Bark Painting

Bark painting by Aboriginal people is a long tradition, perhaps extending back thousands of years. The earliest European record of Aboriginal bark painting was by the French artist N M Petit, who travelled with N T Baudin to Tasmania from 1800 to 1804, and recorded the drawings found on a bark shelter over a grave.

Other early records describe painted bark shelters in Tasmania, Victoria and NSW. One example from Victoria painted prior to 1876 is now in the Museum of Victoria. These examples were drawn with charcoal, and painted or scratched onto smoke-blackened bark. Most of these records suggest the use of barkpainting as a part of everyday life, but there are also examples of ceremonial and mortuary paintings.

In northern Australia, paintings on bark shelters in the Kimberley and Arnhem Land were stylistically similar to rock shelter paintings. They were used to illustrate stories which were told to young people during the long hours of the wet season when people were confined to the shelter. Painted bark baskets were used in Melville and Bathurst Island mortuary ritual, and bark coffins and bark belts were painted in northeast Arnhem Land.

Collection of Aboriginal bark paintings

The first bark paintings collected by Europeans from these areas were cut from existing bark shelters but subsequent planned collecting field trips involved commissioning artists to paint on portable rectangles of bark. For example, Baldwin Spencer was the first to commission bark paintings at Malangangerr (Oenpelli) in 1912 and subsequent collectors sought to obtain similar examples. In Milingimbi, Rev T T Webb encouraged bark painting from the late 1920s. At Yirrkala, Reverend W Chaseling encouraged the production of bark paintings for sale from 1935.

Historic bark paintings collected by Baldwin Spencer in 1912

Contemporary bark paintings reveal important cultural subjects and stylistic techniques, but their form also betrays the history of influence by collectors. Prior to the Second World War anthropologists and missionaries were the main collectors. Reverend A Dyer collected at Malangangerr and Groote Eylandt between 1920 and 1930, Norman Tindale at Groote in 1922, W L Warner at Milingimbi from 1926 to 1929, N F Thompson at Milingimbi and Yirrkala through the 1930s and 40s, and F Gray and F Rose at Groote Eylandt between 1938 and 1945. C P Mountford and R M and C H Berndt made substantial and systematic collections across Arnhem Land in the late 1940s, and at Port Keats on the western coast of the NT, collections were made by W E H Stanner and K Kupka in the late 1950s.

In subsequent years demand for the paintings grew and mission shops became their primary outlet. The federal government established a centralised marketing company in 1971 and from 1973 the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council made funds available to communities for the establishment of community arts centres and for grants to employ arts advisers.

Maningrida, Ramingining and Katherine also became important centres for marketing bark paintings from this time. Today bark painting is an important industry particularly for people from the Kimberley, among the Tiwi and for artists in Arnhem Land.

Regional styles of bark painting

Kimberley bark paintings very closely resemble the rock art of the region. The primary subject consists of representations of the Wandjina creator beings associated with wet season thunderstorms. The images consist of large faces with rayed headdresses. They are sometimes shown wearing shell pendants but often have little other body detail.

Bark paintings from Port Keats in the Northern Territory are particularly interesting in that they reveal a combination of figurative images reminiscent of both eastern Kimberley and Arnhem Land work and a geometric tradition related to desert styles. Some paintings derive from designs found on secret-sacred objects with their oval shape and concentric circle patterning. Other paintings may show landscapes and the ancestors responsible for creation.

The Tiwi of Bathurst and Melville Islands paint highly coloured crosshatched and dotted non-figurative designs. Such designs are also painted on bark baskets (tungas), carved ironwood sculptures and many other material culture items which feature in Pukumani mortuary ceremonies. There are also early records of white pipeclay paintings in bark shelters in the region.

Tiwi tunga (bark basket)

Western Arnhem Land bark paintings are closely tied to rock painting and are characterised by figurative representations against a background of plain red ochre. The figures are often filled in with ‘X-ray’ motifs which show the figure’s internal organs. At one level the images simply reveal important cuts of meat but they can also be read to show sacred objects or landscape created by the figure. Artists paint a variety of fantastic figure forms including the transforming shapes of creator beings such as the¬†rainbow serpent¬†or the exaggeratedly thin human forms of ‘mimi’ spirits.

Central and eastern Arnhem Land bark painting relates closely to body painting traditions and the designs found on ceremonial objects. The emphasis is on complex compositions, and figures are shown against a background of intricate crosshatched designs which indicate the clan associations of the subjects. The composition identifies relationships between the ancestral beings depicted and, by extension, between features of ancestrally created landscape. The images can be read as maps of clan lands or as charts which reveal the activities of the ancestors that, through their actions, created those lands.

Groote Eylandt bark paintings are distinctive in the way figures are shown against a black background. More recent works reveal a concern for narrative subject matter and filling the background with crosshatched designs. Macassan seafarers regularly visited Groote Eylandt to collect trepang and many bark paintings from this area depict representations of the Macassan prau.