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Barking Mad by Nell Schofield

In these barking mad times, striking bark art reminds us to stay grounded and surrounded by meaningful stories. Ninbella has assembled a powerful stash of bark art works from local and Yolngu artists to help us navigate these extremely strange days. Lae Oldmeadow’s upholstered Hoop Pine bark tree totems stand like ancient sentinels along one wall of the Bangalow gallery. Hand crafted in Blue Knob, these seven pieces communicate centuries of growth in meticulous interwoven layers.

On the opposite wall are ochre paintings on Stringybark panels from Yirrkala, a remote community 700 kms east of Darwin in Arnhem Land. Featuring the distinctive cross-hatching designs of the region intermingled with black sparkling sand from the surrounding beaches, these works speak to each artists’ deep connection to country.

Gallery director Grant Rasheed recently travelled to the remote Indigenous community controlled art centre Buku-Larrngay Mulka to personally select these works along with a collection of Larrakitj (memorial poles) which form the centrepiece of the exhibition ‘Barking Mad’.“It was a real honour for me to meet some of these artists personally and to support the wonderful work of the Buku Arts Centre,” Grant said. The Centre’s name translates as “the feeling on your face as it is struck by the first rays of the sun”, and there is reference to the eternal cycle of new life and death in these mesmeric pieces. Sacred yet public ceremony designs are interpreted in uniquely individual ways. In response to a challenge about her right to paint the fishtrap imagery of her own clan, Djirrirra Wununmurra assumed the unique identity of Yukuwa (bush yam), a traditional food source whose annual reappearance is a metaphor for the increase and renewal of her people and their land. She explores this by etching her own contemporary take on the ceremonial yam grounds in nearby Stringybark forests onto white earth pigments.

84 year-old Baluka Maymuru is an “artist of truth”, practicing his sacred cultural connections on massive panels that depict his homeland estate and its ritual focal point on the Northern entrance of Blue Mud Bay on the Western coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Ritual body painting for cleansing ceremonies has been transferred on to three stunning hollow, Stringybark poles by Galawupa Garrawurra who died tragically at the age of only 28.

These Larrakitj were originally used as ossuaries or bone containers erected as memorials to dead kinsmen but are now widely created as modern sculptures that in Garrawurra’s case display a minimalist elegance.

All these works speak to a tradition that stretches way back to the “first sunrises”. It was a Yirrakala bark art work painted in 1963, now housed in the National Museum of Australia, that became the first formal assertion of Indigenous native title. Current works from this community continue to express deep cultural integrity and assertion of land ownership. Exhibited in dialogue with Oldmeadow’s spine-tingling totems, these barks and sculptures present a cheeky yet imaginative play on the use of this most primal material.

‘Barking Mad’ at Ninbella Gallery, 19A Byron Street Bangalow. til Mid August