December 13, 2013 @ 7:49 PM

As you enter the exhibition of 120 Aboriginal bark paintings at the National Museum of Australia ... a profoundly beautiful showing of work by artists properly entitled 'Old Masters' ... there is a quotation on the wall (and also in the catalogue) from one of them, Narritjin Maymuru of Eastern Arnhem Land:

Through paintings I will teach you first the surface stories... The deeper meanings I hold in my hands.

It is certainly true that the initial response of any visitor is to be caught up in the sheer power and eloquence of such representations from northern Australia of animal, human and spirit figures...

The lightning man, rainbow serpent, crocodile, kangaroo, emu, turtle and mimi spirits...

painted in ochres upon the stringybark in designs that, for those who know, tell stories from the dreaming and the creation of all things.

The figures and backgrounds are very often overlaid with the most intricate and abstract patterns of curves, lines and cross-hatching, that are not only exquisitely decorative and full of movement to an eye that has become used to the techniques of modern European art (though the traditions of these bark paintings go back perhaps thirty or forty thousand years.)

But you are also aware that these patterns also have meaning for the people. (And 'pattern', fixed by millenia of usage, is the word constantly used.)

It may depict a path through country (just like any map) showing hills and rivers, camp sites or the tracks of creatures.

It may represent a confluence of salt and fresh water.

Or, in the case of the cross-hatchings, so delicately painted with brushes made from a few strands of human hair, it will often relate to the designs of particular clans and family groups that of course speak directly to those involved.

Whether you look at these paintings from an aesthetic point of view or with deeper knowledge, one is constantly aware that behind them lie those even deeper, mystical meanings of lore and ceremony of which Narritjin spoke, and which are known – and should only be known – to initiates.

Singing the paintings into life

The point was strikingly made at the opening when a contemporary Aboriginal artist, Terry Marrawili 'sang' one of the paintings into life with didgeridoo and clapping sticks. And I was reminded of a BBC program I saw recently, in which Dr Nigel Spivey pointed out how the ancient cave paintings of Africa and southern Europe only made sense to him when he realised from Aboriginal practice that they were also meant to be seen accompanied by music, singing and by ceremony.

They are, in a very particular meaning, religious art.

Yet there is enough here for us all to share the aesthetic as well as some of symbolic pleasures of these bark paintings ... and for this fourth-generation Australian to appreciate, deep down, that they represent the true and complex images of our country and the forty thousand years or more of human habitation.

For it is an art that can represent not just the physical world, but locate the social, cultural and spiritual place of a person and family group within it.

(Which is not to deny its political force as well. It was Narritjin, after all, who painted the bark petitions presented to Parliament half a century ago, that were so important in establishing deeds of title during the first lands rights case for a people dispossessed of their country from 1788 onwards.)

For we European Australians, the recognition of such power is there, if not yet the understanding. But the invitation for us to share in that journey of discovery … of reconciliation … of healing … through art, was implicit in everything said at the opening.

Through paintings I will teach you first the surface stories ... The deeper meanings I hold in my hands.

Or as Aunty Agnes Shea said in her Welcome to Country speech at the Museum the other night, ‘You’re welcome to leave your footprints on Ngunnawal land now.’

Quite so.


* The exhibition features bark paintings by forty master artists, all done between 1948 and 1988. They represent only a fraction of the more than seven thousand works in the national collections. ‘Old Masters’ is open in Canberra until 20 July next year.

Here's the link to the excellent website, in which you can explore the paintings, and learn about the artists, the traditions, and something of the meanings:

The site also has a link to some 2000 more bark paintings in the national collection.


Picture credit:

The exhibiton catalogue and pamphlet features on the cover the painting of a Totemic Crocodile by the major western Arnhem Land artist Yirawala (c.1897-1976) painted in 1965.