Now on display, Bark Ladies: Eleven Artists from Yirrkala is a major ground floor exhibition at NGV International that celebrates the NGV’s extraordinary collection of bark paintings and larrakitj (painted hollow poles) by women artists working out of the Yolnu-run art centre, Buku Larrngay Mulka Centre (Buku), situated in Northeast Arnhem Land.
Before 1970, no Yolnu women painted sacred themes on bark or larrakitj in their own right; however, in recent decades, a number of women artists have taken to these media, becoming renowned both nationally and internationally for daring and inventive works that challenge tradition.
The NGV has been acquiring important works on bark by artists from Buku for more than two decades, establishing one of the most significant collections of work by Yolnu women artists. Buku is located in a small Aboriginal community called Yirrkala, which is approximately 700 km east of Darwin.
According to the staff at Buku, under Yolnu Law the ‘Land’ extends to include sea, and both land and sea are connected in a single cycle of life which Yolnu people celebrate through their songs, sacred designs and art. Both Yolnu men and women are known for channelling this unique world view into innovative works of art.
The exhibition begins with the significant bodies of work by the sisters Nancy Gaymala, Gulumbu, Barrupu, Ms N Yunupinu and Eunice Djerrknu Yunupinu. In this first space, audiences will encounter stories about Yolnu conceptions of the universe, fire, and creation, as well as bold contemporary paintings that explore rhythm, tonality and gesture.
In the second gallery space, visitors will encounter other significant works by artists from the Community. Amongst these are optical illusions by Dhuwarrwarr Marika; waterlilies by Malaluba Gumana; monochromatic stars by Naminapu Maymuru-White; bold visions in pink and blue by Nongirrna Marawili and Dhambit Munungurr; as well as the last produced paintings by the late master painter, Ms Wirrpanda.
A highlight from the exhibition is a newly commissioned large-scale, floor-based work by Naminapu Maymuru-White depicting Milniyawuy, also known as the Milky Way or River of Stars. Maymuru-White’s work extends across the entire floor of Federation Court and has been developed in collaboration with the NGV.
This work is complimented by a multimedia cinema on the mezzanine floor, where audiences can sit and listen to the artist recounting her story of the work, a deeply moving story that is connected to the mortuary rites of the Manggalili clan whose deceased souls are turned into stars.
Three recently acquired bark paintings by Eunice Djerrknu Yunupinu titled I am a Mermaid, New Generation and My Wedding will also be on display. These vivid and technicolour paintings tell the story of the artist’s conception.
The paintings illustrate how Yunupinu’s unborn spirit visited her father in the form of a mermaid, and how her father tried to spear the mermaid, believing the spirit to be fish. He then fell asleep and upon waking, Yunupinu’s mother confirmed with her husband that she was with child, thus bringing their daughter into the world.
A further highlight is Dhuwarrwarr Marika’s Birth of a Nation, which was recently included as a finalist in the 2020 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards.
The designs in Marika’s work contain within them the identity of the coastal place known as Yalangbara. Yalangbara is the fabled landing site of the Djang’kawu Sisters, the major creator beings who arrived there from their mythical island Burralku.
Also on display is a collection of larrakitj, including nine recently acquired ‘pink poles’, painted by Nongirrna Marawili. Each of Marawili’s works have been rendered in an arresting array of pink tones produced by mixing recycled printer cartridges with earth pigments and ochre.
Signalling a daring departure in both technique and colour, Marawili’s distinctive larrakitj feature the sacred cross-hatched design for the freshwaters of the Djapu clan, whose ancestors hunted using woven fish traps.
Marawili’s works are to be presented amongst a selection of larrakitj within a mirrored room, creating the illusion of an infinite grid. Larrakitj were traditionally used by Yolnu people as a type of coffin or bone container placed following a ceremony as a memorial to a deceased person after death.
“Bark Ladies: Eleven Artists from Yirrkala is a major exhibition that celebrates the NGV’s especially rich collection of works on bark,” said Tony Ellwood AM, Director, NGV.
“The exhibition brings together some of Australia’s great singular master painters and we are extremely grateful to each of these artists for sharing their important and sacred stories with Melbourne audiences.”
Bark Ladies: Eleven Artists from Yirrkala
NGV International, 180 St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Exhibition: 17 December 2021 – 25 April 2022
For more information, visit: www.ngv.melbourne for details.
Images: Nongirrna Marawili, Baratjala, 2019 earth pigment and recycled print toner on Stringybark (Eucalyptus sp.) 90.0 x 115.0 cm National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2020 © Nongirrna Marawili Marawili, courtesy of Buku-Larrngay Mulka Centre, Yirrkala
Mulkun Wirrpanda, Dadi ga Gundirr, 2020 earth pigments on Stringybark (Eucalyptus sp.) 201.0 x 90.0 cm National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2020 © Mulkun Wirrpanda, courtesy of Buku-Larrngay Mulka Centre, Yirrkala
Dhambit Munungurr, Bees at Gangan, 2019 synthetic polymer paint on Stringybark (Eucalyptus sp.) 194.0 x 117.0 cm National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased with funds supported by the Orloff Family Charitable Trust, 2020 © Dhambit Munungurr, courtesy of Buku-Larrngay Mulka Centre, Yirrkala