Three generations ago, two anthropologists changed Australian art when they took butchers’ paper and crayons to the Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land.
It was 1947 when Ronald and Catherine Berndt introduced these new media to some of the most important bark painters of the 20th century: Mawalan and Wandjuk Marika, Munggurrawuy Yunupingu, Narritjin Maymuru and Wonggu Mununggurr. It’s believed to be the first time Aboriginal artists used Western media for their works.
These senior ceremonial leaders produced hundreds of vibrant crayon drawings detailing the complexities of Yolngu life, culture, knowledge and law, but for the past 65 years the works have remained unseen by the general public at the University of Western Australia.
A new exhibition opening today at The Art Gallery of NSW presents 81 of those drawings for the first time: a vibrant splash of red, blue, yellow, green and black.
Wäka Mununggurr, Djapu clan ceremonial leader and senior custodian says the historic pictures discuss the environment, nature and secrets of the Yolngu: “I think the Old People decided to share these secret things so that people could know who we are.”
Yirrkala remains an important centre of artistic community and many of the artists working today are the children and grandchildren of the men who worked with the Berndts in 1947 and many visited the gallery yesterday to see the work of their forebears.
The drawings are complemented by a collection of larrkitj, memorial poles, traditionally used to hold the bones by the deceased, by leading artists at Yirrkala today, which the gallery recently acquired.
The exhibition runs at the Art Gallery of NSW until 23 February, 2014, and tours to the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 12 April –19 July, then Charles Darwin University Art Gallery, Darwin, 7 August- 3 October, 2014. Entry is free.
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