Imagine walking among Milngiyawuy (the Milky Way) and letting a river of stars flow around you. In the exhibition Bark Ladies at the National Gallery of Victoria, an artwork by Naminapu Maymuru-White is installed in the Federation Court. Maymuru-White’s signature Milngiyawuy design, usually painted on bark, stretches across the floor, while a huge mirror suspended overhead allows visitors to walk within the glistening night sky, at once below and above them. In a video display, Maymuru-White explains how her art is connected to the mortuary rites of the Manggalili clan, whose deceased souls are transformed into stars.
“Indigenous art is the only art native to this country. And it is global,” says the exhibition curator Myles Russell-Cook about this unprecedented display of bark art. The exhibition was a collaboration with the Buku- Larrŋggay Mulka Centre at Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land—and although the centre is tiny, it produces some of the most exciting art made in Australia.
Bark Ladies narrows in on 11 female Yolŋu artists who have worked at Buku, including five sensational sisters from the Yunupingu family: Nancy Gaymala, Gulumbu, Barrupu, Nyapanyapa, and Eunice Djerrkngu. Yolŋu painters work on both flattened bark and larrakitj (painted log sculptures, originally used as burial poles). Larrakitj feature in another of the exhibition’s stand-out displays: a commanding group of logs by Malaluba Gumana, Nonggirrnga Marawili and Dhambit Mununggurr evenly spaced in a mirrored room. It’s a way of “letting every object stand out as a painting,” says Russell-Cook, stressing that, despite the organic, sculptural wave present in every bark artwork, “this is a painting show.” Viewers are encouraged to stroll in this forest of larrakitj, which is an opportunity to observe these unique paintings as they were created–completely in the round.
This article was originally published in the November/December 2021 print edition of Art Guide Australia.