Valley News – Art Notes: Aboriginal offerings continue at the Hood Museum

Published: 09/22/2022 03:42:52

Modified: 09/22/2022 03:42:14

At the entrance to Madayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala at the Hood Museum of Art, a wall-sized film of crashing waves coupled with a melodic song in Yolnu Matha (the Yirrkala language) provides an immersive experience. Voices echo above the roar of the waves and merge with rhythmic percussion. Against this background, a softly illuminated bark picture is exhibited in a display case in the center of the entrance gallery.

In Yolnu parlance madajin refers to what is sacred and beautiful. “Madayin represents the coming together of sixteen Yolnu clans. … These songs are performed to signal the beginning of a ceremony and to call participants into a sacred space,” reads a text alongside the video. Yolnu refers to the clans inhabiting Yirrkala, a region in northern Australia.

The exhibition focuses on Aboriginal bark painting and is the result of a collaboration with the University of Virginia’s Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, among other institutions. It is a scholarly exhibition and there are numerous wall texts, often in the artist’s own words, describing the meaning of the works and how they fit into the larger socio-political context of clan society.

The Hood’s involvement with Australian Aboriginal art began in 2004 when the museum hosted an exhibition entitled Dreaming of Country: Painting, Place, and People in Australia. In the decade that followed, the museum acquired the collection of Will Owen (1952-2015) and Harvey M. Wagner (1931-2017), which sparked a series of exhibitions on Aboriginal art and culture. For “Madayin,” the museum hired Djambawa Marawili, an artist and leader of the Madarrpa clan, to lead the curatorial team.

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Scanning the exhibit and reading the materials, it becomes clear that the bark paintings are an expression of Yolnu cultural identity. They are more than works of art; they are means of communication, government documents, historical records. The intricate patterns they cover represent the ways in which every aspect of nature, humanity, political leadership, and family structure is interwoven.

The tradition of bark painting dates back to around 1935, making it essentially a contemporary practice. However, the designs and meanings are products of millennia of tradition and engineering, passed down by craftsmen through generations. As the supplemental material explains, the designs were originally “painted directly onto the bodies of young men when they were inaugurated.” It is important to keep in mind when viewing the works that they are more than “art for art’s sake”.

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The paintings begin with large bark leaves from eucalyptus trees. The strips of bark are then slowly heated and flattened and sanded to a smooth, workable surface. Traditionally, earth pigments such as ocher and white clay mixed with binders are used for the colour. A prominent piece includes blue acrylic paint. It was the only example in the exhibition to use synthetic pigments, and it made the piece look more “modern” than the earth-tone works.

Another non-standard work is a monumental mural composed of 299 small squares of bark arranged in a massive grid. In terms of character, this work struck me as more like a contemporary wall sculpture, somewhat reminiscent of the minimalist works of Eva Hesse. That’s not far-fetched given the long history of appropriation of so-called “ethnographic art” by western artists.

While most of the work is abstract, with no recognizable imagery, there are examples that depict human, animal, and vegetal forms. These depictions are beautifully stylized and expressive amidst the labyrinthine webs of lines and shapes that adorn the surfaces. Videos throughout the exhibition show men in traditional dress performing dances and songs. These reflect the content of the bark pictures and remind the viewer of the diverse dimensions that these works convey. The Yolnu designs are powerful and evoke a sense of oneness, of oneness, rarely captured in the visual arts.

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Madayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala is on view at the Hood Museum of Art until December 4th. A series of public events surrounding the exhibition begins Thursday at 12:30pm with an introductory tour led by curator Henry Skerrit. Assistant Professor in the Department of Art and Associate Curator at the University of Virginia’s Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection. An opening reception is planned for Friday from 4:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. And on Saturday afternoons, the Hood will hold two events: a “Community Day” on Saturday afternoon from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. on the making of bark paintings and a talk between Yolnu artists from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. at the Gilman Auditorium of the hood. The programs are all free and open to the public. Visit for event information and the exhibition website at

Eric Sutphin is a freelance writer. He lives in Plainfield.

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