Arnhem Land bark paintings from the Donald Thomson Collection

13 November, 2011

Ngarra minytji (Ngarra ceremony design) 1937. Natural pigments on eucalyptus bark. Burinyila Mildjingi, Ramingining community, Arnhem Land.
Ngarra minytji (Ngarra ceremony design) 1937. Natural pigments on eucalyptus bark. Burinyila Mildjingi, Ramingining community, Arnhem Land.
Image: Unknown (Mildjingi clan, Yirritja moiety)
Source: The Donald Thomson Collection. On loan from the University of Melbourne and Museum Victoria.

Question: What is minytji?

Answer: Minytji is a term that the Yolngu, the people of Arnhem Land, use that refers to the painted designs used on bark paintings and objects. These designs were painted on the wangarr or totemic ancestors when they created the landscape and the people, giving them both language and law.

A distinctive style associated with much of Yolngu art is the cross-hatched patterning, known as raark, comprising of a series of parallel lines painted in one direction and then overpainted with another in the opposite direction.

The complexities and meanings associated with the minytji unique to each clan were documented by Donald Thomson (1901-1970). He collected around 70 bark paintings between 1935 and 1937 and again in the early 1940s, and twenty of the finest works are to be seen in Ancestral Power and the Aesthetic, an exhibition currently on display at Melbourne Museum.

The shimmering quality or aesthetic evident in these extraordinary art works is known as bir'yun. This vibrancy represents the spiritual essence of wangarr or power known as marr that radiates from the minytji.

Each sacred clan design or madayin minytji has its genesis in the minytji that adorned the bodies of the ancestors when they walked the earth. So great care is taken in replicating these designs the right way and achieving a 'shine' or 'flash' also known as bir'yun that results in torrential rain, lightning and thunder as well as other catastrophic episodes just as they did during the travels of the wangarr in the far past.

The exhibition showcases madayin paintings, the sacred ceremonial designs belonging to a number of clans from across central and eastern Arnhem Land.

Ancestral Power and the Aesthetic: Arnhem Land paintings and objects from the Donald Thomson Collection, curated by Lindy Allen, opens at Melbourne Museum on the 11th of November and will remain open until the 12th of February, 2012

$10 admission for adults; free for children and concession card holders.

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