Abandon all you think you know about Aboriginal bark painting. An electric show at the National Gallery of Victoria, Bark Ladies: Eleven Artists from Yirrkala (until April 25), celebrates a new generation of artists bringing a contemporary spin to this most ancient of traditions.
It’s important because the gallery has dedicated a major space to the work of these women artists working out of the Yolngu-run art center Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre (Buku) in northeast Arnhem Land. The exhibition features bark painting and larrakitj (painted hollow poles), which were traditionally used by Yolngu people as a type of coffin or bone container for the memorial to a deceased person.
The first thing you will notice is color, lots of it: pink, blue and red. It’s revelatory and celebratory. I was fascinated to learn that before 1970, Yolngu women didn’t paint sacred themes on bark or larrakitj, but, contemporaneously, several women artists have adopted the media to great acclaim. The NGV has been astute in its collection of these artists from Buku, located in the small Aboriginal community of Yirrkala, about 700km east of Darwin.
It’s impossible to pick a favorite but look out for the work of Nonggirrnga Marawili, who is one of the leading artists of her generation.
Nine recently acquired “pink poles” larrakitj by Marawili will knock your socks off. The artist uses ochres and recycled printer toner to render her cross-hatched design for the fresh waters of the Djapu clan (whose ancestors hunted using woven fish traps) painted on stringybark to make her extraordinary works. I have never seen anything quite like them.
Bark Ladies also features a new commission by Naminapu Maymuru-White, a floor-based work that depicts the Milky Way, Milngiyawuy (River of Stars). This show is a wonderful introduction to Yolngu culture through the work of Yunupingu sisters Nancy Gaymala, Gulumbu, Barrupu, Ms. N Yunupingu, and Eunice Djerrkngu, as well as Dhambit Mununggurr and Mulkun Wirrpanda, exploring conceptions of the universe, fire, and creation.
A great kids’ exhibition accompanies the larger show. The Gecko and the Mermaid: Djerrkngu Yunupingu and her Sister celebrates Yolngu culture through the work of two artists and sisters, Ms N Yunupingu and Eunice Djerrkngu Yunupingu. It’s an interactive introduction.
This article originally appeared on Escape and do not necessarily represent the views of australiaexploring.com