[Listen] On the fine art of preserving bark paintings

ABC Radio HTK Written on bark

The first Harvesting Traditional Knowledge workshop brought together traditional Aboriginal artists and conservators from museums and art galleries around Australia. ABC National Radio’s AWAYE! visited the conference out at Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land to witness locals teaching art preservation experts about a very precious material—bark.

(54 mins)

Djambawa Marawili AM is an award winning artist, and a leader of the Madarrpa Clan from the Blue Mud Bay area. He lives at Yilpara on the Laynhapuy homelands, which is about three hours’ drive from Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land. Mr Marawili has an important message about bark, and the need to preserve artwork produced on the often fickle canvas.

‘The art came from the land into a human being and it is a resource now today,’ he says. ‘People continue their lifestyle so they can work. We never went to university and we don‘t know how to write, we don’t know how to go into a computer, but we can go into our own computer by using hands, and hairbrush and that is our resource.’

What happens, though, when the art and the land collide, like they did in the Kimberley region of Western Australia back in March 2011?

The Warmun Art Centre and its historic contents were flooded and priceless paintings were damaged.
Through a unique partnership with the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation, 200 works were restored and recently returned to the community.

The Warmun Art Centre damage was an extreme case prompting immediate action. Few communities have been, or will be affected like Warmun, but what also arose from the floodwaters was the question of how to preserve and restore priceless works of Aboriginal art without diluting their power and authenticity.

To discover answers to this question, Awaye! went to Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land, for the first ever Harvesting Traditional Knowledge conference, where teams of conservators and curators from museums and art galleries from across the country spent the week with traditional owners discussing art preservation.

There are amazing custodians of this traditional knowledge who are alive and well in the very contemporary world who can be rung up at any time. I think there still is a great sense of divide between the mainstream Australia and remote traditional Australia, as if they’re inhabiting completely different universes.


Yirrkala is a centre of Yolngu rom(law), manikay (music) and bunggul(dance). Language is strong, culture is strong and it’s the home of the bark tradition.

For the first time, curators and conservators have gone to the place where the art was made, spoken to the artists who made it—or their direct descendants—and learned the long and elaborate processes of harvesting bark, stripping and treating it over fire to flatten it out, and preparing it for painting. While museum restoration experts might, among themselves, discuss the use of various chemicals to treat and preserve bark, Yolngu show them their way.

Yinimala Gumana is the chairperson of Buku-Llarrnggay Mulka community arts centre. While making traditional paintbrushes he was asked about the binder used when painting barks.

He ushered participants to a nearby sprouting orchid and squeezed the stem to give them a hands-on feel for this natural glue, which Yolngu use to treat the surface of a bark to prepare it for ochre. Curators then discussed its whitefella name—dendrobium.

At this conference there were so many conversations happening about all levels of preserving bark—and underneath it all was a cultural exchange and connection.

The complications of caring for bark are many and require careful thought.

Bark splits longitudinally; it warps and curls as the moisture in the air changes; over time the paint dries and cracks; the corners fray or de-laminate.

Conservators and curators have an array of Western preservation techniques they can use, but the most successful solutions involve a mutual agreement between community and institution on how to treat the problem. For example the application of sawdust and glue, with some fine sandpaper work to finish, can seal a crack. Yolngu artists can tell a conservator how another artist might have layered the paint, where to find and make the right colours, and be instrumental in restoring that priceless work.

[Source] ABC Radio National: On the fine art of preserving bark paintings


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