A philanthropic gift from one of the country’s most influential economic anthropologists researching Indigenous development will bring traditional bark paintings to a revamped Drill Hall Gallery, as PARIS LORD explains.
I’m totally enamoured by bark paintings. They’re intricately linked to the people who make them, who harvest the trees and prepare the bark.
On the northern coast of the Northern Territory lies Maningrida, a thriving community township of 3,000 people with a vast and populated 10,000 square kilometre hinterland.
As in other Arnhem Land regions, traditional imagery in the Maningrida area had been on rock walls and on bark. Art has always been at the heart of the region’s ceremonial life.
While early fine artists from the area included Jack Wunuwun and Crusoe Kuningbal, among many others, Maningrida’s art scene started to make market inroads in the late 1970s after the founding of Maningrida Arts and Crafts as collecting and selling institution.In its early days, the centre was a pivotal element of the Whitlam Government’s support of Indigenous peoples to return to homeland communities, with art production promoted as a means to assist people to earn cash to support their subsistence lifestyle.
In the late 1970s, ANU economist and anthropologist Jon Altman visited Maningrida for the first time and started working closely with Maningrida Arts and Crafts, later renamed Arts and Culture, as a doctoral scholar.
Altman – now Emeritus Professor at ANU – visited Maningrida many times over the following four decades, including when he chaired a review of the Indigenous visual arts sector for the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in 1989. His policy recommendations and funding template are still in use today.
“From my point of view, one of the most positive contributions I’ve made in my career has been linking evidence-based research to indigenous arts advocacy and policy formation,” Altman says.
Altman also worked with Maningrida Arts and Culture developing its first business development plan in 1999 so as to help expand their operations; MAC buys art from several hundred local Aboriginal artists and so assists to economically empower the community.
Altman became a collector after living at Mumeka outstation in what was virtually an artist colony with residents including the renowned bark painter John Mawurndjul, a close friend.
“All of the art I’ve collected from the Maningrida region is by artists that I know personally and I’ve discussed the works with them and often seen the works produced,” he says.
“I’m totally enamoured by bark paintings. They’re intricately linked to the people who make them, who harvest the trees and prepare the bark and quarry the ochre and pigments for the paintings.
“All of the materials are from Arnhem Land and so the paintings embody the materiality of their country. The subjects are totemic designs and sacred places rendered in ways that are enormously varied but also highly recognisable”.
Altman, who founded the ANU Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, has recently gifted 12 bark paintings to the University, 11 of which are from Maningrida Arts and Culture.
Among the gifted collection is The Flower Bird (Berrberrapa) and the Rainbow Moon Fish around a clan waterhole by Johnny Rrurriya. A long, thin painting on eucalyptus bark, the colours are bright and transport you to the tropical waterhole.
National award-winning artist Terry Ngamandara’s Clan water holes and banaka (a digging stick) in the Barlparnarra wetlands is an attention-grabbing work that draws you in instantly.
Altman’s affection for the artwork will also be captured in how they will be sympathetically displayed, in 2017, in the newly-refurbished ANU Drill Hall Gallery.
Custom-made aluminium cradles have been crafted, says Gallery Director Terence Maloon.
“It’s the normal thing for bark paintings, because they are flexible and irregular in shape,” Maloon explains.
“You can’t connect them with anything rigid, because it would split the bark or harm the physical integrity of the work. A cradle supports the work and allows it to expand or contract with the atmospheric changes and over time.”
Maloon adds that Altman has been “consistently generous” with his donations to the university art collection.
“We’ve a fine Indigenous collection, a lot of it acquired by ANU anthropologists and the university has great engagement with Indigenous people.”
This is Altman’s fourth donation to the ANU collection and you can find many of the works displayed across the ANU campus.
“If the works were part of a collection in a large public institution it is likely they would spend most their life in a store room,” Altman says.
“I am thrilled that many more people will get to see the works displayed as a part of the significant ANU collection.”