Here goes: This is finest show of Aboriginal art I have ever seen.

It is neither the biggest (only 20 barks, and some objects), nor the most varied (it is narrow in range), but the works are unique in historical and aesthetic qualities. Every item is superb. Many are magnificent. And this is the first time – since being collected about seventy years ago – they have been shown in public.

arnhem1Soandtherefore, if you happen to be in Melbourne before or on August 23, head straight for the Ian Potter Museum of Art at Melb. Uni. (not the Ian Potter gallery in the city). I have had the good luck to have seen it three times.

The exhibition is titled “The most eye-opening show of Aboriginal art I have ever seen”. No, alright, actually: Ancestral power and the aesthetic: Arnhem Land paintings and objects from the Donald Thomson Collection, curated by Lindy Allen, who has spent the last two decades working with the collection.

It hasn’t had much publicity; there were reports in Crikey on 12 June by Henry Skerritt, and Nicholas Rothwell in the Australian, 4 June (Henry’s uncut piece here.) Culture Mulcher has been procrastinating writing about it – there are things to say but I’m still mulling, and I want to look more. But there’s not much time left before it closes, so anyone who has a feeling for Aboriginal art should go soonest.

To quote Rothwell: ‘For lovers of Aboriginal art, this is an event of the highest significance. It may be compared with the revelation of a roomful of unknown works from the Florentine trecento: early pieces that hold in them clues to the majesty of the bark painting schools of more recent times.’


Four very particular things to note about this show.

1) The sheer size of the bigger barks. They do not make them like this anymore! Whole trees became canvases (see ‘Djapu minytji’ painting below). And just how did Thomson get these monsters down from the North without damage?

2) A very elderly friend of mine who went to see the show said he was stunned. He remarked on how these evidently pre-Western influenced works already possessed a level of design sophistication that is simply spectacular. For me, the show is an absolute proof of Aboriginal paintings as art of the highest order.

(Which sounds really … duh. But to this day some very art-minded friends claim, in neutral tones, that they just don’t get Aboriginal painting. Which is code for how they think it does not have the same intentionality, or occupy the same conceptual-aesthetic space as “Art” as they know it.)

3) The patterning in these works is literally dazzling. The cross-hatching – called minytji – demonstrates the quality described in the wall notes as bir’yun. (Click here for a pdf of the notes.) This is the source of the sensational power of these pictures. (More below.)

4) The pictures were painted with the simplest hand-made tools. Brushes made with hair bound to a twig. Or made by chewing a stick till the end frayed into a brushy tip. Pigments from rocks, ground between stones. You can see these items displayed in a vitrine.


Three of the images from the exhibition are posted below; a figures have been inserted to indicate scale. I have also written up some notes here about the making of the pictures, and Donald Thomson’s discovery of the key to getting the pictures.



A 1935 photo (drawn above) of Wonggu Mununggurr sitting in the sand, with his tiny brush and freshly ground colours, making the first of the pictures commissioned by Donald Thomson. He was painting sacred and “just drawing” minytji (designs). In the photo you can see that he has a second brush between his teeth, of the frayed-end variety. And you can tell that his right nipple was pierced.


A drawing of some of the items in the vitrine display, which were collected the day before Wonggu made his first painting for Thomson. The stringbag, about 35 cm long not including handles, contained painting tools. There were pigment, ochres and orchid stem. The orchid stem provided a liquid extract which was mixed as an adhesive for the colour.


These hand-made (quite often on the spot, according to Thomson) brushes amaze me. That tiny brushes like these were used to cover some of the enormous barks on show is a staggering realisation.

Marawat (brush/’hair of the head’): human hair bound on wood with fibre.
(brush/stick): wood with frayed end.
Grindstone for gapang (white pigment), and one for red ochre.
Gangul or buthalak (yellow ochre).
Ratjpa (red ochre) wrapped in bark.
I inserted a ball point to show scale.


For the Greater Glory of God: sparkle, glitter, shine

This is the nub: (to continue on from point 3 above): this method of cross-hatching, the eye-dazzling designs, goes to the heart of the pictures – bir’yun is described as the sensation of “brilliance” or “flash”. It is ‘the quality of aesthetic’ embodied by the minytji, or cross-hatching design, which is the marr, or power, of the ancestor. That is, the minytji (design) creates the bir’yun (brilliance) that evokes the marr (power) of the likan wangarr (totemic clan ancestors).

From the exhibition catalogue:

The key discovery for Donald Thomson was that ‘the fine quality or aesthetic sought and achieved in painting minytji was not incidental, and that it was driven by the desire to capture the essence of the wangarr and harness its strength and power or marr. In field-notes from August 1937:

The spirit of the whole mintji—it is likened to the flash of a sudden ‘uplift’ when [the men] see the marr of the secret mintji … likened also to anger … the sensation of eyes is—its wangarr itself—they mean the sensation of light … the penetrating flash, the fixed intent  stare of the eye—a wonderful mystical concept—idea—here … All mintji—has this light.

‘The word for this ‘light’ was bir’yun, a term that has a gloss in Yolngu language, meaning to sparkle, glitter or shine … i.e. the sparkling sensation of flowering white gums reflected in water.’


Ad maiorem Dei gloriamFor the greater glory of God – the motto of the Jesuits. And I think that’s pretty much what Wonggu and his fellow artists were doing when they made their minytji designs flash and crackle with bir’yun sparkle. They were aiming to reflect the glory of their ancestral spirits, their gods. They were painting for glory.



000448 Thomson Bark painting



A couple of final notes. (*Amendment: I had not previously emphasised the irony inherent in the last paragraph below – of how paintings first made for the greater glory of god eventually became highly marketable commodities. Consider the ironic emphasis added.)

As Rothwell has written, these ‘early pieces … hold in them clues to the majesty of the bark painting schools of more recent times.’

I spoke to Henry Skerritt who elaborated: ‘As I say in the essay, the importance of this exhibition is that it represents the very beginnings of 2D painting in eastern Arnhem Land. Not only is it the first time that the designs are removed from their ceremonial use, but these artists introduce new figurative elements  – elements which allow them to explain their grand stories to Westerners like Donald Thomson. The figurative devices introduced in these works – the way they paint spirits and humans, or even things like the use of footprints to indicate travel – reverberate through contemporary Yolngu painting. If you look at someone like David Malangi’s paintings – whose figures were used on the one dollar note – although the figures have a timeless feeling to them – they actually relate back to the the aesthetic inaugurated by artists like Wonggu in these major works collected by Thomson.’

Which is to say, the barks on show are the very beginnings of Arnhem painting as art commodity. Which is shown very well by Howard Morphy in his book Becoming Art: Exploring cross-cultural categories (UNSW Press). As he points out, ‘The major shift in art production has been away from embellished material culture objects towards bark paitings and other objects produced primarily for sale.’

This exhibition shows some of the deep roots, and first shoots of the now enormous forest of the Aboriginal art industry – and that really is eye-opening. But as Skerritt says, ‘Aside from that, these works are simply stunning … that is reason enough to go see them.’

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