Art History Forum 2020

I would like to thank Professor Maddox who helped me foster my interest in this field of Art History and who helped me begin my research during my independent study which focused on the Arts of Oceania. Thank you, Professor Soenksen for supporting the continuation of my research on the Arts of Oceania by encouraging me to study two Aboriginal Australian bark paintings during my internship at the Lisanby Museum. I was very excited to be able to learn about two works by artists Bob Bilinyara and Jack Kala Kala that were accessible to me during my internship at the Lisanby Museum. Both works belong to the Madison Art Collection at JMU. And thank you to Dr. Henry Skerritt, Dr. Howard Morphy, and Ms. Lauren Maupin of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia for their time and efforts that helped me expand and strengthen my studies. Finally, thank you Dr. Ehrenpreis and Dr. Brooks for the opportunity to share my work in this year’s Art History Forum. 

This is a presentation on The Complexities and Connections: The Art of Bob Bilinyara and Jack Kala Kala.

I will be focusing on Aboriginal Australian artists Bob Bilinyara and Jack Kala Kala and their Bark Paintings from the mid-20th century, which are currently housed in the Madison Art Collection at James Madison University and displayed here. By using traditional art forms that have a long history within their cultures, these artists created unique works of art through which we can explore Aboriginal Australian artistic themes, religious narratives, and cultural practices.

Australia has over 500 Aboriginal nations across the country that cover wide geographical areas and have distinct borders. 

The Map of Indigenous Languages in Australia is a visual representation of where these groups once would have been located throughout the country.

I will be sharing key concepts and motifs found in two Aboriginal Australian bark paintings created in the 20th century by artists Bob Bilinyara and Jack Kala Kala; both from Arnhem Land, located in the Northern Territory of Australia.

According to oral history, the materials in the way of bark paintings have remained mostly unchanged since the 19th century. Bark paintings are created from the inner strips of bark cut from a eucalyptus tree, which are found all over the Arnhem Land region. The sheets are straightened out and the smooth side is used for painting. The colors, also known as ochres, that are used in paintings are taken from the earth as mineral pigments and ground up to form a paint. Brushes are still made from sedge grass stems, palm leaves, chewed ends of twigs, or store-bought camel hair brushes. The materials that are used vary from artist to artist depending on the availability of materials and the artist’s personal preferences. Bark paintings for many Aboriginal Australian societies are not just art, they function as a means to understand, “a social history; an encyclopedia of the environment; a place, a site, a season, a being, a song, a dance, a ritual; an ancestral story and a personal history.”

Bark paintings have existed for roughly 50,000 years and have many different functions across Aboriginal Australian societies. They function as land maps, legal documents, decoration for the interior of bark shelters, historic records, storytelling, spiritual vessels for sacred images in ceremonies, and as a way for Aboriginal Australian artists to contact those outside their immediate communities. In the early 20th century, there was an increase in and interest in bark paintings from gallery owners and art collectors. West Arnhem Land artists were encouraged to adapt their subject matter and designs to create bark paintings that could be sold on the art market. Today, bark paintings continue to possess many of these functions, though more bark paintings are created for the purpose of fine art rather than in association with clan rituals and sacred ceremonies. 

The societies of Aboriginal Australians are so complex that generalizations of particular societal groups will be avoided as much as possible in order to avoid the homogenization of these peoples. The two specific cultures that I will discuss are the Yolngu and the Rembarrgna peoples, both located in the Arnhem Land region, in the Northern Territory of Australia. The top portions of the map on the slide, circled in red, indicates the location of the Yolngu and the Rembarrgna peoples. In many cultures within the Arnhem Land region, oral histories of communities are protected by Knowledge Keepers, high-ranking figures that are responsible for documenting and protecting information surrounding certain social practices, rituals, ceremonies, designs, Dreaming Narratives, and the histories of their clans.

They deem what knowledge is and is not to be shared with outsiders, including scholars and historians. It should be consciously noted that for outsiders to the complex and unique cultures of Aboriginal Australians, some of the deeper meanings and significances will not ever be completely understood as it is by members of these societies. The depth and interpretation or understanding of certain works of Aboriginal Australian art can vary due to artistic prerogatives the viewer’s knowledge of the art and culture in question. Lauren Maupin, the Education and Program Manager at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia explain that viewing and understanding most Aboriginal art is analogous to looking into a mirror, “What you know is reflected back to you; the more you know, the more you are able to see. The less you know, the less you see.”

Aboriginal Australian artists Bob Bilinyara and Jack Kala Kala found importance in their individual connections to certain geographic regions, clan, language group, and kinship; as each of these factors impacted their place in society and abilities as artists. Within each nation or geographic region in Australia, there are clan groups, within the clan groups there are family groups. Within each clan group, there is a common language and kinship system shared among them. Traditional Kinship structures remain important in many communities to this day, as they establish the relationship of an individual to others and the universe which prescribes their responsibilities towards other people, the land, and the natural resources. 

Aboriginal Australian kinships are important for artists because they determine an individual’s or group’s rights to being able to represent specific imagery or narratives. A person’s right to paint or represent a specific Dreaming is determined by their country’s location and their kinship affiliation. A moiety is the first level of a person’s position within their Kinship System. In a moiety, everything is split into two halves, each half mirroring the other, and to understand the universe as a whole these halves must come together. Each nation and language group splits into its own term of the moiety. The diagram on the left shows how one child’s relationship with their kinship system encompasses their life. The diagram on the right shows the different aspects of Aboriginal Australian culture that connects inside a kinship system.

Over the last two centuries, many Aboriginal Australians endured dramatic environmental changes as well as the traumatic effects of European settlement in Australia. In 1788, the continent of Australia was declared terra nullius or empty land, by early British settlers who disregarded the population of roughly one million Indigenous Aboriginal Australian’s and their claims to sovereignty which allowed for the complete takeover of the country. Oppression of both human and land rights of Aboriginal Australians continued up into the 20th century.  

In 1963, Yolngu people from the Yirrkala clan, in North East Arnhem Land, were able to use their bark paintings as a means of expressing their legal land rights as shown here with the Yirrkala bark petitions. They were presented to the Australian Parliament with these bark petitions, one petition from Yirrkala artists from the Duhwa moiety and one petition from the Yirrijta moiety, both halves of their kinship coming together to protest having their land and their human rights returned. 

The types of art produced by Aboriginal Australians are unique to each group, though some groups may share similar concepts. It is therefore impossible to accurately describe or understand the art practices and cultures using general terms and examples.

I will analyze the works of Aboriginal Australian Yolngu artist Bob Bilinyara (1915-1959) and Rembarrnga artist Jack Kala Kala (1925-1987) whose bark paintings illustrate the deep connections and complexities between an individual and the larger society to which they belong. Both bark paintings were gifted to the Madison Art Collection at James Madison University in 1983 by Dr. and Mrs. Douglas Howard.

Historically, the study of art focused strictly on Western fine art, with other art forms deemed lesser in comparison. In the early twentieth century, art historians placed nonwestern art forms into categories like ‘ritual objects’ or ‘crafts’ that provided functional labels, or they were given no categorization at all; detaching them from the art historical canon and the value such inclusion holds. One example of early exhibitions showing nonwestern art forms as ritual objects or foreign objects is The Museum of Modern Art’s 1946 exhibition “Art of the South Seas”.

A lack of labels and background knowledge surrounded these works on display, they were left simply in glass vitrines for audiences to view. The separation resulted in nonwestern art objects and their societies of origin to be overlooked, understudied, and the reason for the creation of works to be misunderstood. The mentality that Western art is the only form of fine art meriting research and study, implies there is only one culturally specific, interpretive, and evaluative process for determining the value of art. For Aboriginal Australian art forms to be truly understood the traditional art historical perspective centered around a formal analysis of work should include an anthropological analysis of art; acknowledging that there is value in the use, meaning, and significance within the social and cultural contexts of work. 

Religious beliefs are complex and the details of each vary from culture to culture but there is a commonality in concepts that can be found across traditional Aboriginal Australian belief systems, known in English as ‘The Dreaming’. This is a religious concept that is grounded in the land, it incorporates narratives of creation and other land-based events, provides rules for social processes like kinship regulations, moral codes, rules for interacting with the natural environment, and ethics. In short, it informs people’s lives in an economic, cognitive, affective, and spiritual way. Here, the line etching titled Ngurlu Jukurrpa known in English as ‘Grass Seed; Bush Grain Dreaming’, by Rosie Tasman Napurrurlawho is affiliated with the Warlpiri language group. Ngurlu Jukurrpa depicts the central Walpiri concept of the “The Dreaming”, known in their language as Jukurrpa through etchings of an array of overlapping lines that show the complexity and non-finite nature of the Jukurrpa.

The etchings are a map of micro-environments in specific tracts of land within the Walpiri “country” though the specific details of the meanings of individual lines on the map are unknown to the outside viewer. As Rosie Tasman Napurrurla depicts one version of the Jukurrpa special to the Walpiri, artists Bob Bilinyara and Jack Kala Kala depict their own versions and connections to ‘The Dreaming’ in relation to their individual clan affiliations. There is not a pan-Aboriginal Australian word to describe this belief system, just as there is no pan-Aboriginal Australian language. Bob Bilinyara as Yolngu would refer to ‘The Dreaming’ as wangarr which is a term that refers to the ancestral creative era when ancestral beings gave form to the earth and instituted Yolngu language and culture. Jack Kala Kala’s Rembarrnga-speaking language group is extinct, so their dreaming has been referred to as Rembarrnga Dreaming. For the sake of clarity, I will refer to this concept in both the Yolngu and Rembarrnga contexts as ‘The Dreaming’.

Yolngu artist Bob Bilinyara was born in 1915 in the North Central Arnhem Land region. He is affiliated with the Wurlaki clan, the Wurlaki-Djinang language group, and has a social affiliation with the Yirritja moiety. The map to the left shows the Wurlaki and Djinang country. On the right the landscape photo of Milingimbi shows where Bob Bilinyara spent time as a well-respected surgeon within his community; he had a vast knowledge of medicinal herbs and plants from surrounding regions. 

Bob Bilinyara was In the 1950s, Bilinyara became central to a group of artists working in Milingimbi, acting as a mentor and teacher of his art practices. Towards the end of his career in 1959, Bilinyara relocated to Maningrida Art Center to continue his teaching and mentoring with younger artists. In addition to the Madison Art Collection, his works can be found in The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sotheby’s, and The Art Gallery of South Australia.

Bilinyara’s, eucalyptus bark painting Gurrupurru the Diver Bird (c.1930-1956), part of the Madison Art Collection at James Madison University, depicts a diver bird and six catfish in the Ramingining-Glyde River region, at the permanent waterholes of the Gatji lagoon in Central Arnhem Land. Proportionally, the six catfish that surround the diver duck are smaller than the central figure. The background of the work is infilled with a red ochre that has faded over the years, white lines filled in with black ocher creates a border around the centralized subject matter. In the bottom right corner, there is a close up of the faded red ochre near the diver duck’s tail. 

Historically, Aboriginal Australians utilized ochres, paint created from mineral pigments, were typically created out of natural minerals from the surrounding area that was ground to a fine powder then mixed with water, and a natural adhesive was added to form a type of paint. For some ochres, the mining sites are on sacred land; such paints were used for special purposes including rituals and body painting for ceremonies. A rarrk design called a backbone design, fills the body of a single catfish next to the diver duck’s head in the upper right corner of the painting and a larger portion of the diver duck’s body in an overlay of white, yellow, and red lines that cross over each other at acute angles. Rarrk is generally a term that is used across many Arnhem Land languages to describe the kind of linear, cross-hatching designs used in bark paintings and ceremonial body designs.

There are two potential meanings to this work by Bilinyara, for many Aboriginal artists the Dreaming Narratives are expressed within depictions of nature. However, some artists create works of art that encapsulate the natural world around them. Each meaning depends on the artist and their prerogatives. This is true for Bob Bilinyara, whose status as a Wurlaki man impacted his choice in the subject matter.  

In Central Arnhem Land, the Gatji lagoon area is an estuary connected to the Glyde River, which exists in Wurlaki country and is a natural habitat for diver birds and catfish. The Wurlaki tell a creation story or Dreaming Narrative at the Gatji lagoon, in which an ancestral being in the form of a diver duck, dove down from the sky and split the ground, forming the lagoon. After the diver duck being created in the Gatji Lagoon, it settled there for its final resting place. In the wild, diver birds hunt their catfish prey, circling high in the air, and diving down to scoop their catfish meal from the water below. Counterclockwise from the upper left are photos of the catfish, diver duck, and the location of the lagoon area.

The deeper symbolic meaning behind the catfish and diver bird may be an allusion by Bilinyara to an ancestral spirit or a mortuary ritual of the Yolngu people and Wurlaki clan. A mortuary ritual may help “facilitate the journey of the soul from the place of death to its incorporation within the ancestral dimension at a conception site in its clans’ lands.” The details of Yolngu and Wurlaki mortuary rituals are sacred and are not commonly shared with outsiders; it is therefore not known which Yolngu mortuary ritual Bilinyara alludes to within this painting. However, the main mortuary rituals, center around the fate of the soul of the dead and the support of the lives of the living. On the left, there is a photograph of the Yolngu people taking part in a hollow log mortuary ceremony at the Gatji Lagoon. On the right, there is a photograph of Tiwi men with body paint during a funeral for an important clan member.

The Yolngu have many images of the journeys of the souls of the dead, more specifically seen in the Wurlaki clan’s belief that the soul of a deceased person will return its Ancestral grounds, in this case possibly at the Gatji Lagoon. Some clans of Yolngu, especially around the Glyde River region, consider freshwater lagoons to be the repositories of the souls of the unborn and the place where the souls of the dead will return to. In mortuary rituals, the spirit may be conceptualized as a catfish, representative of the soul moving downstream to seek sanctuary in shady waterholes. The Yirritja moiety is known for associating catfish and diver birds with mortuary ceremonies. Due to his clan’s affiliation with the Yirritja moiety, the six catfish in Bilinyara’s work may symbolize the souls of the dead; alongside the predatory diver duck, the figures together represent the difficulties in the journey of a soul from death back its Ancestral home. The catfish must avoid being speared, eaten by a bird, or caught in a trap; one particular hazard that it must avoid is the diver bird, as it plunges its long neck into the water in search of food. 

The backbone design of acute lines layered on top of each other in the body of the diver bird and one of the six catfish exists as a representation of the catfish, which are in effect consumed by the diver birds, connecting the animals in a metaphorical and environmental relationship. This painting also holds meaning in its relationship to ritual practice in the fact that representations of catfish and diver birds are found within the bark painting and on the bodies of the dancers within the mortuary ritual. At one point in the ritual, it is said that dancers representing diver birds, twirl long bullroarers (an ancient ritual musical instrument) over their heads, mimicking the noise a diver bird makes in flight. Other dancers whose bodies are painted as catfish with a backbone patterning scatter in fright from the oncoming diver bird.

The specific subject matter and patterns in this painting reflect Bilinyara’s associations with both the Yolngu people and Wurlaki clan. In this way, his artistic choices underline the deep connection between his identity and the land and traditional mortuary practices of his society. This connection between self and society is also found in the artwork on the left. Toby Gabalga’s Tortoises, snakes, waterlily leaves is a hollow log coffin traditionally used in hollow log mortuary ceremonies. The rarrk patterning Gabalga uses in his work mirror those used by Bilinyara, as both are Wurlaki artists. An artist’s connection to the environment, clan, and moiety are important to understand when attempting to analyze a work. One artist’s representations of their own connections are not ubiquitous to all Aboriginal Australian artists. Looking at another artist’s work may open up another world of difference in narratives and connectivity between cultural categories. 

Jack Kala Kala, another Aboriginal Australian artist who also painted on bark, is similar to Bilinyara in that he explored his personal identity and societal connections through his artwork. Artist Jack Kala Kala (c.1925-1987) was born in Rembarrnga country which borders the East and West Arnhem Land region. The map to the left shows the Rembarrnga country which is located beneath the Wurlaki and Djinang countries.

The photo to the right shows the landscape of Western Arnhem Land. He was a member of the Balngarra clan that makes up a part of the Rembarrnga people. Affiliated with the Rembarrnga language group, Kala Kala was also socially affiliated with the Dhuwa moiety, and part of the Maningrida community. Kala Kala was an elder and ceremonial leader of the Balngarra and used his art as a repository for his cultural knowledge for future generations of his people.

Kala Kala’s eucalyptus bark painting, Feeding Brolgas (c.1940-1984), now in the Madison Art Collection, depicts seven brolgas in a painting style affiliated with Western Arnhem Land. Though the bark painting is orientated in a horizontal view in this photo, the artwork can be viewed from multiple angles. The background of this bark painting is left blank, a stylistic choice of Jack Kala Kala. Throughout his painting, he uses black, white, and red ochres. Seven brolgas are positioned on two sides of the composition and separated by a tree. 

A group of three brolgas on the left side of the painting stand upon a rectangular box designated by a geometric dot rarrk pattern. The rectangle beneath the brolgas is split by the same geometric design, and half the box is filled with the same pattern that can be found on the bodies of the brolgas. The right side of the composition with four brolgas mirrors the left-hand side, with the brolgas perched on a rectangular box separated from the rarrk pattern that matches their bodies by a geometric dot pattern.

Brolgas are a type of crane found in the wetlands of Australia, known for their intricate and ritualistic courtship dances. During mating season, male brolgas court females by performing a strutting, head-wobbling dance. Males pick up tufts of grass in their beaks and toss it into the air, they catch the grass while jumping high in the air with their wings expanded.  

Brolgas are featured in many Aboriginal Australian clan narratives and feature in ceremonial dances that mimic the bird’s movements. Kala Kala’s brolgas are outlined in white ochre, their bodies filled with a black and white rarrk cross-hatching pattern which mimics a style of painting frequently used by Western Arnhem Land artists in contemporary paintings as a way to avoid the release of sacred ceremonial designs and to connect the past with the present.

As Kala Kala uses the rarrk pattern in the body of the brolgas to connect the past to the future, the brolgas may act as an allusion to the ‘Brolga Dreaming’. Aboriginal Australian artist Bruce Nabegeyo (b. 1949) affiliated with the Kunwinjku language group, owns a version of ‘Brolga Dreaming’. In the narrative, “He (Bruce Nabegeyo) believes that his family is descended from a man who transformed himself into a brolga to escape from another man who was attempting to spear him. Brolga Man flew away into the sky and later joined up with a group of brolgas performing a ballet on the plains”. Nabegeyo’s brolga on the left is depicted in the iconic x-ray style that is typically affiliated with traditional Western Arnhem Land paintings.

The generic term x-ray is used to describe this style where the figure’s internal organs and skeletal features are represented rather than their outer physical characteristics. Kala Kala’s brolgas are infilled with rarrk patterning rather than a more traditional x-ray design. As an elder, Kala Kala was most certainly aware of this stylistic tradition; it is clear, then, that he chose to portray his brolga in a more modern style. The rarrk pattern that fills the bodies of the brolgas in Kala Kala’s work is reflected in the same pattern seen in the rectangular segments below. Reflecting the same pattern in the bodies of the brolgas and into the ground alludes to the Brolga Dreaming, therefore insinuating that the brolgas are performing the ballet from the Dreaming narrative.

Feeding Brolgas features geometric patterns of white dots that outline portions of the composition allude to the Mardayin ceremony, which was once commonly practiced across Arnhem Land. The Mardayin ceremony involved painting an initiate’s body with geometric combinations of geometric patterns, circular elements, and multicolored rarrk crosshatching.

 Participants in Mardayin ceremonies paint their bodies with patterns from their clans, connecting themselves to the ceremony, the story, to one another, and to the present time, as the ceremony took place. In the Mardayin ceremony, a performer’s torso is decorated in the rectangular shapes in the dot rarrk design to highlight an association between the particular ancestral being to the clan lands. On the left is the singer Nayurryurr, to the right is a participant painted with the nabi or honey bee totem which belongs to the Mandayung and Gurrujurjug people in Arnhem Land. 

In relation to Kala Kala’s work, a participant painted with this design may be linked to the brolgas that live on the Australian plains or to the Brolga Dreaming. Additionally, the rectangular design with dot infills used in this ceremony represents the ancestral landscape, including abstracted forms of important sites like waterholes and creeks. 

An example of a land map is shown in the bark painting on the left by Mawalan Marika, titled Goannas. Such clan designs were thought of as sacred and were protected by the clan. Therefore, artists created ‘outside’ versions of these designs that were created for use in the art market. As a clan leader, Jack Kala Kala would have protected his sacred clan designs by modifying the patterns he chose to use in his painting. In Feeding Brolgas, there is not one concise meaning to the work; it is rather a web of complex interconnections between many parts of Kala Kala’s culture.

In order to meaningfully incorporate Aboriginal Australian art into the art historical canon, scholars must acknowledge the multiplicities of interpretations and the cultural complexities which influence individual artists. In the nineteenth century, western society disregarded held the perspective that Aboriginal Australian cultures were inferior to western culture, leading them to dismiss Aboriginal artistic practices. Today, the present level of awareness surrounding Aboriginal Australian art is fostered by demands from an outside audience, its value is recognized and respected, and growing interest within this field is being explored by scholars all over the world. Aboriginal Australian art is included in museums, galleries, public and private collections, and valued in the international art market. 

Aboriginal Australian artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye found success in Sotheby’s in 2000. (1910-1996) (from Alice Springs in the Northern Territory affiliated with the Anmatyerre language group) Her series of eight paintings in the Sotheby’s winter auction of 2000 put together valued at ½ a million. Current exhibitions featuring Aboriginal Art in Virginia can be viewed at Second Street Gallery and the Fralin Museum of Art, both in Charlottesville, Virginia. Aboriginal Australian artists have become key players in changing the value creation process for art within their society and on a global scale. Both Bob Bilinyara and Jack Kala Kala are true individuals and have unique life journeys, connections to different locations, associations with different clans, and artistic styles. However, these artists share similarities in the way they confidently express their knowledge of a vast network of sites, ceremonies, and narratives while producing contemporary art.