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
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
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
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.
Text by Dr Luke Taylor, AIATSIS - reproduce
with permission from the Encyclopedia of Aboriginal Australia.
For more information, see our page on Bark