552).

Be that as it may, no formal publication of the remaining material was undertaken.  The works from the entire endeavor were distributed to the Institute of Anatomy (which eventually became part of the collection of the National Museum of Australia) and to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, where it formed the core of MAGNT’s holdings of Indigenous material after the devastation of Cyclone Tracy destroyed the Museum’s original site.  Much later, Groger-Wurm provided reports on these collections to the NMA and MAGNT, but formal publication never ensued.  Nonetheless, the publication and the collection as a whole are of surpassing importance to the study of the art and culture of Arnhem Land, broadly defined.  I will leave the final words on its significance to West:

Even so, the Wurm collection remains, as intended, an important record of the art and related ancestral stories from northern Australia. The collection provides a snapshot of a seminal time in Aboriginal art when people were engaging at a sig- nificant level with the wider Australian society through their paintings. She worked with many artists who are now regarded as the nation’s most gifted and important practitioners. They were the inspired ini- tiators of the dynamic art movements that have since catapulted Aboriginal art into the national and international spotlight. Part of Wurm’s success in amassing this collection, apart from her own obvious dedication, was the generosity of the Indigenous people who shared her vision and in fact utilised her project as a way of securing certain outcomes for themselves. This was not merely a one-way transaction, but one that, as illustrated particularly by the north- eastern example, required extensive negotiations to work out the protocols of engagement. The ultimate aim for both Wurm and the artists was the collection of significant cultural information for the benefit of future generations.

As someone who has worked with many of the collected artists, and subsequently with their other family members since their deaths, I know that this collection is very highly valued by the people of the Top End. Many artists often refer to the Wurm publication to inform their own contemporary art practice and cultural knowledge and are always keen to view their relations’ work on museum visits. With its solid documentation and mythological coverage, the collection is also an important resource for researchers and curators, and many of the works have been featured in both in-house and touring displays by the MAGNT and the NMA. It is hard to imagine today that Wurm herself would disapprove of individual works from the collection being displayed and toured in such major exhibitions, as fine art. They are works often of exceptional aesthetic merit and this does not detract at all from their enduring cultural significance to the nation’s heritage (West, pp. 552-3).

This entry was posted in Anthropology, Art, Books and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s