Wonggu Mununggurr (with sons, Maama, Mawunpuy and Natjiyalma) Djapu clan, Eastern Arnhem Land, Northern Territory Djapu minytji (Djapu clan design) 1942 natural pigments on eucalyptus bark 189.4 x 105.2 cm The Donald Thomson Collection. The University of Melbourne and Museum Victoria According to Allen, "It has taken until now for us to have the confidence that every one of these works could be shown." However, as the curator notes, "It is often not about what can or cannot be shown, but about what can be said about the objects. It is about negotiating the grounds for engagement." In a broad sense, engagement is at the core of Ancestral Power. By the 1930s, the Yolgnu elders were faced with the difficult realisation that their survival depended upon defending their culture against the encroaching tide of modernity. According to Allen, the elders "had an understanding that they must engage with the outside world. They were thinking about how to tell the outside world about who they were; that this was their country. The works became like deeds to their land." But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of these bark paintings is that they represent the very genesis of two-dimensional painting in Yolngu culture. For whilst the Yolngu had long painted their sacred clan designs (or minytji ) on the body and ceremonial objects, the barks collected by Thomson were the first time when these designs had been removed from their ceremonial "use" context and applied for a purely aesthetic purpose. This transferral required a considerable aesthetic inventiveness, for although the Yolngu had a wealth of traditional designs, these required modification to the new media. New motifs were introduced, particularly those figurative devices necessary for the depiction of grand narratives. The aesthetic techniques inaugutated in these paintings continue to reverberate through the lively contemporary schools of Yolngu painting at Yirrkala, Milingimbi and Ramingining. Beyond their art historical or anthropological significance, the works included in Ancestral Power an the Aesthetic are visually astounding. Allen’s entire body lights up when she speaks of the "shine" or bir’yun of these barks. According to Allen, this "brilliance" was "intended to capture the essence of the wangarr [ancestors] an harness its strength and power or marr." These are paintings that speak of a distant time, in an ancient language; and yet, by their brilliance they seek to transcend time: to be simultaneously ancient and modern. It is perhaps this reason, that despite their age, these works bristle with an urgency and power that is as striking for its formal and conceptual relevance as for the ancient cosmology which it evokes.
Some of the finest Australian Indigenous art in existence
Art historian Henry F. Skerritt reviews for Crikey Ancestral Power and the Aesthetic: the first ever exhibition of barks paintings from the Donald Thomson Collection.