Bob Bilinyara

Title: Gurrupudu the Diver Bird

Artist: Bob Bilinyara

Date: 20th Century

Materials: Mineral pigments on eucalyptus bark

Dimensions: 26 cm width x 59 cm length x 28 cm width x 64 cm length

Location: Madison Art Collection

Accession Number 83.4.2

Visual Analysis

Artist Bob Bilinyara’s (1915-1959) eucalyptus bark painting Gurrupurru the Diver Bird (c.1930-1956), 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 (1). The diver duck is both the central figure and the largest, it dominates the composition and the six smaller catfish that surround it. The background of the work is filled with a red ochre, or mineral pigment, that has faded over the years, while white lines filled in with black ocher create a border around the centralized subject matter. This bark painting is believed to depict the story of the ancestral diver bird. The ancestral diver bird is related to the creation of the Yathalamarra and Gatji waterholes around Arnhem Land (2).

For many Australian Aboriginal artists, geography influences the subject matter of a painting. This is true for Bob Bilinyara, whose status as a Wurlaki man impacted his choice in subject matter. In Central Arnhem Land, the Gatji lagoon area, an estuary connected to the Glyde River, exists on Wurlaki country and is a natural habitat for diver birds and catfish (3). The Wurlaki people tell a story of the creation of 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 (2). After the diver duck Ancestral Being created the Gatji Lagoon, it settled there for its final resting place. This story reflects the hunting patterns of wild diver birds, who hunt their catfish prey by circling high in the air and diving down to scoop the fish from the water below.

A type of rarrk, called a backbone design, fills a body of a single catfish next to the diver duck’s head in the upper right corner of the painting as well as a large 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 a term found in many Arnhem Land languages to describe the kind of linear, cross-hatching patterns used in bark paintings and ceremonial body designs (2). Rarrk can also mean a clan design or used as a holistic reference to painting. The specific rarrk that is painted, is determined by the subject matter, its moiety and clan association, the location, and the artist. Differentiation between the designs and subject matter that Bob Bilinyara portrays in his style of painting as a member of the Wurlaki clan, and Yirritja moiety, from Central Arnhem Land.

Reduction of the physical form of the animals seen in this bark painting is based on an appreciation for the basic geometric form of an image that supports harmony and movement in general of this style of painting. The abstraction of sharp lines taken from the real body of the animals is seen in the representations of the diver bird and the catfish. Their forms are simplified into organic and rounded shapes that mimic each other in shape and patterning. The overall shape of the body of both of the animals starts with a narrow form, extending into a fuller part of the body, ending with a shorter base.

Another part of the rarrk patterning seen in the cross-hatching design on the body of the diver bird and the catfish in the top right of the composition signifies a harmony and movement in the work. Geometric patterning like the cross-hatching seen on the bodies of these animals have been referred to as patterns of power because specific patterns are owned by different groups around Australia (2). The use of the red, yellow, and white ochre within this cross-hatching pattern not only recognizes harmony between the two animals but connects them to each other to signify that they are a part of a sacred ceremony (4).

The deeper symbolic meaning behind the catfish and diver bird may be an allusion by Bob Bilinyara to an ancestral spirit or a mortuary ritual of the Yolngu people and Wurlaki clan. A mortuary ritual is meant to “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” (5). The details of Yolngu and Wurlaki mortuary rituals are sacred, and therefore 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 guiding the soul of the dead and supporting the lives of the living.

This painting holds meaning because of its relationship to ritual practice, by the fact that the 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, dancers representing diver birds twirl long bullroarers (an ancient ritual musical instrument) over their heads, mimicking the noise a diver bird makes in flight (5). Other dancers, whose bodies are painted as catfish with a backbone patterning, scatter in fright from the oncoming diver bird.

Historical Context

The Ramingining-Glyde River region is in Arnhem Land. The region of Arnhem Land itself is about 150,000 square kilometers and was declared a reserve for Aboriginal Australians in 19331, today the area is owned by the Aboriginal Australian people under Commonwealth laws. The Glyde River runs vertically through Arnhem Land and around it exists the Remingining-Glyde River region, which possesses many permanent springs, waterholes, and a large inland freshwater swamp called Arafura.

 Bark paintings as a whole have a long history within Aboriginal Australian culture and society though most accounts available on the histories of bark paintings are told through a western history of contact. The first bark paintings to be discovered by westerners and formally recorded was in 1924 by Captain Sir George Hubert Wilkins who was on a British Museum expedition to collect different flora and fauna of the region around Milingimbi (2). As told in the Native Born, explorers stumbled upon a collection of x-ray bark paintings, not understanding their true meanings or value the explorers wrote the paintings off as not having much meaning. As research continued it was proven that traditional, bark paintings originated as decorations on the walls of bark shelters, rock art, and from body painting in Arnhem Land (6). Over the last two centuries, many Aboriginal Australians have endured dramatic environmental changes as well as trauma and persecution as a result of the European settlement of 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 Australians and their claims to sovereignty (6). This allowed for a complete takeover of the country. The cultural and social dispossession of Aboriginal Australian people continued throughout the nineteenth century with the British subduing resisting Aboriginal Australian groups in battles and guerilla warfare.

Nearing the twentieth century, Australia’s newly formed government pushed for the assimilation of Aboriginal Australian people within a white culture through indoctrination as well as institutionalized racist policies. Politically organized push back from Aboriginal Australian activists came in the 1930s through petitions that demanded social and political equality, rights which had long been denied to them (6). By 1963, people of North East Arnhem Land were able to use works of art, namely bark paintings, as a means of expressing their legal land rights. For many Aboriginal Australian societies, works of art are created not for purely aesthetic purposes but because “they represent 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” (2). The history of the fight for political freedoms, human rights, and final acknowledgment that Aboriginal Australians have rights to the land opened up social and economic opportunities for their societies.

As the market for bark paintings began to grow around the middle of the 20th century, the establishment of missions and government settlements took place in the Northern Territory of Australia. Maningrida and Ramingining were two sites created as government settlements to encourage the production and sale of Aboriginal Australian bark paintings to western countries (7). The development of these centers shifted Aboriginal Australians into centering their locations around these communities. Growth sites like Maningrida Arts and Crafts and Ramingining Arts and Crafts fueled the production of bark paintings to be sold to commercial galleries and major public institutions for profit (7). Many of the bark paintings that are available today in galleries and museums in western locations were created for commercial purposes, not for ceremonial or ritualistic uses.

Materials and Techniques

Traditional bark painting materials used to create usually consist of bark from a eucalyptus tree or stringybark tree and mineral pigments from different regions around Australia. The steps involved in the creation of each bark paintings are specific to the group that creates the work. Bark paintings made by the Yolngu people in the Arnhem Land region in the Northern Territory of Australia traditionally use bark cut from a eucalyptus tree (7). The act of attaining bark for a bark painting is a ceremonial act within itself. The artist who requires a bark for bark painting travels into the eucalyptus forest in search of a tree with no imperfections. Bark selected for bark paintings cannot have imperfections on the outside of the tree as the content that will be placed on the bark is sacred and must not be tainted with imperfections. Once a tree is selected the rough outer layer of bark is peeled away as a smooth side of the eucalyptus tree is revealed, the artist then carves out and separates the smooth side from the tree. The thin strip of bark is the laid out flat under heavy weighted objects to assure that the bark will dry out and flatten.

Once the bark is flattened the artist applies a thin layer of fixative on the surface to ensure that the mineral pigment will stay on the painting. Traditional bark paintings used a fixative layer of sap from ground up plants to smear over the body of the bark to ready the board for the next layer of ochre (7). Today, many artists have switched to other methods such as water-based sealants or a translucent water-glue mixture for a less pigmented background color (2).

Brushes used by early bark painters were created from a variety of materials. Some brushes were made from the sedge grass stems for the handle and palm leaves carefully split apart to create bristles for the head of the brush, some brushes were created from long head hairs or reed fibers and fastened to the end of a twig (7). Though as modern advances continued artists shifted to use store purchased paintbrushes in place of hand-made ones. Peter Girirrkirirr a Ganalbjingu artist created a set of crushes from a sand palm leaf which is currently on display in the Museum of Contemporary Art (2). Some artists did decide to accept modern technological advances brought to them by westerners, though some artists like Charlie Djurrantjini refuse new brushes as he prefers to stay true to his culture and art-making practices (2).

Ochres or mineral pigments are used to paint the subject matter onto the bark. In this particular bark painting black, white, red, and yellow ochres were used. Black ochre is created from the charcoal of various tree species depending on the region of the creation of the painting. Parts of the trees are burned down to ash which is then mixed with water and a base solution to adhere to the bark painting. White ochre is created from white pipe clay (calcium magnesium carbonate) found in creek beds or quarries around Arnhem Land. Some of the sites that hold white ochre were said to have been deposited by an important ancestral spirit. The availability of white ochre is dependent on the season, when it floods heavily the quarries to mine the white ochre cannot be reached (8). Another difficulty of this ochre is its ability to be stored and reused, because the pigment is so pure it must be carefully stored or it will pick up colors from whatever it touches turning it a different color, there is also difficulty in keeping a consistent texture when using the pigment, as it does not store very well (7). Due to the seasonal scarcity, the difficulty of technique needed when using white ochre, and the relation to an ancestral spirit the use of white ochre in the Bob Bilinyara’s work supports the idea that this subject matter is of ancestral importance or relation. Red ochres are mined from quarries around the Arnhem Land region. In some cases, red ochre is obtained from a quarry near the Gangan river, this particular mineral is used in ceremonial paintings as it is believed to contain the power of ancestral beings related to that mining site (8). Yellow ochre is unique because when heated it can be turned into red pigmentation. To some groups of Aboriginal Australians, yellow ochre is a representation of the Yirridjdja moiety, a religious belief system of part of half of the groups around Arnhem Land (8). The use of yellow within Bob Bilinyara’s work could be related to the mortuary ceremony associated with the ancestral diver bird and the catfish, though more extensive research needs to be conducted to confirm this idea.

Techniques of artists vary depending on the region and subject matter that they are depicting. This painting is said to have been created by artist Bob Bilinyara of the Yolngu people located in Central Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia. The techniques that are used by Central Arnhem Land artists combine the painting styles found in West Arnhem Land and East Arnhem Land (8). West Arnhem Land bark painting styles consist of more full-bodied figures, in a static, x-ray representation of forms (7). Stylistic techniques derived from East Arnhem Land have a strong connection to traditional body painting with the use of crosshatching. Many Aboriginal Australian groups use different designs that are specific to their region and lifestyle. The popular crosshatching design is viewed as a refraction of the power of Ancestral beings (7). Artists that create bark paintings in the East typically fill the entire bark surface with designs.

Original Function

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” (2). 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.

In general, bark painting functions vary from region to region, based on the groups of people who create the works. Bark paintings possess a variety of different functions, from ritual uses, land right’s contracts, documentations for agreements between different groups, and land maps. An artist depicts subject matter that is related to the history of their language group, spiritual connections, or particular rituals they may participate in.

            It is possible that this bark painting is related to the ceremonial customs pertaining to the mortuary rites of the Yolngu people. Waterholes hold a deep significance for the Yolgnu people in their relationship with the land and ancestral spirits. Freshwater Lagoons like the Gatji waterhole are believed to home to the diver bird and the catfish that it feeds on. Yolngu people consider these lagoons to be the repositories for the souls of the unborn and the same place that the souls of the deceased will return (6).

Important Ideas

  • Yolngu artist Bob Bilinyara was born in 1915 around 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 (9). The Yolngu people are comprised of many intermarrying clans in North East Arnhem Land which include the Wurlaki clan; therefore, Bilinyara is a part of the Wurlaki clan that makes up the broader group of Yolngu people (10). Each clan that makes up the Yolngu people is affiliated with one of the two moieties or kinships that divides the Yolngu belief system; a clan is either the Duhwa or Yirritja. The Wurlaki, as a part of the Yolngu, is affiliated with the Yirritja moiety.
  • Many early scholars created their works based off incorrect assumptions of the beliefs of the Aboriginal Australian people they were studying. When looking into early texts modern scholars must be aware of the possible biases that surround early documentations of Aboriginal Australian art and culture.
  • It is believed that oral tradition was the main course of communication and record keeping of ceremonial practices and ritual traditions kept by knowledge keepers. This knowledge is held close to Aboriginal Australian culture and society, as it is sacred information. This makes gaining information in great detail about specific ceremonies more difficult.
  • This work is said to have been created by Bob Bilinyara, yet there has not been confirmation about the artist by any experts in this field, more research is needed.
  • Documentation about the artists is difficult to come by due to the long history of Aboriginal Australians. For example, Bob Bilinyara was born around 1925
  • This bark painting may also connect to the hollow log coffins of the Yolngu people. Designs from the hollow log coffins mirror the ones on the bark paintings, as they were both objects that were part of the ritual.
  • Body painting also relates to the ceremonies and rituals that the Aboriginal Australian people take part in, as bark paintings relate to these practices. Though there is research needed to explain what parts of the body painting are reflected in bark paintings.
  • 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 (11). 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.
  • The terms ‘Dreamtime’ and ‘Dreaming’ arose from attempts of early anthropologists and ethnologists trying to translate Aboriginal Australian concepts into English and out of Aboriginal Australian’s attempts to explain their religious values to European colonists. They were also used by Aboriginal Australian peoples to talk amongst themselves. It really is a term that signifies a concept that is very important in many Aboriginal Australian societies but is absent in European society. For Yolngu ‘Dreamtime’ corresponds to a word or set of words across many Aboriginal Australian languages, for example, the Yolngu word for the English terminology of Dreamtime is wangarr (5).
  • Bob Bilinyara found importance in their individual connections to certain geographic regions, clan, language group, and kinship; as each of these factors impacted his place in society and abilities as an artist. 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 (11). 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.

Works Cited

  1. Australia, National Gallery Of. “The Aboriginal Memorial Arnhem Land.” The Aboriginal Memorial. Accessed March 21, 2020.
  2. The Native Born: Objects & Representations from Ramingining, Arnhem Land. 1999. Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art in association with Bulabula Arts, Ramingining.
  3. Craig Elliott. “Conceptual Dynamism and Ambiguity in Marrangu Djinang Cosmology, North-Central Arnhem Land.” In Strings of Connectedness: Essays in Honour of Ian Keen, edited by TONER P.G., 101-18. ANU Press, 2015. Accessed March 19, 2020.
  4. McClusky, Pamela. 2012. Ancestral Modern Australian Aboriginal Art; Kaplan & Levi Collection; Seattle: Yale University Press.
  5. Morphy, Howard. Aboriginal Art. London: Phaidon Press, 2013, 17.
  6. Caruana, Wally. 2018. Aboriginal Art. London: Thames & Hudson.
  7. A Myriad of Dreaming: Twentieth Century Aboriginal Art. 1989. Melbourne: Malakoff Fine Art Press.
  8. Keller, Christaine. 2016. Nane Narduk Kunkodjgurlu Namarnbom: This Is My Idea. Innovation and Creativity in Contemporary Rembarrnga Sculpture from the Maningrida Region. Volume, II.
  9. “Bob Bilinyara.” AGSA. Accessed November 11, 2019.
  10. Lawson Crescent. “The Yolngu.” National Museum of Australia. National Museum of Australia; c=AU; o=Commonwealth of Australia; ou=National Museum of Australia, January 31, 2020.
  11. Nicholls, Christine Judith. “’Dreamtime’ and ‘The Dreaming’: Who Dreamed up These Terms?” The Conversation, March 16, 2020.