Madayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Bark Painting from Yirrkala, Australia
The land has everything it needs. But it couldn’t speak. It couldn’t express itself. Tell its identity. And so it grew a tongue. That is the Yolngu. That is me. We are the tongue of the land. Grown by the land so it can sing who it is. We exist so we can paint the land.
- Djambawa Marawili AM
about the exhibition
Madayin is the first major survey of Aboriginal bark paintings ever staged outside of Australia. It presents eight decades of one of Australia’s most unique contributions to global contemporary art.
For millennia, Yolngu people around Yirrkala in northern Australia have painted their sacred clan designs on their bodies and ceremonial objects. These designs—called miny’tji—are not merely decorative: they are the sacred patterns of the ancestral land itself. Yolngu describe them as madayin: a term that encompasses both the sacred and the beautiful. With the arrival of Europeans in the twentieth century, Yolngu people turned to the existing medium of painting on eucalyptus bark with ochres to express the power and beauty of their culture. The result was an outpouring of creativity that continues to this day as artists find new and innovative ways to transform their ancient clan designs into compelling contemporary statements.
Drawn from the world’s most important holdings of Aboriginal bark paintings, including the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and Museums Victoria, Madayin will survey eight decades of artistic production at Yirrkala, from 1937 to the present, including 25 new works commissioned especially for the exhibition through the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Center at Yirrkala. The curatorial team includes both Yolngu and non-Indigenous curators. The paintings on bark will be accompanied by an extensive media component including video, audio recordings and archival photographs, developed by the Aboriginal media unit at Yirrkala, The Mulka Project. The exhibition will tour the USA in 2021-2023; venues have not yet been announced.
Madayin offers a rare opportunity for American audiences to experience the grace and majesty of one of the world’s richest artistic traditions. The exhibition shows bark painting to be a dynamic tradition, brought forward by the artists of Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Center at Yirrkala. Ancient mark making traditions are carried into the present through the passion and artistry of these leading artists. Here in a remote corner of Australia has emerged one of the most powerful painting movements of our time.
how to support this project
We invite you to partner with us to commission new artworks by twenty-five contemporary masters of Yolngu art. For gifts of more than $2,500, your name will be attached to a commissioned artwork and will forever be associated with this historic moment in Australian Aboriginal art. Click here to donate now.
about the team
Madayin is a pioneering curatorial collaboration between Yolngu and non-Indigenous curators. The works in the exhibition have been selected by a team of Yolngu curators led by Djambawa Marawili AM, Wukun Wanambi, Yinimala Gumana and Wäka Mununggurr. Non-Indigenous members of the project team include Kluge-Ruhe director Margo Smith AM, Kluge-Ruhe curator Henry F. Skerritt, Kade McDonald, Howard Morphy, Frances Morphy and Will Stubbs.
about our partners
Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre is an Aboriginal-controlled art center located in Yirrkala, Australia. Established in 1976, it has a staff of 20, primarily Aboriginal art workers, who serve the artists of northeast Arnhem Land in approximately 25 homeland communities within a radius of 200 kms. Buku regularly facilitates its artists’ involvement in major biennales, museums and gallery exhibitions around the world. Buku will provide infrastructure for the commissioning of new artworks for the exhibition, while assisting with the documentation and research of artworks for Madayin.
The Mulka Project was founded in 2008 as the Aboriginal media unit of Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Center. An archive of Yolngu cultural knowledge, The Mulka Project repatriates materials from the past and documents the present for future generations. They provide training and employment for Yolngu people in all aspects of filmmaking, sound recording and digital editing. The Mulka Project will develop a multimedia component for Madayin to bring Indigenous voices into the gallery.