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Photo: Viki Petherbridge
Mundukul Marawili, Madarrpa clan, Eastern Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Mundukul (Ancestral Snake) and Yirwarra (Fish Trap) at Baraltja,1942, natural pigments on eucalyptus bark, 177 x 100 cm. The Donald Thomson Collection. The University of Melbourne and Museum Victoria © Courtesy Marrirra Marawili
This exhibition presents bark paintings and other painted objects collected in central and eastern Arnhem Land by anthropologist, the late Donald Thomson (1901 – 1970). The exhibition features approximately one third of an extraordinary collection of bark paintings in the Donald Thomson Collection. This powerful visual suite embodies the essence of many of the significant ancestors who created the landscape and gave life and meaning to the people of Arnhem Land, such as the Wagilag Sisters and the Djan'kawu Sisters.
From his very first week in Arnhem Land, Donald Thomson became passionate about and intrigued by Yolngu art. At the camp of the legendary Djapu leader, Wonggu, at Caledon Bay, Thomson was educated about both the secular and sacred notions of Yolngu art. He photographed and filmed the old man completing an instructive painting over a few days and then bought the bark painting—the first—as well as the brushes that Wonggu had used. These are a focal point in the exhibition, and as with Thomson and his first encounter with Wonggu in July 1935, they provide opportunity for engagement and dialogue about the meanings and purpose of Yolngu art. From this first very instructive painting, Thomson went on to create an assemblage of the most captivating works relating to body painting and the travels of ancestors, as well as a set of singularly important works executed over three days in September 1942 that clearly lay claim to Yolngu ownership of major clan estates of Blue Mud Bay in north-eastern Arnhem Land.
Donald Thomson was the first to document in detail the sacred meanings associated with the use of specific designs and patterns in Yolngu art. He wrote extensively while in the field about how the works were created, the context for using specific designs, the classes of paintings and designs that moved from the sacred to the profane, and the embodiment of the power of the ancestors in painting.