Yirrkala "Milky Way" Bark Painting,
Eastern Arnhem Land, Australia
Yirrkala "Milky Way" Bark Painting, Eastern Arnhem Land, Australia.
ca. mid 20th century.
For millennia, Yolŋu 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 "maḏayin" — 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
North-east Arnhem Land is home to the Yolŋu (Yolngu) people, one of the largest Indigenous groups in Australia, who have succeeded in maintaining a strong traditional culture, and whose name for this area is Miwatj. The complex symbolism present in nearly all Yolŋu art originates from iconographic and symbolic visual languages passed down by Yolŋu people – the Traditional Owners of North-East Arnhem Land, Australia – for thousands of years. These designs are not merely decorative, they are the sacred patterns of the ancestral land itself. Yolŋu describe them as "maḏayin" — a term that encompasses both the sacred and the beautiful.
Their 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. These paintings are “framed” within distinct boundary lines, the surface of the bark is completely covered with primary figures and background design. Harvesting the bark sheets that are used for the paintings takes place during the wet season. Yolŋu men go out on Country and look for suitable trees, then, using hand axes, incise rectangular shapes into the tree's outer layer. Working together, the men climb up high, often standing on the roof of the troopy (truck), and carefully remove single sheets of bark. The rough outer bark is stripped, and the thin inner bark is weighted with stones and scorched with fire to flatten it out. Once flat, the artist can then paint the sheet of bark. Yirrkala bark painting is finer, and more formalized with an elegant and more static background. The organic irregularities of the medium give each work a dramatic sculptural presence.
In Eastern Arnhem Land, Milŋiyawuy (the Milky Way) represented a river in the Sky World. This Yirrkala bark painting tells the Dreamtime story of two brothers who drowned while canoeing the river Milky Way. The upright figures of the two brothers are shown in the top panel. The older of the two brothers (right) stands on a black rock, representing the dark patch of the Milky Way, near Theta Serpentis. Within the central panel beneath them (the outline of the Milky Way), the two brothers appear again; to the left, they are shown rowing in their canoe. They encounter a giant wave that tosses the canoe, throwing the brothers into the river. The empty canoe with paddles is shown in the middle and has turned into stars, it is the line formed by four stars near Antares. In front of the empty canoe are the two brothers, underwater, their floating bodies outlined as tiny dark shapes, and are located in the constellation of Serpens and Sagittarius. The backdrop depicts the canoe's wake, and the wavy lines represent the luminous stars of the Milky Way near Scorpio.
Dimensions: Length: 30 3/4 ins x 13.5 inches
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Eastern Arnhem Land, Australia