Aboriginal bark paintings have a long cultural tradition, believed to extend back many thousands of years.
In northern Australia, paintings on bark shelters in the Kimberley and Arnhem Land were stylistically similar to rock shelter paintings. The Aboriginal bark paintings were used to convey and illustrate stories which were told to the clan when holed up in the shelter for long periods in the wet season. In Kimberly, the Aboriginal bark paintings by Lily karadada resemble ancient rock art Wandjina paintings which are themselves many, many thousands of years old.
Bark paintings with deep cultural and ritual significance still feature in the Aboriginal sacred ceremonies of northern Australia and they, along with some coastal inhabitants are the only indigenous Aborigines still making traditional bark paintings.
The process of making a bark painting begins with choosing a suitable stringybark eucalyptus tree, preferably in the wet season when the sap is rising and the bark is fairly supple and easy to grip. After finding a section of bark that is devoid of knots and termite damage, cuts are made top and bottom and after some encouragement by tugging and prying, a hollow open cylinder of bark is removed. The bark sheet is trimmed and a fire made ready, over which the bark will be cured to drive out any moisture. The bark is then flattened to the ground with feet and then held down with heavy weights to ensure that it doesn’t curl or warp.
The Aboriginal bark painters of Arnhem Land adhere to four basic pigments – red, black, white and yellow. The reds and yellows come from ochres, crushed and powdered rocks. White comes from pipeclay and black generally comes from charcoal. Sometimes natural fixatives are mixed in to bind the pigments and which includes wax, yolk of eggs, resins and the sap of orchid plants. The paint can then be applied to the bark with perhaps a rarrk design by using a wood comb, or with brushes made from human hair or even feathers.