Australia’s ‘greatest treasures’ bound for Beijing

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A decades-old bark painting of an ancient saltwater crocodile in Arnhem Land will make an historic journey to China next month.

This intricately painted — and very carefully preserved — mystic creature is known as a "totemic crocodile" and was created by one of the old masters, Yirawala.

Getting this piece, along with 150 precious bark paintings, carvings and tools from Canberra to China for the forthcoming Old Masters tour is fraught with risks.

Because bark is susceptible to bending and cracking when the temperature changes, sending the paintings overseas presents a delicate logistical challenge.

Japanese seaweed extract preserves paintings

Yellow seaweed extract

Five months of careful restoration work on the bark paintings has taken place at the National Museum of Australia, where they are held as part of the collection.

Each work has been packed in a specially made box to prevent movement in transit.

To stabilise each bark, the museum's conservation team has used a glue called funori — a Japanese seaweed extract traditionally used in kimono preservation.

"They're quite fragile objects and they do move and split and crack … so a lot of our work is spent around stabilising those issues and making sure the work is ready to display," Nicki Smith, the museum's deputy manager of conservation, said.

'Cultural diplomacy milestone'

Bark painting of Indigenous animal totems

Yirawala, a Kuninjku leader who worked to promote and protect his heritage in western Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, painted the totemic crocodile in 1965.

His "authority as a cultural lore man is really in every aspect of this work," said the National Museum of Australia's Jilda Andrews.

Yirawala's work is among 2,000 bark paintings kept at the NMA. Some of these artworks are more than 80 years old, and most have never left the country.

The Australian embassy in Beijing described the tour as an "important cultural diplomacy milestone".

'They're living power'

Bark painting

Dr Mathew Trinca, the director of the NMA, said it was "deeply affirming" to see growing interest in Indigenous art and stories abroad.

"I think these are some of the greatest treasures of our nation," he said

"They are the works that speak of the long human history of this continent from a very special part of Australia."

In preparing for the upcoming tour of China, Dr Michael Pickering, head of the museum's research centre, said Arnhem Land art centres and artists' relatives had been consulted again to add more information about the stories the barks display.

When the works were first collected from Arnhem Land decades ago, researchers documented the stories told on the barks from the artists, who have since died.

"They were really excited to be able to see these works. It was quite exciting, it's a reminder to museums that they have a responsibility to communities to keep them informed and engaged," Dr Pickering said.

"The whole idea is that these paintings — be they 40, 50, 60 years old — they're not dead images. They're living images, they're living power."

Chinese audience will be drawn in

The Old Masters tour, spanning 20 months, will open in July at Beijing's prestigious National Museum of China, before shows in by Shanghai, Chengdu and Shenzhen.

A museum building

Dr Trinca said he was "bowled over by the kind of anticipation there is in China for seeing these works."

"We're very focused on the idea that we need to communicate Australian stories abroad, I think it's an important part of the mission of the National Museum of Australia to be taking stories like these overseas."

The National Museum's newly appointed Chinese cultural ambassador Guo Degang will have a role in promoting Indigenous art in his home country.

"It offers such different perspectives, this is great and I think if we send [Aboriginal art] to China for Chinese audiences to see, it will be something very new," said Mr Degang.

Ms Andrews said the recurring colours, designs, animals and plants on display on the barks would delight Chinese audiences.

"Works like this can draw people's imagination in, and that can go anywhere. I think that outsider audiences will really respond to not only what they can see, but also what they can imagine."

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