Aboriginal Art Exhibition at Malifa

By Ilia L. Likou ,

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Australia’s Governor General, Sir Peter Cosgrove, was a special guest at the opening of the Australian Aboriginal Art Exhibition ‘Old Masters – Australia’s Great Bark Artists yesterday.

Held at the Malifa Museum, the Old Masters Great Bark Artists features a selection of works from the richest collection of bark paintings in the world.

Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry of Education, Afamasaga Dr. Karoline Fuata’i said the exhibition is for two weeks.  

 “Our art is an expression of our identity and our way of life, therefore we are very happy to host this connection in our museum and we hope we will raise awareness among our communities and students.”

The collection of Australian Aboriginal Art Exhibition ‘Old Masters – Australia’s Great Bark Artists), cared for by the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, is one of Australia's great cultural treasures.

 Bark painting, as practised for millennia by Aboriginal artists of Arnhem Land, in Australia’s north, was only recognised late in the 20th century as belonging to the great tradition of world art.

 The works are literally made of the land, on bark stripped from trees and with ochres ground from the earth.

 An article in the London Times in 1948 described Aboriginal painters of Australia's Arnhem Land as ‘old masters’. 

At the time, bark painting was considered the quintessential form of Aboriginal art and was collected largely for its anthropological interest rather than artistic merit.

Anthropologists arrived in the region after the Second World War, and were followed by the collectors, both private and public, to see at firsthand the art of Arnhem Land, and to meet its creators and collect their work. 

They took their art to new audiences, in Australia and abroad.

"ART IS AN EXPRESSION OF OUR WAY OF LIFE": Sue Langford, Sir Peter Cosgrove and Afamasaga Dr. Karoline Fuata’i. Photo / Misiona Simo

Over the past decades these bark painters of Arnhem Land have attracted the attention of the art world and the public at large; and subsequent generations of bark painters continue to build on this artistic heritage, while also taking their art in new directions.

The title of the exhibition is deliberately thought-provoking. Like ‘Old Masters’ in the European tradition, Australia's bark painters work with a rich repertoire of established iconography, use recognised stylistic devices, pass their skills and subjects onto succeeding generations and paint in specific places that give meaning to their art. 

The paintings represented in the exhibition reflect the three stylistic regions in Arnhem Land: western Arnhem Land, where figurative images predominate; eastern Arnhem Land, where the emphasis is on geometric and conventionalised imagery; and central Arnhem Land, where artists tend to combine both approaches. 

Within these three stylistic regions, Old Masters explores some of the major themes of bark painting, from the ancestral realm to expressions of identity and reflections on contemporary life.

This exhibition presents works from the period between ‘I963 and 1984 by artists born before settler society encroached on their lands and cultures.

 These male artists, who had the traditional responsibility for painting, were also ceremonial and clan leaders, philosophers, advocates for land rights and human rights, ambassadors and politicians. 

They recognised the power of art as the most eloquent means to build bridges between Aboriginal and European society. 

Their works bring Aboriginal art, one of the oldest continuing art traditions, into a new era to establish its place in the art world. 

This travelling exhibition was developed by the National Museum of Australia and features reproductions of selected original works from the exhibition of the same name, which was displayed in Canberra from 6 December 2013 to 20 July 2014. 

It is a tribute to the artists, to their families and descendants, and to their communities.

 The Museum acknowledges the contributions of Mr. Wally Caruana, consultant curator for Old Masters, and to Professor Howard Morphy and Dr Luke Taylor.

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