Unlike any other art form in the world, Australian bark art has to be highly prized for its ability to encapsulate generations of indigenous history and culture.
The stories that are told through these artworks are centuries, if not many millennia old, with each piece being unique. For Indigenous Australians, bark paintings are a way to communicate their history, culture and beliefs, often being depicting important ceremonies. Today, they are sought after by countless art collectors, public institutions and anyone who values time-honoured traditions in history, culture and art.
Let’s delve deeper into the history of Australian bark art and point you to where you can get Aboriginal bark paintings for sale made by some of the top Aboriginal artists.
History of Aboriginal bark painting
Aboriginal bark painting has a long history that’s often shrouded in mystery. Before we discuss some of the meaning behind their designs, it's worth learning the story of how this style of painting came to be so widely regarded.
Little is known about how painting on bark began and why. Some evidence suggests that the Yolngu peoples in Arnhem Land, where bark painting was believed to have begun, would paint the walls and roofs of their houses. Most ancient bark painters did not intend to conserve and display their paintings since their function and utility were more immediate. As a result, the amount of time the work would exist was unimportant to them. This is why the preservation of bark paintings as works of art was only done when foreign explorers, anthropologists and art collectors acquired a deep interest in the art form.
Bark painting is now an in-demand art form
Even though the region had previously been recognised for producing rock art, artists in an Aboriginal tribe from Gunbalanya, West Arnhem Land, began to adapt their creative skills to produce paintings on bark that they could sell in cities. By 1925, the demand for bark artworks increased and more Aboriginal groups from Groote Eylandt, Milingimbi Island and Yirrkala followed suit. Unlike earlier generations of Indigenous artists whose work was mostly unknown outside of their community, select bark painters began to achieve recognition for their unique talent and vision. Some of the most well-known artists to come out of this period was Yirrwala (also known as Yirawala or the "Picasso of Arnhem Land") and two of his most notable successors, Curly Bardkadubbu and modern artist John Mawurndjul. Their works would receive national and worldwide praise, cementing Aboriginal bark art’s place in the minds of the public.
Bark painting today
Since the early 20th century, Aboriginal bark paintings have been increasingly sought after by collectors and art dealers. This has led to a significant decline in the number of traditional paintings being created, as many Aboriginal artists now produce works specifically for the art market. However, several artists still continue to create traditional bark paintings, keeping this important aspect of Aboriginal culture alive.
Interpretations of Aboriginal bark painting
Bark paintings are one of the most well-known and distinctive types of Aboriginal art. Traditionally, they were created using various natural materials, including ochre and plant gum, which were applied to wooden boards or sheets of bark. The paintings often depicted important cultural stories, legends and everyday scenes from life.For those unfamiliar with Aboriginal bark paintings, abstracting meaning from the patterns might be a little difficult. Here are some common meanings of the elements you might find in a bark painting.
This is often why the base layer gives the whole painting its dominant colour. In most cases, the bark is painted with a layer of ochre which can be either red or white. Rarely, the ground can also be yellow or black.
Borders and dividing lines
Sometimes, a painting might be framed by a painted yellow border. Originally, a bark painting with yellow borders meant that it was a clan painting from the peoples of Yirrkala. Now, borders can be a feature of any type of bark painting. A painting can also be divided into several distinct sections, which are also known as feature blocks. Sometimes, each feature block is considered a complete composition that’s separate from the other blocks on the bark. Other times, each feature block might be individual scenes of a single narrative story.
Arguably one of the more famous types of bark paintings, X-ray art is an Aboriginal painting style in which the subject’s body, usually an animal caught after the hunt, is dissected. This is likely to demonstrate how butchering is supposed to be done, serving as a visual guide that experienced hunters share with the younger initiates. X-ray art shows how an Indigenous artist investigates an animal's exterior look and its musculoskeletal aspects. X-ray paintings, on the other hand, are not strictly anatomical depictions. A good example of this method of painting is Dick Nguleingulei Murrumurru’s ‘Kangaroo’ (1959), which depicts a male and female kangaroo. Murrumurru’s background as a former Indigenous hunter is wonderfully exemplified in this X-ray artwork.
Cross-hatching or Rarrk
Another very popular element used in modern Aboriginal bark paintings, rarrk is one of the most distinguishing elements of Arnhem Land's Yolngu art. Parallel fine lines that are closely spaced meet one other. Traditionally, long grass blades drenched in the paint were employed to make rarrk designs. Today regular art brushes and other contemporary art materials are used as well. Artists that use the rarrk style frequently combine traditional themes or inspirations with traditional colours, which are limited to black and white, red and yellow ochre. Many Kunwinjku artists, like John Mawurndjul and Peter Marralwanga, use rarrk.
Geometric and figurative designs
Figurative design elements of barks paintings are fairly easy to make out. They resemble people, objects or animals that are common in everyday aboriginal life. On the other hand, many bark paintings feature geometric shapes. The meaning of the shape depends on the context and the artists who painted it. A particular shape can also mean different things. For example, a painting of a circle can mean things like a water hole, a campsite, a mat, a campfire, a nut, an egg, a hole left by maggots, etc.In many cases, these symbols can also be stand-ins for mythical creatures or representations of things in The Dreaming — the dwelling place of the ancestors and spirits.
Skin Group stories
Some bark paintings feature stories that are significant to a particular group. These paintings are often not for public viewing and are considered very sacred to the group or artists that made them. In many ways, this form of bark painting represents the group as a whole, meaning you can identify a group solely based on the design of its bark painting. These designs may consist of symbols, geometric designs and cross-hatching. There are some Aboriginal bark paintings with specific designs available for purchase, but on occasion, the artists won't share the story about the design with the uninitiated. At the most, the artist might offer an altered or watered-down version of the story.
Aboriginal bark paintings at Wentworth Galleries
Wentworth Galleries is home to an extensive collection of Aboriginal bark paintings. We are proud to showcase this important aspect of Aboriginal culture and to provide a platform for Aboriginal artists to share their stories with the world. We present Australia's best artists, regardless of genre and strive to showcase the very best examples of their work. Whether you’re looking for a rental painting to enjoy for a short time or a chance to own a one-of-a-kind Australian bark art, finding the perfect piece of art for your collection is easy with our wide selection.
Own a bark painting today!
Shop our curated collection of Aboriginal bark paintings for sale here at Wentworth Galleries. With us, you can enjoy top-quality art from talented artists. We all offer free home or office trials and a 2-year exchange guarantee. Learn more about the latest art news and if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact us and ask them. We’re always ready to help you find the piece of your dreams.