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Old Masters exhibition at the National Museum of Australia

Styles and techniques of painting
The exhibition aims to familiarise visitors with the styles and visual languages of Arnhem Land art. In western Arnhem Land the connection to rock art has resulted in the predominance of figurative imagery. In eastern Arnhem Land, bark painters prefer geometric compositional templates with an emphasis on patterned clan designs. In central Arnhem Land, artists tend to combine both approaches. In fact, figurative, abstracted or geometric imagery exists in all areas.

Paintings are characterised by the use of fine crosshatched patterns of clan designs that produce an optical brilliance reflecting the presence of ancestral forces in a work. The artist’s palette consists of red and yellow ochres of varying intensity and hues, from flat to lustrous, as well as charcoal and white clay. The bark, the artist’s canvas, is stripped from Eucalyptus tetrodonta (stringybark) during the wet season, then cured and flattened.

The physical environment
The physical environment of Arnhem Land is diverse. In the west, the rocky escarpment that extends into Kakadu National Park is home to hundreds of rock shelters and caves bearing paintings that date back 30 millennia. The practice of rock painting continues to this day, and Najombolmi, Bardayal Nadjemerrek and Wally Mandarrk are among a number of rock painters represented in this exhibition. In Central Arnehm Land lie savannah forests and the Arafura Wetlands. From here, chains of islands lead to the eastern coast of Arnhem Land and south to Blue Mud Bay on the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Clans in Arnhem Land share much in the way of connections to ancestors, belief systems, ritual practices, exchange ceremonies and social structures. The peoples of the west are known by the collective term Bininj, while those in central and eastern regions refer to themselves as Yolŋu. The exhibition follows this distinction, with the main artists, Yirawala and Narritjin, belonging to the Bininj and Yolŋu groups respectively.

Arnhem Land societies are complex in their structures, but fundamentally they are divided into two halves, known by the word ‘moiety’. In eastern and central Arnhem Land the moieties are called Dhuwa and Yirritja, and Duwa and Yirridjdja in the west. Every person, clan and animate or inanimate thing – whether an ancestor, animal, feature of the landscape or natural phenomenon – belongs to one moiety or the other. Ownership of land, ceremonies and painted designs is inherited from one’s father, while custodial or managerial rights are inherited from one’s mother. A person must marry someone of the opposite moiety, and people belonging to each moiety play different but complementary roles in ceremonies.

Missions and townships
In 1931 the Australian Government declared Arnhem Land an Aboriginal reserve. Mission stations had been established across the region: at Oenpelli in 1916, Milingimbi in 1923, Yirrkala in 1935, Minjilang (Croker Island) in 1940, and Galiwin’ku (Elcho Island) in 1942. Maningrida was set up as a trading post in 1947, and the township of Ramingining in the early 1970s. With the introduction of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act in 1976, there was a movement away from these main townships. Today, many people live in smaller communities on their traditional lands, which are referred to as homelands or outstations.

The collectors
The National Museum of Australia’s vast holdings of bark paintings from Arnhem Land include substantial numbers of works that were gathered by the collectors such as Charles P Mountford from his Arnhem Land expedition, Dorothy Bennett, Karel Kupka, Helen Groger-Wurm, Sandra Le Brun Holmes and JA (Jim) Davidson among others.

The exhibition
Old Masters spans a critical period in the history of the art of Arnhem Land and its peoples, from 1948 to 1988. The Second World War is a significant historical marker for the people of Arnhem Land, due to the bombing of Darwin and parts of the northern coast of the region. Anthropologists arrived after the war, and were followed by the collectors, both private and public, to see at first hand the art of Arnhem Land, and to meet its creators and collect their work. The 1980s and 1990s saw a burgeoning of interest in Indigenous Australian art. The National Museum of Australia opened to the public in 2001 but Old Masters is the first major exhibition devoted to the unique art of bark painting and to its makers. Arnhem Land bark painters continue to build on the richness of their artistic heritage, taking their art in new directions while building on past achievements.

20 fast facts about the Old Masters exhibition:

  1. Old Masters spans the period 1948 to 1988
  2. The National Museum of Australia holds the largest collection of bark paintings in the world – over 2000.
  3. The Old Masters exhibition features forty artists.
  4. Bark is stripped from the stringybark tree during the wet season when it is easier to prise off the trunk.
  5. The bark painter’s palette consists of red and yellow ochres, white clay and black.
  6. Until the 1960s artists used natural resins, egg yolk and orchid plant juice to bind the colours to make paint; now most use water based resins such as wood glue.
  7. Painters use a variety of brushes, the most important being a short-handled brush made from a few strands of human hair: it is used to make the very fine cross-hatched pattern.
  8. Mural painting is another form of painting on bark, and stems from the practice of artists drawing or painting on the inside walls of their family bark huts or shelters.
  9. Some of the artists paint about their personal experiences.
  10. Artists do not paint portraits of people as in a physical likeness; rather, they paint a person’s relationship to the individual, which is considered to be more important.
  11. Each clan can be identified by a specific design or pattern, much like Scottish clans and their tartans.
  12. The exhibition is set out in three stylistic regions: central, western and eastern Arnhem Land.
  13. Central Arnhem Land artists combine elements and styles from western and eastern Arnhem Land.
  14. Arnhem Land societies are structured as two halves or groups. In marriage, one person must marry only a person from their opposite half or group in society.
  15. Western Arnhem Land is dominated by the Arnhem Escarpment, a vast range of rocky hills that is home to thousands of rock art galleries, some of which date back more than 30,000 years.
  16. Yirawala was called the ‘Picasso of Arnhem Land’.
  17. The Marika family is one of the great Australian artistic dynasties.
  18. Jack Wunuwn has been called the ‘Michelangelo of Arnhem Land’.
  19. The Nganjmirra family is one of the great artistic dynasties of Arnhem Land that continues to this day.
  20. David Malangi’s Gurrmirringu, the Ancestral Hunter, was reproduced on the $1 note in 1966.
Narritjin MAYMURU, Coat of Arms, 1963, National Museum of Australia. Click on the image to watch a video on the exhibition.
Narritjin MAYMURU, Coat of Arms, 1963, National Museum of Australia.
Click on the image to watch a video on the exhibition.

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