We have had a lot of interest in our collection of older collectable bark paintings from Arnhem Land. These paintings in the Gannon House Gallery collection are from communities throughout Arnhem Land and date back to the early 1960’s.
In contrast to the later development of the desert art movement, the first collections of bark paintings as artworks rather than ethnographic curiosity was as early as 1912 when botanist, anthropologist and curator Walter Baldwin Spencer, was collecting paintings on behalf of the museum of Victoria from the community of Oenpelli in western Arnhem Land. Central and eastern Arnhem Land had similarly received attention from Anthropologists and art collectors from galleries and museums in Australia, Europe and the US as a source of “undiscovered” treasure. In reality the people in these areas were creating stunning artwork and established trade with close island nations for hundreds of years before European arrival in the area.
In the 1940’s and 50’s the Arnhem Land paintings and carvings were viewed by the wider Australian and international community as the art form representative of the whole of Aboriginal culture in Australia, ignoring the diversity of the over 350 different cultural groups.
Later in the 1960’s and 70’s some of the paintings were used as the basis for legal claim to land. The paintings demonstrated the artists connection to country and were submitted as evidence of long held ownership of the land by Yolgnu people (see more on the Yirrkala Church Panels). In 1976 the Fraser Government enacted the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, 1976 and nearly 20 years later, in 1992 The Mabo case demonstrated that the concept of Terra Nullius (land with no ownership) as assumed by British colonisers, was not legal.
These stunning works, artistically produced, were also seen as a way of explaining culture and the strength of the connection to the land and sea to balanda (outsiders). Even though there was trauma experienced in living memory by the older, senior men at the hands of Europeans they still desired their paintings to be a bridge between the two cultures. To see some of our special collection in your inbox or for more information about these paintings email us here.