A momentous event is happening in the small town of Dartmouth, New Hampshire next week. And it’s part of a surprising pattern in which Aboriginal art from Australia is clearly taken more seriously by American institutions than by public galleries and museums here. Significantly, the two’Madayeen‘- the great Yolŋu Bark Show opening in Dartmouth – and the ongoing celebrations of 50 years of Papunya Tula artists – Írrititja Kuwarri Tjungu’ – were orchestrated by the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection at the University of Virginia – an institution dedicated to First Nations art.
Could it be that the imminence of such specialist museums in Adelaide and Alice, and perhaps in Perth and Canberra, could lead Australia’s Indigenous curators to the same level of proactivity???
Here’s how the Hood Museum in Dartmouth promotes its efforts:
“Madayin: Eight Decades of Yirrkala Australian Aboriginal Bark Painting‘ is the first major exhibition of Australian Aboriginal bark paintings to tour the United States and Yolŋu’s first for an international audience. It traces more than 80 years of significant contributions to global modern and contemporary art by some of Australia’s foremost artists”.
Please note the statement in bold.
A key element of Madayeen is a commission of 33 new works by 29 prominent Yolŋu artists, including Djambawa Marawili AM, Dhuwarrwarr Marika, Guynbi Ganambarr, Noŋgirrŋa Marawili, Naminapu Maymuru-White and Wukun Wanambi. These works were at least seen in Australia at the SA Art Gallery’s Tarnanthi Festival in 2019. And that was only halfway through a process that began in 2015 when Djambawa Marawili, the great cultural leader of Buku Larrnggay Art Center in NE Arnhemland, was resident at the Kluge-Ruhe Collection and began to appreciate the Yolŋu story they had in store. For both, Ed Ruhe had collected bark from Yirrkala early and John Kluge had commissioned monumental bark from the community in 1996. They were last seen at the NGV the following year in a show titled ‘Paintings of the Orient‘.
By the way, reading the mighty page 384′Madayeen‘ allowed me to discover that Marawili’s predecessor as a cultural leader, Gawirriṉ Gumana, had come up with the name Buku-Larrŋgay, derived from “the feeling on your face when struck by the rays of the rising sun to the East”. . Doesn’t that say so much about the poetry inherent in Yolŋu thought, while also indicating how important it was that, according to legend, their culture came from the east.
For eight decades, one would expect that an isolated community like the Yolŋu, forced to accept colonization, mining, Christianity, alcohol and much more from an alien world, would also change – as their art shows. But one of the most experienced scholarly commentators on Yolŋu culture, Howard Morphy, has this to say in the catalog:
“I had prepared my research by photographing the collections of Yolŋu paintings held in Australian museums, from the oldest, assembled in the 1930s by anthropologist Donald Thomson and founding missionary of Yirrkala, Wilbur Chaseling, to the most recent. One evening, at the beginning of my research, I sat down with Narritjin Maymuru (the painter who died in 1981) and went through the paintings one by one. After a while we stopped and, looking at me, he said, “I know what you’re trying to do, showing us that our art has changed. We will show that this is not the case.
Buku’s current manager, Will Stubbs, has some thoughts on mutability:
“What was going through Woŋgu Munuŋgurr’s mind when he was painting for anthropologist Donald Thomson about eighty years ago? We cannot invoke the lyrical poetry of the manikay that crossed Woŋgu’s mind as he painted supernatural creative forces. We will never experience the usurpation of our entire social system by alien aliens in our lifetime. But the triumph of these artists and their followers is that just as beauty can be law and beauty can be law, there doesn’t always need to be a single answer. This sophisticated, adult and maddeningly complex approach comes naturally to the Yolŋu philosophy.”
And the catalog struggles to share these complications via the Yolŋu language, its poetry and its profound philosophy. Here is Waka Munuŋgurr son of the great Woŋgu, photographed in the catalog in 1934 with at least 11 of his wives:
“The word maḏayin means sacred and hidden. In the past, women and children were not even allowed to utter the word maḏayin, as it was sacred and should never be spoken. But today some of those things have come to light. It is like this: when you look at a bark painting that contains our sacred clan designs, be it Dhuwa or Yirritja (the two Yolŋu halves, each divided into 8 clans), those paintings are maḏayin. They have sacred and hidden meanings, but they also show connections between people and places, illustrating the kinship system we call gurruṯu. Maḏayin is the unbreakable foundation of the gurruṯu. The gurruṯu system is strong through the maḏayin system”.
So even calling the exhibit ‘Madayin’ was daring. Worse, according to Will Stubbs, “The enigma of Maḏayin is present in the very word. How to write about something that is both law and beauty? This bifocal perspective inflects everything that has to do with Yolŋu and balanda (non-Yolŋu) interaction”.
It’s much clearer for the Yolŋu. As the late Milirrpum Marika told her son, Wanyubi:
“Stand in both worlds if you wish. But be sure to hold this one first: your roots and your foundation. Hold on to your foundation. For this is the Foundation and the Law which will be passed on to you and your children, and they will pass it on to their children from generation to generation. For this knowledge is your birthright: it was given to you by the ancestors, and you must keep it. Hold on to your tongue and your miny’tji [traditional designs] and don’t change it. Don’t stray off the beaten track, following Western society, because there is too much to attract and corrupt there. You need to have some understanding of Western culture, enough to translate English and earn some money, but you can’t go too deep into the Western world. You must balance both Yolŋu and ŋäpaki [non- Yolŋu] worlds”.
And if you think such concern is a thing of the past, then consider the words of today’s elder, Djambawa Marawili, inspiring the painting of Blue Mud Bay rowboats that won Yolŋu sea rights (while Milirrpum fought for land rights):
“The purpose of the paintings is to protect the law, and we can do that by having them strike the eyes of onlookers with all their power. We can bend and shape these designs into a sword or a shield and proactively use them for this what they were meant to do. These drawings show the identity of the land and the people who paint them – their authority on this land, to speak of it. And if we don’t overcome our fear, if we don’t use all the power given to us, we will disappear and the land we were meant to protect will be destroyed.”
And all of this art and the wisdom that comes with it is exclusively for Americans!
The exhibition opens next Friday in Dartmouth, although a grand opening ceremony will take place on September 23, when I’m sure the curatorium of Djambawa Marawili, Wukuṉ Waṉambi, Yinimala Gumana, Wäka Munuŋgurr, Henry Skerritt and Kade McDonald’s will all come together to sing and dance.
Such an effort requires generous support – and the list includes the US National Endowment for the Humanities, the Australian Government, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Australian Council for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts and Fine Arts of Crozier. Wonderful to link Warhol and Milirrpum Marika!
After the Hood Museum, Madayin visits the American University Museum at the Katzen Art Center, Washington, DC, the Kleefeld Contemporary Art Museum at California State University, Long Beach, the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia and finally the Asian. Society, New York in 2025. It was of course the Asia Society that began America’s association with Aboriginal art through the influential ‘dreams‘ show, mostly Deserts. All of these museums provide long and thoughtful residencies for our barks – but so far from Australia!
As it happens, New Hampshire is hosting another Indigenous Australian art exhibition this month – the Mariposa Museum and World Culture Center in Peterborough, New Hampshire, exhibits Djinong Djina Boodja (Look at the Country I have traveled), the work of the late Shane Pickett – also from the Kluge/Ruhe Museum in Virginia.
Artist: Djambawa Marawili AM, Dhuwarrwarr Marika, Guynbi Ganambarr, Noŋgirrŋa Marawili, Naminapu Maymuru-White, Wukun Wanambi, Shane Pickett, Gawirriṉ Gumana, Narritjin Maymuru, Woŋgu Munuŋgurr, Waka Munuŋgurr, Milirrpum Marika,
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Dartmouth’s Hood Museum, dhuwarrwarr marika, Djambawa Marawili AM, gawirrin gumana, Guynbi Ganambarr, Henry Skerritt, Kade McDonald, Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, Madayin, Milirrpum Marika, naminapu maymuru-white, Narritjin Maymuru, Noŋgirrŋa Marawili, shane pickett, Waka Munuŋgurr, Will Stubbs, Woŋgu Munuŋgurr, wukun wanambi, Yolŋu,