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Bark Paintings

Aboriginal bark paintings are regarded to be the oldest form of Indigenous art, but their lifetime is limited unless they are carefully preserved and cared for. Originally, Indigenous Australians created bark paintings for tribal rituals and ceremonies, and thereafter, they were usually discarded. 

Earlier bark painters did not plan for their works to be kept and displayed in perpetuity, as their purpose and utility were more immediate. So, the length of time the pieces would exist was not really a concern. This is why the preservation of bark paintings as works of art was never done nor considered until the late 19th century, when foreign explorers, anthropologists, and art collectors developed a keen interest in the art form.

Today, Northern Australia produces the majority of bark paintings, which include a semi-realistic or stylised cross-hatching or the ‘X-ray’ style of painting.

Revitalisation and focus on bark painting

Around 1925, artists in an Aboriginal group from Gunbalanya, West Arnhem Land, were urged to adapt their creative skills to create bark paintings that could be sold in cities, despite the fact that the region had historically been known for producing rock art. Other Aboriginal communities from Groote Eylandt, Milingimbi Island, and Yirrkala followed their example as demand for bark paintings soared. Unlike previous generations of Indigenous artists whose work was largely unknown outside of their own community, certain bark painters began to gain a reputation for their particular ability and vision.

Yirrwala (aka Yirawala or the ‘Picasso of Arnhem Land’) and two of his most outstanding successors, Curly Bardkadubbu and modern artist John Mawurndjul, were among those whose unusual works drew national and international acclaim.

Bark paintings from Arnhem Land and the Kimberley region steadily grew to become the basis of Indigenous Australian art throughout the 20th century, until it was surpassed in 1971 by the Papunya painting movement’s creative use of colours and patterns.

Aboriginal bark painting techniques

It’s no surprise that human figures, animals, spirit entities, ceremonial motifs, and Dreaming stories are common themes in Aboriginal bark painting. After all, the art form originated from rock art traditions. But unlike rock, bark provided a more forgiving painting surface that allowed creators to add more details and embellishments. They took advantage of the benefits of bark by using the X-ray-art style of visualisation and the rarrk shading method.

X-ray style

X-ray art is an Aboriginal painting style in which the subject’s body is dissected into pieces based on how it is butchered and used. 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.

The Aboriginal people are ethical hunters who do not throw away any portion of their catch. When a kangaroo is slaughtered, for example, the flesh is cooked and eaten, the skin, tendons, and organs are dried and used to produce clothing, ropes, and containers, and the bones are moulded into tools and weapons.

X-ray art demonstrates how an Indigenous artist not only examines an animal’s outer appearance but also knows its musculoskeletal features. However, X-ray paintings are not strict anatomical representations. Rather, they are aesthetic designs that demonstrate the Aboriginal nose-to-tail concept of sustainability and respect for nature where no part of the animal is wasted.

Rarrk

Rarrk is a cross-hatching style unique to Arnhem Land bark paintings. It was initially used for ceremonial rites and was painted on various objects and human bodies. When used on bark paintings, it imbues the work with the spiritual power of the story or theme.

Traditional rarrk designs began as clan patterns that were recognisable by their colour patterns or arrangements. Today, however, rarrk is also being used for aesthetic 

purposes.

Long grass blades soaked in paint were used to create rarrk patterns in the beginning. However, brushes constructed from sticks with long strands of human hair were eventually developed to replace them. They were perfect for painting on bark those long, straight lines characteristic of the cross-hatching style.

Materials used in bark painting

The traditional material of choice for Aboriginal bark painting is eucalyptus stringybark. Eucalyptus trees shed their bark once every year, of which big chunks are stripped off each chosen tree.

The rough outer bark is removed, and the resulting bark sheet is trimmed and placed, inner side down, over a fire to remove moisture, including the tree sap. The malleable bark sheet is then laid on the ground and walked on to smoothen it out. As it cools, heavyweights are placed on it to prevent it from curling. Splints are then connected to opposite ends of the work once the painting on bark is completed to prevent the material from warping.

Bark painting process

To begin bark painting, the artist applies red ochre ground onto the bark before carefully applying the image in precisely delineated sections. The outlined parts are then either filled with flat colour or enhanced with rarrk.

Artists work with a wide range of colours obtained from natural pigments found on their clan lands. Ochres — which are forms of iron oxide or limonite — provide the reds, purples, pinks, and yellows. Meanwhile, charcoal is used to make the colour black, while pipeclay is used to produce white. Djang (a force or energy found in places of significance) is strongly related to all of these earth colours. Natural fixatives such as wax, egg yolk, resins, and orchid sap are sometimes used to bond the pigments. Nowadays, artists mostly use PVA glue as a pigment binding agent. The instrument an artist employs to apply colour to bark is determined by the painting style and materials available.

A feather or a brush manufactured from a few strands of straight human hair could be used to apply paint. Alternatively, for fine rarrk designs, a strong sedge grass called ‘Cyperus javanicus’ could be utilised to create the thin reed brush needed to achieve a mesmerising, magical effect.

Purchase original bark paintings at OzBid

Aboriginal Australian bark art comprises one-of-a-kind paintings that have plenty of culture and history behind them, so a lot of people are interested in acquiring them, too. Naturally, if you’re looking for Aboriginal bark paintings for sale at OzBid, you want the assurance that what you’ll be getting are authentic works of art. At OzBid, a certificate of authenticity is usually included with artworks people buy from. Moreover, all certificates, photographs, and paperwork provided by the vendor are forwarded to the buyer.

We are devoted to ensuring that all of the work we offer is authentic throughout the process of obtaining and consigning art — whether it be from respected galleries, the artists themselves, or private collectors. All artworks sold at our auctions are guaranteed to be authentic, and we strive to sell art pieces at prices that reflect each work’s value. If you have questions or wish to enquire about our collection and auction process, please get in touch with OzBid.

FAQs

Are Aboriginal bark paintings valuable?

Just like other Aboriginal artwork, the price of a bark painting is influenced by a number of factors, including the artist’s age, fame and area of origin. However, auctions like the ones held by OzBid help to remedy cost problems by showcasing reasonably priced Aboriginal bark paintings for sale, with prices starting at $50. Since we recognise the fact that not everyone who enjoys art can afford to invest in expensive items, we make sure to highlight Indigenous artworks that are high-quality, affordable, and unique.

Why did Aboriginals paint on bark?

Bark paintings were traditionally made for educational and ceremonial purposes. Since they were only kept for a short time, bark was a preferred material as it was both plentiful and much easier to use when compared to rock. Today, of course, a lot has changed as collectors and public art institutions are clamouring for bark paintings.

What is Aboriginal bark painting?

Bark painting is an Australian Aboriginal form of artistic expression where a strip of tree bark is painted on the inside. It remains as an ongoing form of cultural expression in Arnhem Land and other areas in Australia’s Top End, such as parts of the Kimberley region in Western Australia.

How is bark painting created?

During the rainy season, bark is taken from the trunk of the stringybark tree (Eucalyptus tetradonta) for Indigenous Australian bark painting. The high moisture content in the bark makes it easier to remove at this time. To cure and reduce moisture content, the rough outer bark is scraped away, and the thinned inner bark is dried and flattened by throwing the bark onto a fire. The surfaces are then scraped and flattened with weights. Restraining poles are sometimes added to each end of the painting.

White is made from pipeclay or kaolin, gypsum, or chalk. Yellow and red are made from iron oxides (used in ochre painting), and black is made from manganese oxide, charcoal, and, more recently, battery black. Traditional pigments are pulverised on a stone and combined with water and a binding substance like orchid juice, beeswax, lipids, egg yolk, tree and plant gums, or resins. In order to cement the pigment more securely to the bark, artists have begun to blend both traditional and synthetic colours in commercial binders that can give the painting a lustrous finish.

How do you display Aboriginal bark paintings?

Poor hanging and display practices might lead to the physical deterioration of your bark paintings. These artworks can be damaged by insufficient ventilation, holes drilled into them, or framing them in a way that forces their shape into an unnatural curve. Also, the bark used has a natural propensity to revert to its original curved shape.

For best results, hang your bark painting on a wall that is free of direct sunshine, extreme temperature and relative humidity changes, and increasing dampness, for example. Also, be on the lookout for pests or mould growth, as the earlier you can detect these problems, the less likely they will damage your bark paintings.

Below are additional tips to consider when it comes to displaying Aboriginal bark paintings:

  • You can use a ledge installed at the base of the backing to support the weight of a heavy or massive bark artwork. These hanging systems should be custom-made for each bark by an expert.
  • It’s inappropriate to frame Australian Indigenous bark artworks in the European style.
  • Fragile barks should be displayed with complete backing and protected with glass or Perspex that’s designed to provide a stable environment.
  • Aside from ensuring good air circulation and ambient lighting, bark paintings can benefit from a dust-free atmosphere with a steady relative humidity of about 50 per cent.

What did Aboriginal people use bark for?

Aside from using bark for creative expression or art, Indigenous Australians also used it for making canoes and shields.

How do I buy genuine Aboriginal bark art?

You can begin your search for Aboriginal bark art by visiting the OzBid website. There, you’ll discover information on various Indigenous artists, featured artworks, auction announcements, FAQs, shipping information, and more.

If you have any queries or comments regarding purchasing Indigenous artworks — whether it’s bark or bush medicine leaves painting, cross-hatching, dot painting, or something else — you can always contact us at OzBid.

How can I tell if a bark painting is real?

Always ask for and inspect the authenticity certificate and other essential paperwork before purchasing any type of artwork. This applies whether you’re buying Aboriginal bark art or a piece made in a different style or tradition.

Will bark paintings increase in value?
Just like all other works of art, bark painting possesses an intrinsic value that can only be seen and understood by those who enjoy it. All Aboriginal bark art, however, can be an excellent investment, especially if you buy pieces created by well-established or up-and-coming highly gifted Indigenous artists with a unique perspective.