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Australian aboriginal art in Eastern Arnhem Land
The main aboriginal artistic communities
(click on the district or the community you're interested in)

Carte des communautés aborigenes
Elcho Island / Yirrkala

See more works from Elcho Island
See more works from Yirrkala

Eastern Arnhem Land is situated between Galiwinku Island (Elcho Island) and Yirrkala in the north-east and along the coast towards the south and owes its celebrity to its bark paintings, the technique of which is reported to have been transmitted to the first Aboriginals by the Mimi Spirits themselves (air deities living in the coastal caves whose walls they covered with drawings of their own willowy figures).

These works of art were first known only by the missionaries settled in Arnhem Land and then by the anthropologists. Between the two world wars, they attracted the attention of artists like French poet André Breton, who owned a few of them in his personal collection. In 1932, he wrote a monograph about them, entitled "Main première" ("Primeval hand"), which was used as a preface in the book of the great discoverer of this culture, Karel Kupka, Un Art à l'état brut (Lausanne: Clairefontaine, 1962), published in English as Dawn of Art: Painting and Sculpture of Australian Aborigines (New York: Viking Press, 1965). This monograph, insisting on the "creative act" that the making of these works of art really is, has been included in Perspective cavalière, a collection of essays by André Breton (Paris: Gallimard, coll. "L'imaginaire", 1970).

As in whole Arnhem Land, these paintings still play an important part in the religious ceremonies inherited from the Dreamtime. By evoking the legend of the Great Ancestors, they work as media for the transmission of the secrets to the initiated: that is to say how the world was created, how this creation is carried on from season to season; how its mysteries are passed on and often symbolized by the acts of swallowing and regurgitating. Besides, these paintings are decorated with dhulang (the name of the rarrk in this part of Arnhem Land) and take from these streaks laden with clan value the energy they symbolize and are, therefore, magic objects.

As far as the represented scenes are concerned, the bark paintings of eastern Arnhem Land (contrary to the figurative style of central and western Arnhem Land) display the abstract style specific to ritual bark: geometrical motifs evoking primeval fire or the ebb and flow of the sea are set beside the ritual streaks. But figurative subjects are not totally excluded, since, from the Aboriginal point of view, they are a means of taking away the sacred aspect of these works, which, is they had been decorated only with geometrical motifs, could not have been shown to the uninitiated. These figurative motifs are characterized by the "X-Ray" style which reveals the inside of the represented bodies. They are, first and foremost, those of the Great Ancestors, like the Wagilag Sisters, deities of fresh water, or the two Sisters and the Brother Djang'kanu, who created the sea fauna and reign on salted waters. But they can also be sacred animals, terrestrial (birds, kangaroos, varans) and marine (seals, sharks, shellfish) animals – which lived 10,000 years ago, when the sea level increased and the water invaded the coastal valleys where the Aboriginals lived and forced them to integrate these new water elements into their land mythology. Naturally, the flora has also its place in the iconography of the region: yam, flowers, ferns, eucalyptus. Eventually, one should also note the role played by fire and water, and, more surprisingly, by honey, honored on an equal basis with the other Great Ancestors of Aboriginal tribes.

The art of this part of Arnhem Land is not represented only by bark painting: engraving (on linoleum, also called linoprint) is also practiced and many artists make sculptures that imitate ritual objects (Great Ancestors, totemic snake-necked turtle and funeral trunks decorated with the same motifs as bark and with natural pigments).


The bark painting of this region, owing its reputation to the Yirrkala community (which used to be a Methodist mission, founded in 1934) in which 300 artists work, has been known since the 1960s, when the Yonglu Aboriginals sent the federal government a petition to defend their rights against the mining companies which planned to settle on their ritual sites. That petition was indeed "written" on a painted piece of bark. If the main painters are men (like Yanggarriny Wunungmurra), the essentially masculine Yonglu culture has opened itself to women who, like the three daughters of Mawalan Marika or the wife of Yalpi Yunipingu, have contributed to the renewal of this community's inspiration.


See other works coming from Ngukkur

Ngukurr is situated in the south-east of Arnhem Land, on the Roper River, on the boundary of the North Territory. This Aboriginal name was given in 1968 to a former Anglican mission founded in 1908. Today a community of about 1,000 people lives there, among whom around thirty artists.

Although it is situated in a region celebrated for its production of bark paintings (the Groote Eyalet community is not very far away), Ngukurr has specialized, since the 1980s, in canvas acrylic painting, the aesthetic possibilities of which appeal to artists who so far painted only on bark, like Willie Gudabi, Ginger Riley Munduwalawala or Djambu Barra Barra.

This school is composed of painters whose styles are very distinctive. Still their common features consist in blending a figurative treatment of the subjects (episodes of the Great animal Ancestors' legend), with the "X-Ray" technique that reveals the bones and intestines of the sacred animals represented and the use of the streaks typical of Arnhem land, intended to make the painting sacred in the same way as the streaks made the bark they decorated sacred. Indeed, Ngukurr paintings are first and foremost inspired by the Aboriginal ceremonies (inherited from the Dreamtime) during which the initiated pass on their secrets: how the world was created, how this creation is carried on from season to season; how its mysteries are passed on and often symbolized by the acts of swallowing and regurgitating. Finally, Ngukurr artists conceive their works on canvas as true narratives whose different events are drawn, in the same manner as the Bayeux tapestry or a medieval stained-glass window. This explains why Willie Gudabi's paintings take up motifs found in the caves of his birth region while depicting contemporary events (episodes of the second World War for example) and why these events are represented in as a series of vignettes, not very dissimilar to a comic strip. On the other hand, Djambu Barra Barra's painting is inspired by the funeral rites to which he was initiated to represent his totemic animals, crocodiles, either in a very sober palette, that of the traditional natural pigments, or by exploiting the resources of acrylic painting in using much more original shades of pink or orange.


To the artists mentioned above for the role they played in the birth and development of the artistic community of Ngukurr (Willie Gudabi, Ginger Riley Munduwalawala and Djambu Barra Barra), one should add Moima Samuels, Willie Gudabi's wife, and, among the younger generation, Wilfred Ngalandarra, Barney Ellangaes, the Joshua sisters and Amy Johnson Jirwulurr, whose highly colored and very dense works are very much reminiscent of occidental tapestries. As a matter of fact, as in many other Aboriginal communities, women are key figures in the Ngukurr community and partake of its vitality by putting forward their original points of view.

  Some references:
Musée du Quai Branly, Musée des Confluences à Lyon, Musée d'Art Contemporain les Abattoirs à Toulouse, Musée des Arts d’Afrique et d’Asie de Vichy, Musée de la Musique, Museum d'histoire naturelle de Lille, Musée de Rochefort, Fondation Electricité de France, Fondation Colas, Banque Dexia ...

We are members of the Chambre Nationale des Experts Spécialisés en Objets d'Art et de Collection (C.N.E.S.)*
We are members of the Comité Professionnel des Galeries d'Art
*National French Chamber of experts specialized in artworks
Comité des Galeries d'Art
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