Looking at a wall of bark paintings from the remote North of Australia in a gallery in Northern Europe can be like facing a literal wall. No way to enter into the mind of the artist and the meaning of the work. No way to penetrate the richness of metaphor and philosophy within. The eye being stimulated but the heart glancing off at an angle with curiosity stimulated, but understanding denied. We can feel that there is something happening other than aimless decoration, but we cannot fathom what the intention is.
A starting point is to think of the name of this gallery, Aboriginal Signature. A signature is a design which is specific to a particular individual. It contains a recognisable coded pattern which declares the identity of its maker. Imagine that a valley or a beach could sign it’s own name. That is what you see here before you. Each estate has a specific sacred clan design or miny’tji which encapsulates the secret essence of the land.
An infinite matrix with a highly detailed science of relationship
The land of the Yolŋu is not divided into numbered grids ‘owned’ by a human who has the right to destroy it as if it were a toy. The land is alive and it is connected to all the other elements of creation- people , animals, birds, plants, wind, clouds. Not in a fuzzy feel-good hippy way but in an intense, geometrical, infinite matrix with a highly detailed science of relationship.
Think of the landscape as a crowd and each person has their own identity and signature. Look over a Yolŋu landscape in a Yolŋu way and you can see a tapestry of these patterns stretched out before you. Key to understanding this philosophy is to embrace the idea that each estate has a distinct ‘personality’ or essence.
Deep down we know this. Even if we live within the industrialised grid of money and property we know this. Even if you grew up in a high rise apartment disconnected from the land, your neighbourhood has a spirit. A smell, a taste, a feel, a vibe, a brand, a name, a resonance. It is embedded in your nostrils, connecting to your memories and sense of self. A terroir?
Barrupu’s paintings are flames, ash, sparks, blood, fat, bone, coals, honey, dew and this pattern is like a text which encodes the sacred songs of Biranybirany. This is Gumatj clan land of the Yirritja moiety which covers the mouth of a powerful mangrove-lined river as it pours out through a beach into a massive, shallow seagrass-filled bay.
A cataclysmic conflagration that permanently scarred the land like WATERLOO
If you visit the field of a historic battle, like Waterloo for instance, you can sense the events that took place there. You see the cows with your eyes but your soul is reaching for an understanding of what other humans experienced on the very spot where you are standing. It is not a pasture any more but transformed down to the very molecular level, in each atom, as a place with a singular identity.
Rerrkirrwaŋa’s painting is of the very same place at Biranybirany which Barrupu paints. But like a different hand writing the same words her art has a completely different outward appearance. But it records an event as powerful as Waterloo. A cataclysmic conflagration that permanently scarred the land. Although unseen, this fire burned, is burning, will burn, in the sacred songs of this place. And it determines the identity of this place and all who spring from it. It is embedded in the crystalline structure of each constituent atom.
CELEBRATE places which are undamaged by human dominance
All the works in this exhibition (bar one which is just a secular depiction of fibre woven dilly bags) celebrate places which are undamaged by human dominance. They are wild, natural places where humans live in balance with the powerful forces that have always shaped the land. But these places are loved and revered just the same although no one individual can boast of ownership or ‘improvement’. And that awe is being communicated through the medium of the land itself- using the bark from the tree, the pigments from the land and the hair of the artist as a brush.
What once might have been seen as an old fashioned or ‘primitive’ philosophy can now be understood as a very modern one. Sustainability. Infinite balance. Yolŋu understand that these designs have an inherent sacred power of their own and to view them is to be ‘irradiated’ with that knowledge. These messages are beaming through you like WiFi signals as you stand in front of this wall of art.
If you take the time to read the short précis contained in the documentation of each artwork you will begin to walk through a door in this wall. It will connect you to the intention of the artist and the place which has signed itself through that artist. And beyond that it will connect you to our shared humanity and the truth that we are not separate and above the land but an integral part of the places we inhabit.
Manager du centre d’art de Yirrkala