Art Essays

Gunybi Ganambarr

Published September 1, 2009

In many people’s minds there could be no art-form less open to change than bark painting. It is one of the world’s oldest living forms of artistic expression, probably dating as far back as those rock paintings done 40,000 years ago. Yet bark painting is also one of the abiding paradoxes of contemporary art, for the works that are being made today are radically new.
It was inevitable that the age-old patterns of indigenous life would change dramatically with the arrival of European settlers. At first, those changes were catastrophic: the decimation of tribal populations through imported diseases and the wholesale dispossession of survivors. Throughout the nineteenth century and long into the twentieth, the new rulers of the lands shed a bitter tear for the poor native, whom they saw as doomed to extinction. They expressed this elegiac sentiment in many lines of doggerel and twilight-tinged landscapes.
It is, however, a romantic delusion to imagine that Aboriginal culture’s long roots make it resistant to change. Against all expectations those apostrophised natives showed a surprising resilience. Today we can look back on the sorry history of black and white relations, and chart the remarkable way that Aboriginal culture has been able to sustain and renew itself in the most unpromising circumstances.
Within that larger story, bark painting has a special place. With the possible exception of rock art, sand and body painting, nothing could be more closely associated with traditional Aboriginal culture. This was brought home to me in 1993 when I was living in London at the time Aratjara: Art of the First Australians was shown at the Hayward Gallery. It was exciting to see this work given international exposure and I imagined – naively – that any viewer walking into the show would be struck by its power and originality. Yet when I asked local artists and writers what they felt about Aboriginal art they expressed almost total indifference. Few had seen the show or had any intention of seeing it. In their opinion it was art “made for the white man” or for the western art market.
This was a view formed out of sheer ignorance of the role art had played in helping to restore Aboriginal pride and culture. It was a latter-day expression of the romantic idea that Aboriginal culture was merely clinging to life by a thread. Soon it would exist only as a museum artifact, gathering a patina of dust while the world outside roared on towards the abyss. It was inconceivable that Aboriginal art could be a form of contemporary art. These British critics felt that any signs of dynamic change and creative evolution meant this art had sacrificed everything that made it “authentic” and become a kind of tourist kitsch.
In rejecting the art on display, one writer said: “I’d like to see the ancient bark paintings.” This is a hard wish to fulfill. The oldest bark paintings in a public collection may be a group of ten pieces in the Macleay Museum at Sydney University that were collected in 1878, 108 years after Captain Cook raised the Union Jack on Australian soil. Occasionally one comes across a small number of barks collected in the 1910s or another small group from the 1930s. It is not simply the scarcity of these early barks that is so poignant, it is their aesthetic poverty. For the most part, they are small and crude. They may have been made for ceremonial purposes or simply for decoration, but they were never intended to last. For the artists it was the act of painting that was important, not the finished artifact. The nomadic lifestyle meant that one travelled light, carrying nothing that wasn’t useful, so bark paintings were discarded and allowed to decay.
Compare these tattered old barks with the work that is being done today, and the contrast is staggering. Over the past thirty years talented bark painters have continued to develop new styles and variations. Think of a spectrum that extends from Yirawala to John Mawurndjul, and imagine how many great artists are encompassed within those poles. Among the Yolngu alone, there have been distinguished families of bark painters – the Marikas, the Maymurus, the Yunupingus, although the most influential artist of recent times has been Djambawa Marawili (b.1953), a respected leader and spokesman for his community.
Boliny Wanambi, Gunybi Ganambarr, and Dhurrumuwuy Marika are widely separated in terms of age, but they follow in Djambawa’s footsteps. Now in her early fifties, Boliny is a matriarch of the community, while Dhurrumuwuy, still in his twenties, is a new generation artist. Each painter is notable for a brilliant, exacting technique that gives their work a mesmeric effect. Like all Aboriginal artists they are limited in their choice of subjects to those motifs that are the property of their respective clans. The quality of their work is a testimony to what may be achieved within those strict guidelines. The effect is similar to a writer who chooses to work within a genre – say, detective stories or science fiction – because the fixed conventions have the effect of limiting one’s creative options and focusing the imagination. It is extremely hard to make art in a climate of total freedom, but for Yolgnu artists this was never an issue.
Of the three artists in this exhibition it is Gunybi who commands the greatest attention, because with this body of work he has stepped up and shown himself to be an innovator of the most extraordinary ability. At the age of 36, he has virtually reinvented bark painting with a series of ‘revolutionary’ gestures that Will Stubbs has listed elsewhere in this catalogue. He has not achieved this by setting out a strategy, like so many non-indigenous artists and urban Aboriginals. On the contrary, Gunybi’s innovations have been completely instinctual. Like all true pioneers he has the kind of mind that is continually asking the question: “Why not?”
Why shouldn’t an artist incise a design onto the bark? Why does the bark have to be a rectangle instead of another shape? What’s to prevent an artist from scouring out a surface and then sticking the shavings back on to the slab? Is there any reason why a carved bark can’t be fastened to another kind of frame? How can the imperfections in a pole be transformed into a new kind of design? Why can’t a design continue off the pole, as in the heads of two entwined serpents that detach themselves from their support and arch into the sky?
Before Gunybi, no artist seems to have asked these questions. Certainly nobody has asked so many questions, or arrived at so many startling answers. It seems scarcely believable that Gunybi has been able to achieve these breakthroughs without transgressing the unwritten rules that determine what a Yolgnu painter can and can’t do. Yet by remaining within the clan boundaries that regulate access to particular motifs, he has demonstrated that bark painting allows room for a range of technical and formal experiments never suspected by his predecessors.
As Will Stubbs points out, these new ideas have become possible – to a certain extent – through the development of light-weight aluminium frames that have replaced the old sticks attached to the top and bottom of the sheet of bark. Take away these constrictions and the entire look of a bark painting is altered. Gunybi has been quick to respond to these changes and realise the possibilities. He has shown us that despite its long, illustrious history, for bark painting the best may be yet to come. If one could ever dare speak of a Golden Age of the medium it is not in some mythical past, it is today and tomorrow.
Catalogue essay for Annandale Galleries, September, 2009