Wagilag Sisters, ochres on bark, 2002
Dorothy Djukulul and Djardie Ashley stripping bark
© Djon Mundine 2004
The bark used for painting on is from a tree species called Darwin stringy-bark, or Eucalyptus tetrodonta.
In the wet season the sap rises in the tree making the bark soft and flexible. Sheets are stripped from the trees by making two cuts around the circumference between one and three metres apart. The soft bark is then prised from the tree often with an axe or similar cutting tool. The bark is placed over a fire for a few minutes to dry and draw in the fibrous outer layer. This fibre is stripped away leaving about 1cm. of denser bark. Drying takes at least three days, but is more likely to take a couple of weeks.
The inner painting surface is further rendered smooth by rubbing with a fine sand-paper. In former times, shark skin was said to have been used. After this smoothing, a mono-chromatic 'primer' coat is applied which sets the tone of the work. Usually a reddish brown ochre base coat is applied, but occasionally a clear coat of fixative, allowing the bark to show through, or other colours may be used such as red and yellow. These are the earth colours, ochres found in the ground and rock surfaces, often at special sacred places. The red and yellow are most commonly iron oxides, the white a pipe-clay, and the black usually charcoal, though sometimes manganese may be traded from the east.
Most artists mix their own palettes and from these basic colours obtain a dazzling range of greens, blues and mauves. Sometimes the ochres are 'burnt' to produce rich colours. The pigments are mixed with water and a kind of fixative which varies a little, depending on personal preference. Traditionally several types were used: wax and honey, egg yolks, and more commonly juice of the djalkurrk, a native orchid.
Brushes are fashioned out of twigs and leaves, the ends of which are frayed and teased out so that they can be used in many different ways. The particular arrangement of colours is the trade mark of each individual artist. Some artists paint single alternating colour lines for their rarrk, others three or four colours in their own specific sequence.
Richard Birrinbirrin Gurrmirringu
earth pigments on canvas 2000
Rita Gotjabawuy with Wititj, a large work on paper acquired by the Art Gallery of South Australia in 2003
Painting on canvas in Ramingining began though individual artists’ experimentation with this new support in the mid 1980s. During this time the National Museum of Australia purchased a major work on canvas by Dr David Malangi. The formal introduction of this support came about in the mid 1990s, and was due to a shift in market trends, as well as seasonal factors.
Bark can only be collected when the sap is running in the “wet season” and the bark is pliable ( December till March). Outside of those months, the bark is too dry to be removed from the tree. From the 1980s to the mid 1990s the then Art Advisor, Djon Mundine, used to pay artists to collect alot of barks during the wet and store them so artists were able to paint year round. With his departure, this practice stopped and canvas was formally introduced. This introduction also met the needs of an ever changing Aboriginal art market which had become accustomed to works on canvas, largely from the Western Desert school in the 1980s.
The new buyers and collectors were readily able to embrace this support as “contemporary art”, momentarily relegating bark paintings to the realm of “primitivism” and the “exotic.” Paintings on canvas now represent a major component of sales by Bula’bula Arts, although bark paintings remain a speciality of Arnhem Land, and indeed of Bula’bula Arts.
Works on Paper
The first work on paper, executed by Charlie Djurritjini, was painted in October 1993. In a sense, the introduction of this support was an extension of the Ramingining Print Workshop which had already introduced artists to paper through the production of linocuts and lithographs.
Executed in earth pigments on high quality Arches paper, works on paper come in three standard sizes. This suits galleries and buyers alike. Large works on paper measure 150 X 105 cms, medium sized works measure 105 x 76 cms and small works on paper measure 76 x 56 cms. Falling within the realm of “affordable art”, works on paper possess a charm unto themselves.