Jack Kala Kala

Title: Feeding Brolgas

Artist: Jack Kala Kala

Date: 20th century

Materials: Mineral pigments on eucalyptus bark

Dimensions: 99 cm length x 39 cm width x 100 cm length x 41 cm width

Location: Madison Art Collection

Accession Number 83.4.1

Visual Analysis

Artist Jack Kala Kala’s eucalyptus bark painting, Feeding Brolgas (c.1940-1984) depicts seven brolgas in a painting style affiliated with Western Arnhem Land. Jack Kala Kala (c.1925-1987), an Aboriginal Australian artist and bark painter possesses his own societal connections that make his art unique to the narratives he chooses to portray in his own works. Kala Kala was born in Rembarrnga country which borders the East and West Arnhem Land region. He was a member of the Balngarra clan that makes up part of the Rembarrnga people. Affiliated with the Rembarrnga language group, Kala Kala was also socially affiliated with the Dhuwa moiety, part of the Maningrida community (1). 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 the Rembarrnga people.

The background of this bark painting is left blank, a stylistic choice made by the artist, while the figures are painted using black, white, and red ochres. Seven brolgas are positioned on two sides of the composition, separated by a tree. A group of three brolgas on the left side of the painting stand upon a rectangular shape designated by a geometric dot rarrk pattern. The rectangle beneath the brolgas is split by the same geometric design, and the 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 shape 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. The birds are known for their intricate and ritualistic courtship dances. During mating season, male brolgas court females by performing a strutting, head-wobbling dance by picking up tufts of grass in their beaks and tossing them into the air and catching the grass by jumping high in the air with their wings expanded (2). 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 (3). In other representations of brolga from the Western Arnhem Land region, the figures are often painted in a more traditional x-ray style, meaning the organs are depicted in the pattern that fills the body of the animal. The x-ray style was a pattern that located the important organs of the animal and depicted on bark paintings for hunters and people as directions and information as documentation for the location of important organs.

As Kala Kala uses the rarrk patten 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) and his clan, the Gunbalanya people, own a version of ‘Brolga Dreaming’. Bruce Nabegeyo is affiliated with the Gunbalanya people, who neighbor the Rembarrnga people. The clan’s interrelations mean that between the two artist’s clans, their connection through kinship allows them certain rights to each other’s Dreaming narratives. 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” (4). The rarrk pattern that fills the bodies of the brolgas in Kala Kala’s work is the same pattern found in the rectangular shapes below the figures. Choosing to use the same pattern in the bodies of the brolgas and 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. These dots allude to the Mardayin ceremony, which was once commonly practiced across Arnhem Land. Though the specific details of the Balngarra clan’s ceremonies are protected, the Dreaming narrative of the ancient Brolga would usually be told during a clan ceremony and performed through song and dance. The Mardayin ceremony involved painting an initiate’s body with geometric combinations of diagonally crossed squares, rectangles, triangular forms, circular elements, and multicolored rarrk crosshatching. Many of the participants painted their bodies with patterns from their clans, connecting themselves to the ceremony, the story, to one another, and to the present during the ceremony.  In the Mardayin ceremony, a performer’s chest is decorated with rectangular shapes using the dot rarrk design to highlight an association between the dancer and the Ancestral Being of the clan’s land (5). A participant painted with such designs 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, creeks, and outcroppings in mountains. Such clan designs were thought of as sacred and were protected by the clan. Therefore, artists created ‘outside’ versions of these designs for use in the commercial art market. As a clan leader, 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.

Bruce Nabageyo, Ngalyod dja Ngalkordow Djang (rainbow serpent and brolga dreaming)

Historical Context

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 (6). 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 (7). 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 (7). 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” (6). 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 around 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 (8). The development of these are 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 (8). 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.

In the mid-twentieth century, Aboriginal Australian artists have become key players in shaping the role of their art within their society as well as on a global scale (9). Jack Kala Kala created bark paintings that celebrated the spiritual link between himself and specific places by featuring core subject matter drawn from his country. This painting reflects his individual life journeys along with the places he lived and the clan with which he is associated. Ultimately, Kala Kala places importance on a vast network of sites of his homeland and expresses his knowledge about particular sites and ceremonial themes.

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 many of the people in the Arnhem Land region in the Northern Territory of Australia traditionally use bark cut from a eucalyptus tree (8). 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 (8). 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 (6).

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 (8). 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 (6). 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 (6).

Ochres or mineral pigments are used to paint the subject matter onto the bark. In this particular bark painting, it seems that only black and white pigments 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 (10). 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 (10). 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 Jack Kala Kala’s work supports the idea that this subject matter is of ancestral importance or relation. 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 Jack Kala Kala of the Rembarrnga language group, 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 (10). West Arnhem Land bark painting styles consist of more full-bodied figures, in a static, x-ray representation of forms (8). The x-ray style shows an animal’s key internal organs and skeletal frame, often showing the important cuts of meat on the body. In other paintings, ancestral beings are shown in animal forms and their interior decorations are filled with different symbolic patterning (8). This may be seen in the x-ray like pattern covering the emus in Jack Kala Kala’s bark painting, as the patterning is linear and possesses the qualities of an x-ray style portrayal of an ancestral being as emus were thought to be related to an ancestral spirit. 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 (8). Artists that create bark paintings in the East typically fill the entire bark surface with designs. There are similarities from the Eastern style seen in Jack Kala Kala’s work as the body of the emus and a portion of the blank space within the bark painting is filled with a crosshatching pattern

Original Function

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 (7). Most Aboriginal Australian artists create their bark paintings for reasons that are either personal or event orientated. An artist traditionally depicts subject matter that is related to the history of their language group, spiritual connections, or particular rituals they may participate in. This particular bark painting’s subject matter and artist is not yet confirmed by experts. Therefore, the original function is ambiguous and further research on the function of this piece is needed.

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” (6). 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 rights contracts, documentation 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.

Important Ideas

  • The artistic style of the Rembarrnga developed in a distinct way in comparison to other groups in Central Arnhem Land due to the group’s location and lifestyle of the people in this region (11). Rembarrnga country is an isolated location in the grassy plains and rocky region on the border of East and West Arnhem Land. This isolation allowed for the development of unique painting patterns. Rarrk patterns from Western Arnhem Land use more geometric patterns, seen in x-ray rarrk patterning in which directly relates back to rock art created twenty-thousand years ago. Many Western Arnhem Land rarrk designs rely on “the inclusion of careful multicolored cross-hatching as a feature of the infill of the subjects” taken from Mardayin designs considered to be particularly appropriate to use by some artists to depict ancestral representations, though this use of rarrk is not ubiquitous.
  • The story of emu and her origins are jointly owned by a clan ‘company’ made up of six groups, Bularlhdja, Kardbam, Wakmarranj, Warrayhngu, Burnungku, and Kamal in the Arnhem Land plateau region of the Northern Territory in Australia (12).
  • Jack Kala Kala found importance in his 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 (13). 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. National Gallery of Australia. “Jack Kala Kala, Balangu, Two Sharks.” NGA Collection Simple. Accessed September 1, 2019. https://artsearch.nga.gov.au/detail.cfm?irn=63003#_ednref1.
  2. “Brolgas (Australian Cranes).” Bush Heritage Australia. Accessed March 19, 2020. http://www.bushheritage.org.au/species/brolgas.
  3. Taylor, Luke. “’They May Say Tourist, May Say Truly Painting’: Aesthetic Evaluation and Meaning of Bark Paintings in Western Arnhem Land, Northern Australia.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 14, no. 4, 2008, pp. 865–885. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20203745. Accessed 3 Mar. 2020.
  4. Dyer, Christine Adrian. Kunwinjku Art from Injalak 1991-1992 the John W. Kluge Commission. Museum Art International, 1995.
  5. Taylor, Luke. Seeing the inside: Bark Painting in Western Arnhem Land. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007, 228.
  6. The Native Born: Objects & Representations from Ramingining, Arnhem Land. 1999. Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art in association with Bulabula Arts, Ramingining.
  7. Caruana, Wally. 2018. Aboriginal Art. London: Thames & Hudson.
  8. A Myriad of Dreaming: Twentieth Century Aboriginal Art. 1989. Melbourne: Malakoff Fine Art Press.
  9. Morphy, Howard. Becoming Art: Exploring Cross-Cultural Categories. UNSW Press, 2008, 14.
  10. Keller, Christaine. 2016. Nane Narduk Kunkodjgurlu Namarnbom: This Is My Idea. Innovation and Creativity in Contemporary Rembarrnga Sculpture from the Maningrida Region. Volume, II.
  11. National Gallery of Australia. “The Aboriginal Memorial Rembarrnga People.” The Aboriginal Memorial, nga.gov.au/aboriginalmemorial/remb.cfm.
  12. Garde, Murray. 2017. Something about emus: Bininj stories from western Arnhem Land = Ngaleh ngurrurdu ngalrongmiken: dabborrabbolk kabirriyolyolme ngurrurduken.
  13. Nicholls, Christine Judith. “’Dreamtime’ and ‘The Dreaming’: Who Dreamed up These Terms?” The Conversation, March 16, 2020. https://theconversation.com/dreamtime-and-the-dreaming-who-dreamed-up-these-terms-20835.