The first paintings on bark were made in the early 1900s (just 100 years ago). They were commissioned by missionaries and anthropologists, and the imagery was based on painted body designs and rock art. Since this time, artists in the Maningrida region have painted subject matter ranging from body designs to creation stories to workers on the Telecom exchange.
Sometimes people think of bark as being old and ‘traditional’ and canvas as being new and ‘modern’. However, one of the first paintings on canvas was made by Titian during the Renaissance (more than 500 years ago).
Painters in the Maningrida region invoke customary ways and practices, experiment with visual forms, and invent the contemporary. Their bark paintings merge the natural and spiritual worlds, the secular and sacred, and embody and evoke ancestral presence.
The subject matter of some works on bark express or focus on djang, the power of country itself, others the ancestral activities that created it or inhabit it: the powerful Rainbow Serpent Ngalyod, female water spirits including Yawkyawk and jin-Merdewa, and spirit beings such as mimih, Namorrorddo and Wangarra.
Some paintings feature geometric designs inspired by body painting. Spirit figures such as the long thin mimih spirits said to live in the rock country are also frequently depicted, as are animals hunted as game, including kangaroo, emu and barramundi.
We don’t paint the actual body, but its power. We represent its power with cross-hatching, we don’t paint its human form, no. We only paint the spirit, that’s all.
Key and senior artists
Prominent bark painters before and during the first years of operation of Maningrida’s art centre include:
Yirawala (c.1897–1976), a legendary Kuninjku leader, artist, land rights activist and teacher about whose paintings Pablo Picasso said, ‘This is what I’ve been trying to achieve all my life’;
Peter Marralwanga (c.1917–1987), an inventive Kunwinjku man who was taught by Yirawala and went on to become a great innovator of rarrk techniques and a teacher to his nephew John Mawurndjul;
Wally Mandarrk (c.1915–1987), a Barabba man of significant cultural status who was one of the last painters of rock art in Arnhem Land; he was conversant with the mimih beings he painted and his children recall learning from him through his paintings on their bark huts in the 1970s;
Jack (Djiwul) Wunuwun (1930–1991), a Djinang (Murrungun) artist who pioneered the depiction of three dimensions and perspective in bark paintings;
Mick Kubarkku (c.1925–2007), who learnt to paint on bark shelters and was one of the first members of the Maningrida arts cooperative in the early 1960s; he introduced celestial elements to the repertoire of Kuninjku bark painting; and
England Banggala (c.1925–2001), a Burarra man who was a great singer and cultural leader, as well as an esteemed and prolific artist.
Other important artists are Les Mirrikkuriya (c.1938–1996), John Bulunbulun (c.1945–2009), Jimmy Njiminjuma (1947–2003), James Iyuna (1959–2015) and Terry Ngamandara (c.1950–2011). Their bark paintings were acquired by numerous institutions around Australia and in Europe and the USA, as well as the Djómi Museum in Maningrida.
Kunwinjku artist John Mawurndjul paints primarily on bark. Mawurndjul is the son of Anchor Kulunba, who was an exemplary weaver of fish traps, and he is the brother of artists Jimmy Njiminjuma and James Iyuna. He was the winner of the prestigious Clemenger Contemporary Art Prize in 2003, and he has won the bark painting category of the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award three times (1999, 2002 and 2016). Mawurndjul has a high profile commission in Paris, and in 2010 he was awarded an Order of Australia for his services to Indigenous culture ‘as the foremost exponent of the rarrk visual art style’.
Other highly regarded active bark painters include Peter Marralwanga’s descendants, Samuel Namundjdja and Kay Lindjuwanga.
Materials and process
The process of making a bark painting begins with the artist choosing a suitable yárlk (stringybark gum tree, Eucalyptus tetrodonta), 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 free 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 rough outer bark is stripped off and the bark sheet is trimmed and placed over a fire, inner side downwards, to drive out moisture, including the sap. The bark sheet, pliable from its steaming session, is next placed on the ground and trodden on to flatten it out. Heavy weights are placed on it as it cools to ensure that it doesn’t curl or warp.
Artists use a rich palette of colours derived from natural pigments that can be sourced from their clan estates. The reds, purples, pinks and yellows come from ochres (forms of iron oxide or limonite). Black generally comes from charcoal, and white is from pipeclay. All of these earth pigments are strongly associated with djang. The pipeclay used to create the brilliant white paint, for example, is said to be the faeces of the powerful Rainbow Serpent (Ngalyod in the Kuninjku language) and the spirit essence of the Mardayin ceremony.
Sometimes natural fixatives are mixed in to bind the pigments: wax, yolk of eggs, resins and the sap of orchid plants. Today PVA glue is more commonly used as a binding agent for the pigments. The tool that an artist uses to apply colour to the bark depends on the style of painting and available resources. It may be a feather, or a brush made from a few strands of straight human hair. Or for fine rarrk designs, Cyperus javanicus, a tough sedge grass, may be used to make the slim reed brush required to execute a mesmerising aesthetic.
Watch senior bark painter Jack Wunwun (1930–1991) harvesting bark and painting Murlarra, Morning Star, at Gamardi outstation in 1980.
1 ‘I’m a Chemist Man, Myself’ in Crossing Country: The alchemy of western Arnhem Land art, AGNSW, Sydney, 2004, p. 138