One instantly recognisable type of Aboriginal Art today is bark painting.
Bark paintings were traditionally used to decorate shelters and as part of burial rites. The use of bark painting was first described by Europeans in 1802 when the French disembarked on Maria Island in Tasmania where they found and desecrated a local burial tomb. The tomb was described as a ‘conical structure roughly made of pieces of bark’ which were decorated with painted designs.
The first collections of bark paintings made based on artistic and aesthetic merit, as opposed to ethnographic interest, were put together in 1912 by Walter Baldwin Spencer(1860-1929) when he visited the buffalo hunting camp of pastoralist, Paddy Cahill(c1863-1923) at Oenpelli (now Gunbalanya) in western Arnhem Land.
Artist, Paddy Compass Namadbara(c. 1892-1978) recollected in a 1967 interview with researcher Lance Bennett that Spencer asked chosen artists to create bark paintings on small, transport-friendly bark sheets, which they had never done before. This transformed the traditional bark-hut paintings into a new medium: bark paintings.
Bark Painting Process
The process of preparing bark for painting is an art form in itself, involving meticulous harvesting and treatment:
- The preferred material, Eucalyptus stringybark, is harvested during the wet season. Artists make two horizontal and one vertical incision into the tree to carefully remove the bark.
- The inner side of the bark, known for its smoothness, is then exposed to fire. This step not only hardens the material but also prepares it for further treatment.
- Post-firing, the bark is pressed and weighted to ensure it dries flat, a process that may extend over several months.
- Once completely 'dry', the bark transforms into a rigid canvas, primed for painting.
- A rigid frame is added to hold the shape
Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Artists painting Bark Paintings
Raark: The Essence of Arnhem Land Paintings
- Arnhem Land bark paintings are renowned for their intricate crosshatched patterns, embodying clan designs imbued with ancestral power.
- Known as 'rarrk' in the western regions and 'miny’tji' in the east, these patterns dazzle with optical vibrancy, signifying the omnipresence of ancestral spirits.
- The creation of these patterns involves the application of multiple layers of fine lines with a human hair brush, mirroring the ceremonial body paintings.
- Artists employ a palette of natural red and yellow ochres, charcoal, and white clay, achieving a range of intensities and textures. Traditionally mixed with natural binders like egg yolk, the pigments have, since the 1960s, been combined with water-soluble wood glues, adapting traditional methods to contemporary practices.
Through these natural processes, bark painting connects the present with the past, continuing a rich tradition of cultural expression and storytelling.
Discover our range of Bark Paintings in our Arnhem Land Aboriginal Art Collection