Ancestral Power and the Aesthetic

10 June, 2009

Djarrapung rarrk (Monsoonal Cloud design) 1937
Djarrapung rarrk (Monsoonal Cloud design), 1937. Natural pigments on eucalyptus bark, attributed to Makani Wilingarr.
Source: The Donald Thomson Collection. The University of Melbourne and Museum Victoria

Lindy Allen, Museum Victoria’s Senior Curator of Anthropology (Northern Australia), has curated an extraordinary exhibition at the Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne. Ancestral Power and the Aesthetic: Arnhem Land paintings and objects from the Donald Thomson Collection presents 20 bark paintings by Yolngu people that were collected in the 1930s and 40s.

“The barks are just exquisite. They will blow people away,” says Lindy. Her ongoing work with the collection, through careful study of Donald Thomson’s field notes and research and consultation in Arnhem Land communities, has now brought the significance of the collection to wider recognition.

The bark paintings record sacred ceremonial patterns, known as minytji, that were painted onto the bodies of ancestors in creation times. These designs are also painted on men and sacred objects for major ceremonies. Donald Thomson’s writings record his discussions with Yolngu people about the meanings associated with minytji. He also identified the two essential elements that underpin Yolngu artistic practice - the power of the ancestor or marr and the visual aspect of bir’yin.

Bir’yin is the brilliance, the aesthetic quality, which is like the reflection of flowering white gums in the water, so you get a wonderful, wonderful sparkle,” explains Lindy. But it’s also a concept explained to Thomson as being that of a flash of light or anger that embodies the power and strength of the ancestor.

The sacred clan designs called likan mintji are commanding; they are painted on enormous sections of eucalyptus bark and include body designs on a human scale or larger. Some feature bold, flat shapes in brilliant ochre colours, while others depict ancestors in human and animal form with abstract patterns and detailed cross-hatching. Accompanying the bark paintings are men’s objects similarly painted with minytji. One case includes an artist’s stone palette used to grind pigments and the brushes he used for the first painting made for Donald Thomson. 

The Donald Thomson Collection has been on long-term loan to Museum Victoria from the University of Melbourne and the Thomson family since the early 1970s. This is the first exhibition of selected works that gives focus to these important and unparalleled items; the expansive collection having still twice as many bark paintings and hundreds of other such objects. 

Ancestral Power and the Aesthetic is on until 23 August 2009 at the Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne.

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