Last Wednesday, amidst relatively little fanfare, the Ian Potter Museum at the University of Melbourne launched Ancestral Power and the Aesthetic: the first ever exhibition of barks paintings from the Donald Thomson Collection.

Thomson was a pioneering anthropologist, who amassed over 4500 objects during his expeditions into Australia’s north in the 1930s and 1940s. At the opening of the exhibition, a former trustee of the National Gallery of Victoria was overheard to say that perhaps Ancestral Power should have been the NGV’s “Winter Masterpieces” exhibition. Certainly, in my experience, I have never seen anything quite like the twenty bark paintings on display.

Put simply, they are some of the finest examples of Australian Indigenous art in existence. The fact that they have never been exhibited before, and remain relatively unheralded and unknown is quite staggering.

If the works in Ancestral Power and the Aesthetic were not so momentous, so profoundly moving and so visually dynamic, it would be easy for them to be overshadowed by the story of their creation and collection. It is Thomson’s name that echoes through the exhibition, particularly as several of the major works are unattributed. Nor are Thomson’s achievements without cause for celebration.

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A maverick young anthropologist, he entered Arnhem Land at a bloody crossroads in the Territory’s history. The Caledon Bay Crisis had seen the local Yolngu people clash with Japanese poachers, in a series of violent episodes that escalated to include attacks upon the local constabulary. In Canberra, there were fears of an Indigenous uprising in the North, and Thomson’s mission was intended as much as conciliatory and anthropological.

Ancestral Power and the Aesthetic brings together 20 masterpieces from the Thomson collection. They have been carefully selected by Melbourne Museum curator Lindy Allen to represent the differing regional, clan and aesthetic varieties within the collection. Allen’s passion has been one of the driving forces in the preservation, documentation and exhibition of the Thomson collection. When Allen arrived at the Museum in 1989, the Thomson collection was sadly neglected, in poor storage and with limited documentation. It took nearly five years before every item in the collection was properly photographed and catalogued. More difficult was attaining permission from the communities for these works to be exhibition.

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.