SYDNEY- 8 March 2015

In the Laverty Collection, the art of the north spans the region commonly known as the Top End, a vast sweep from Peppimenarti in the Fitzmaurice / Daly River regions in the west through the Tiwi Islands and the mainland around Darwin, and across Arnhem Land to the Gulf of Carpentaria. While the peoples of this diverse region possess distinct art traditions, they have been influenced to varying degrees by ritual and socio-economic connections along traditional trade routes. The art form of painting on bark, for example, has its origins in Arnhem Land, Kakadu and adjacent areas, but from the 1950s it was introduced to Murrinh peoples of Wadeye (Port Keats), the Tiwi on Bathurst and Melville Islands, as well as among the Lardil on Mornington Island.

On Mornington, Goobalathaldin (Dick Roughsey, 1920 – 1985) was the mainstay of a group of artists who depicted ancestral narratives of the Lardil in ochre on bark. The naturalistic, figurative style of their paintings is in stark contrast to the brushy, expressionistic and high keyed canvases of Sally Gabori and Paula Paul today. The latter’s work bears formal comparisons with that of Midpul, Prince of Wales, the Larrakia artist from Darwin who translated ceremonial patterns of body painting and cicatrices into a staccato geometry in primary colours on canvas.

The tradition of bark painting in Arnhem Land flourished once Walter Baldwin Spencer first collected paintings for the National Museum of Victoria in the Oenpelli (Gunbalanya) region a century ago. Today, bark painting continues to be the main art form across the region. Lofty Bardayal Nadjemerrek and John Mawurndjul represent the sense of continuity of the tradition in modern times. Nadjemerrek learnt to paint on figures on rock surfaces from his father in the 1940s, now seen as bold figurative images in his portable paintings that evoke a sense of the archaic; Mawurndjul on the other hand, is ostensibly contemporary, pushing the boundaries of tradition to the very edge, in the vein of Yolngu painters in the east – Wanyubi Marika and Wukun Wanambi among them.

Despite their proximity to the bark painting traditions of south-eastern Arnhem Land along the Roper River, the artists centred on the community of Ngukurr opted, in the early 1980s, to paint in synthetic paints on canvas for the public domain. These artists have a distinctive vision. Among the early group of painters was the much under-rated Barney Ellaga. Gertie Huddleston commenced painting her ‘Garden of Eden’ landscapes in 19931, while Angelina George emerged as a unique talent in the first decade of the new century.

The Tiwi are justly renowned for their sculpture based on the elegant human-based forms of their grave marker poles or tutini. In funeral ceremonies, the poles have placed on them inverted tunga or bark baskets. Tunga are the precursors of individuated bark paintings that were first made in the post-World War Two years, at the time Tiwi artists began to make small figure sculptures. Sculptors and bark painters such as Kitty Kantilla took to painting on canvas and paper. Kantilla became the leading light of Tiwi art in the late 20th century, a mantle taken up by Timothy Cook early in the early 21st.

¹ Bowdler, C., Colour Country: Art from Roper River, Wagga Wagga Art Gallery, New South Wales, 2009, p. 47