Rarrk or Aboriginal cross-hatching, is often the style of painting that comes to mind when one thinks of the art of the First Peoples. The employment of geometric and dynamic lines to create abstract patterns and infuse figures with a sense of spiritual weight and power defines cross-hatching art. With that being said, few people know the history and symbolism associated with this style of painting. To fully appreciate the uniqueness and beauty of rarrk, let’s delve deeper into its background as an integral part of indigenous culture.
Aboriginal cross-hatching in Arnhem Land
Aboriginal cross-hatching is a distinctive and instantly recognisable style created by artisans from the ancient region of Arnhem Land. Arnhem Land is a region in Australia's Northern Territory that boasts 97,000 square kilometres of rough shoreline, warm tropical waterways and stunning scenery. This landscape is inextricably linked to the work of Arnhem Land artists who draw many of their motifs from it. Gupapuyngu, Rembarrnga, Liyagawumirr, Manyarrngu, Balmbi, Kuninjku, Ganalbingu, Galpu, Liyagawumirr, Wagilag, Wudumin and Marrangu-Wurrkiganydjarr are among the communities in this area. Many of these First Peoples are referred to as Yolngu. Aboriginal cross-hatching is employed in varying degrees and styles by the painters of this region. Each clan has its own cross-hatching method, forming a great part of its identity. Rarrk's dynamic lines are influenced by indigenous body painting procedures utilised in ceremonies. Its themes are found in both abstract and geometric work, as well as more realistic images of animals and ancestral figures.
How is cross-hatching art created
The marwat, a human hair brush, is used to accomplish the precise hatching technique of the clan drawings. A few strands of human hair (approximately three to four centimetres long) are linked together with cotton thread. Artists continue to use this ancient handmade brush because they feel it adds brilliance, vigour and power to ancestral designs.The marwat is traced through an ochre paint slurry, positioned strategically on the surface and then pushed away from the artist. The hairs, which are already straight due to the weight of the paint, take the shortest line of resistance and straighten out precisely, resulting in a fine, straight line. The process is repeated at regular intervals and when it is dry, it is repeated in the opposite direction.
The significance of cross-hatching in Aboriginal art
Within Arnhem Land, among the individual clans, the use of Aboriginal cross-hatching in painting is a right that is usually inherited patrilineally. Traditionally, artists will paint the tale of their fathers and occasionally their mothers, with a brush made of reeds or human hair, transferring the themes that have been represented on bark, cave walls and human bodies for generations. Although many artists have adopted canvas as a surface to paint on, the significance of these patterns and the stories they represent are not lost.
Rarrk in Aboriginal x-ray art
Arnhem Land's dynamic rarrk art form has thrived since canvas painting was adopted for us by the Australian First Nations painters in the 1970s. The X-ray painting is one of the most amazing and unusual pieces of art from this region, a tradition that dates back many thousands of years and is a style still being used by painters today. Fine cross-hatching lines occupy the figure of an animal, such as a fish, bird or kangaroo. The interior is depicted symbolically, utilising geometric shapes and linework, with many lines forming the outline of bones and other organs.
Other features common in rarrk paintings
While rarrk is instantly recognisable to the viewer, it is often not the only thing painted on the surface. There are other motifs that a painter might add to the painting which hold just as much significance. Many of these elements are representations of the environment commonly found in Arnhem Land and hold special significance to the painter’s particular clan. Other features common in rarrk paintings include:
- Jungles (Retja)
Around Arnhem Land, there are pockets of luxuriant rainforest typically nourished by springs. This gives them their characteristically deep green foliage. These sites are sacred to the Yolngu people as they are believed to be the home of various spirits, including a frog spirit, a spider spirit and the spirits linked with the morning star. The forest is also a valuable source of bark used to make string and other useful items.
- Mangroves (Larrtha)
According to their beliefs, both the Manyarrngu and Liyagawumirr peoples are descended from mangroves. These grow on river banks and tidal flats where the coastline meets the land. The Djan Kawu — ancestral entities portrayed in Dhuwa Mythology — are believed to have given birth to these tribes in this location. Since mangroves are of such religious importance, they are a common feature in many of the cross-hatching paintings of these people. Today, the mangroves are still shown in artworks from the Glyde River region of Arnhem Land.
- Forests (Diljit)
Central Arnhem Land is home to vast swaths of eucalyptus trees teeming with honey, insect life, animals and spirits. This makes them extremely valuable and sacred locations for the Aboriginal clans in the area. Much of the rarrk art from the woodland region is vertical and painted on tree bark, a tribute to the eucalyptus tree's upward ascent. 'Diljit' is a Djambarrpuyngu word that signifies both 'tree-covered landscape' and 'backbone.' For thousands of years, the Aboriginal people understood that the forest, like the kangaroo's backbone, is the backbone of a diverse and complex ecosystem.
- Waterholes (Gulun)
The waterhole is a recurring and important element in Aboriginal art. Aside from their functional use — collecting drinking water — billabongs, pools and waterholes have traditionally been important gathering and community spaces. The Djambarrpuyngu word 'gulun' literally means 'waterhole' or 'freshwater drinking area,' but it is also a term for a woman's stomach or womb. Unborn ghosts and the spirits of deceased ones were said to be found in waterholes.
- Oceans or beaches (Ragni/Monuk)
Arnhem Land's beaches and coastlines have always attracted clans to settle nearby to fish, hunt or enjoy bountiful food supplies on land. Many sea species' life cycles have been chronicled in song and dance by Aboriginal people and their presence is felt powerfully within rarrk art.
- Plains (Ninydjia)
The Yolngu people recorded the dramatic changes on these plains throughout the seasons. During the monsoon season, tropical flood plains explode with lush foliage, flooding fields for spearfishing — or they're fired for hunting drives, after which the blackened flora is resurrected with fresh shoots of life. All of these cycles and variations are documented in plains cross-hatching Aboriginal art.
Owning cross-hatching art
The various styles of cross-hatching painting are strongly associated with certain social groups or clans, as well as a larger culture and tradition of language, dreaming, country and common lineage. Every artist tells a unique story through their Aboriginal cross-hatching art, bringing together the past and present in an intricate map of meaning.Seeing just one example of cross-hatching Aboriginal art gives you a window into a world that predates most of civilisation and continues to thrive to this day. Owning such artwork injects the ethereal wonder of Dreamtime and the rich cultural beauty of the First people into any space.
Choose from a wide range of Aboriginal art at Wentworth Galleries
Wentworth Galleries gathers and sells some of the most beautiful works of Aboriginal art produced by some of the most talented artists. We are honoured to showcase this important aspect of Aboriginal culture and provide a platform for Aboriginal artists to share their stories with the rest of the world. In our collection, you will find pieces that preserve the history of Aboriginal art while reflecting the distinct perspectives of the mind that painted it. Whether you're looking for the latest art news, a rental artwork to showcase at a coming event or a chance to purchase a one-of-a-kind piece of Australian art, our extensive selection makes it simple to choose the perfect piece for your collection.
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