In the mid-twentieth century, the production and touring of bark paintings played a diplomatic role in embassies, galleries, and museums around the world. At a time when Indigenous Australians were not counted in the national census or considered citizens, these bark paintings acted as intermediaries and interlocutors for global audiences to ‘see’ and ‘read’ the mythologies and histories of Aboriginal people in ways that were far removed from their lived experiences and realities. Today, bark painting stands among the most unique forms of cultural expression, as a sustainable repository of knowledge preservation, and most importantly, as a dynamic mode of artistic expression that Yolŋu people have used to communicate their knowledge and culture to audiences both local and global.
This lecture reflects on two major curatorial projects at the new Chau Chak Wing Museum, University of Sydney, and Matt Poll’s research into the remarkable legacy of Yirrkala bark paintings in national and international contexts.
The aim of the two ambitious exhibitions, ‘Gululu dhuwala djalkiri: welcome to the Yolŋu foundations’ and ‘Ambassadors’, is to celebrate the beauty and role of Yolŋu art as ongoing expressions and kinship, Country, and identity. As part of the curatorial process, Yolŋu Elders worked closely with the curatorial team to share their knowledge in guiding the development, design, and interpretation of their artworks. Situated amongst these artworks are striking examples of bark paintings that form the focus of Matt Poll’s research and in particular, his interest in the Yirrkala bark paintings collected by Ronald and Catherine Berndt in 1946-47 and questions about the role bark painting in the global history of Indigenous art.