First major exhibition of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian bark paintings in the US opens at the Hood Museum of Art

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First major exhibition of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian bark paintings in the US opens at the Hood Museum of Art
Larrtjanŋa Ganambarr, Ŋaymil Djan’kawu Dhäwu, 1996. Natural pigments on eucalyptus bark. 125 3/8 x 31 in. (318.45 x 78.74 cm). Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia Gift of John W. Kluge, 1997, 1996.0035.011

HANOVER, NH.- The Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire makes history this fall when it debuts Madayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala, the first major exhibition of Aboriginal Australian bark paintings to tour the United States. On view from Sept. 3 through Dec. 4, 2022, Madayin presents an unbroken tradition representing a unique contribution to global contemporary art emanating from a remote corner of Australia from the perspective of those who shaped it.

Madayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala was organized by the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia in partnership with the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre in Australia. The Hood Museum also collaborated on the exhibition’s content and presentation.

The largest and most important exhibition of Aboriginal Australian art mounted in the western hemisphere in over 30 years, Madayin will also reinforce the leading role of Indigenous artists in shaping global contemporary art.

“Madayin extends the Hood Museum’s well-established commitment to Aboriginal Australian art,” said John Stomberg, the Hood Museum’s Virginia Rice Kelsey 1961s director. “These paintings represent an art movement unlike any other. This work, compelling and original, is thoroughly of one place: Yirrkala.”

Vivid, intricate and mesmerizing, the paintings represent a contemporary interpretation of an ancient tradition of Indigenous knowledge expression. For millennia, Yolŋu people around Yirrkala in northern Australia have painted their clan designs on their bodies and ceremonial objects. These designs are not merely decorative, they are the sacred patterns of the ancestral land itself. Yolŋu describe them as “madayin” — a term that encompasses both the sacred and the beautiful. Bark paintings are created using natural pigments on carefully prepared sheets of eucalyptus bark, with shimmering detail achieved using a fine paintbrush made of human hair. The organic irregularities of the medium give each work a dramatic sculptural presence, with some standing over 12 feet tall.

Adding to the historic nature of the exhibition, Maḏayin marks the first time that Yolŋu people have been asked to participate fully in the decision-making processes of an exhibition.

“I didn’t know what a ‘curating’ job meant. It was the first time I had heard the word, and the first time it hit my mind, how to do the job of curating,” said Wukun Waṉambi, artist and Yolŋu co-curator of Madayin with artwork on view in the exhibition. “No Yolŋu have done that job before, only balanda (non-Yolŋu) have done it, but in a different way because they have a different way of understanding.”

Recognizing Indigenous authority and leadership, Madayin opens the door for Yolŋu Aboriginal Australian people to tell the story of their culture and heritage, creating a new model for curatorial partnership between Indigenous people and Western museums and opening the door for diverse and previously unheard voices in American museums.

“The land has everything it needs. But it couldn’t speak. It couldn’t express itself. Tell its identity. And so it grew a tongue. That is the Yolŋu. That is me. We are the tongue of the land. Grown by the land so it can sing who it is. We exist so we can paint the land,” Djambawa Marawili, Yolŋu leader and artist, explained. The idea for the exhibition was born when Marawili found his clan designs on bark paintings in American museums during a residency at Kluge-Ruhe in 2015.

Energetic and spiritual, the paintings — some dating to 1935, others newly commissioned by Kluge-Ruhe from leading Yolŋu Aboriginal Australian artists specifically for this project — feature linear and geometric patterns interspersed with human figures and animals. Depictions of crocodiles, sharks and kangaroos help tell the story of the Yolŋu homelands and show the world a way of life in harmony with other people and the natural environment.

“We have a great culture and a great story to tell about living in a peaceful and humble and fruitful way on this country,” Marawili said. “There are people who want to interrupt the country and destroy it through mining or by taking what belongs to other people, but we are here to represent the country. We live on the country and manage it. Our artworks represent the country and we can show the pattern, the story and songlines to prove we are from this country.”

Visitors will be guided through the exhibition by a video of the Yolŋu curators which will introduce the major themes and ceremonially sing visitors into the exhibition. At four critical junctures, visitors will see floor-to-ceiling video projections of ceremonial dance produced by acclaimed Yolŋu filmmaker Ishmael Marika.

Madayin features more than 80 paintings from the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia and other major museums and private collections in the United States and Australia including the National Gallery of Australia, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Museum and Gallery of the Northern Territory and the University of Melbourne; many of the artworks on view have never been seen previously in the U.S. The exhibition will be accompanied by a comprehensive 348-page bilingual catalog (in Yolŋu matha and English) distributed internationally by DelMonico Books D.A.P.

After its premiere at the Hood Museum of Art, Madayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala will embark on a sweeping nationwide tour beginning with American University Museum at the Katzen Art Center, Washington, D.C. (Jan. 28-May 21, 2023). It will then travel to a Los Angeles venue (TBA), the Fralin Museum of Art, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia (Feb. 22-July 21, 2024) and a New York City venue (TBA).

The Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia is the only museum in the U.S. dedicated to the exhibition and study of Indigenous Australian art. As the foremost public collection of Aboriginal Australian art outside of Australia, the museum has collaborated on exhibition and education projects with public institutions across the world, including the National Museum of Women in the Arts, National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of South Australia and Musée de la civilisation.

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