The designs on the bodies of these people are part of the Mandarin miytji (sacred clan design) by Warramiri Yolgnu. Anthropologist Donald Thomson took the photographs during the 1930s. They set the scene for the Transforms: Early Bark Paintings of Arnhem Land exhibit.

The exhibit of 24 bark paintings and three objects, along with four photographs, invites participants to be invited to view sacred art.

Attributed by Makani Wilingarr. ‘Ngarra minytji (Ngarra Ceremony Design)’ c. 1937. Natural pigments on bark. 139 x 113.5cm. The Donald Thomson Collection, University of Melbourne, Museum Victoria, Ramingining (c) Courtesy Jimmy Burinyila

The early bark paintings of Central and Eastern Arnhem landCaledon Bay, and GrooteEylandt from the Northern Territory were painted by Thomson and then given to Leonhard Adams during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.

The gifts were a reflection of the trust the researchers had built with Anindilyakwa and Yolngu Elders. But they also reflected their obligations. The wall panels of the exhibition describe how the clan leaders gave their approval to the transcription of sacred designs onto the bark.

Outsiders should be made aware of the richness and importance of Yolngu culture [and Anindilyakwa] and its deep connection with the land.

What did it mean for the Yolngu clan elders and Anindilyakwa to invite Thomson and Adam into their sacred worlds? One wonders, in order to experience the power of Mundukul Marawili’s “Mundukul (Snake) Story and Yirwarra” [Fish Trap], what would it mean to invite people today to view their sacred realms?

Mundukul Marawili – ‘Mundukul story (Snake), and Yirwarra’ (Fish Trap), 1942, natural pigments, bark, 175 cm x 103.3cm. The Donald Thomson Collection, University of Melbourne, Museum Victoria, Ramingining (c) Courtesy Jimmy Burinyila

Two galleries are dedicated to the bark paintings. The first gallery is divided into four groups:

The Anindilyakwa language group painted a series of large sailing ships from Indonesia, now Sulawesi, in the 1940s.

The Anindilyakwa language group produced Macassan Prau paintings in the 1930s.

3) Ritharngu Madayin Minytji From the 1940s

4) The collaborative painting “Djambuwal” [Thunderman] co-created in the 1940s by Wonnggu Mununggurr with his three oldest sons.

5) Painted paddles, models boats, and fish traps of the Milingimbi clan, Madarrpa clan, Mildjingi clan, or Djinang tribe, dating respectively from the 1940s-1950s.

The “Djambuwal,” a collaborative painting, is intended to be the highlight of the first gallery. However, the Macassan artworks captivate the viewer with their depictions of sea creatures such as turtles, sea cucumbers, fish, jellyfish, and whales traded between Anindilyakwa and Macassans.

Minimini Numalkiyiya Mamaika’s “Turtles” (Yimenda), Eating Jellyfish (Armbulirra) is a good example of the use of lines, dots, and cross-hatching in these secular works. Maccassan’s paintings use rarrk to express the Anindilyakwa connection to the sea. Mandarin miytji is used to describe the same.

The wall panel of the exhibition notes that since 1938, the Anindilyakwa have been creating “tourist artwork” on the bark to be displayed at the Qantas fueling station on their island. They had a closed system of knowledge, so they could control the amount of sacred knowledge they used in their paintings.

The Madayin Minytji Bark Paintings are a unique gift, particularly those in the 2nd gallery. The intricate work on the different clans’ madayinminytji conveys sacred power from the Yolngu Ancestors (wager), whose actions created their world.

Makani Wilingarr’s ‘Ngarra Minytji’ (Ngarra Ceremony Design) 1937, bark pigments, 127×64.2 cm. The Donald Thomson Collection, University of Melbourne, Museum Victoria, Ramingining (c) Courtesy Jimmy Burinyila

The paintings all have a common theme of water. Two of the most impressive bark paintings are Makani Wilingarr’s “Ngarra Minytji No.1 [Ngarra Ceremony Design]”, which has a triangular monsoon-cloud motif, and Maama Mununggurr’s Djarrka (Water Monitor Lizard) Story with its dark monsoon-cloud motif reflected in the backs on the Djarrka.

‘Djan’kawu Sisters Story: Djarrka [Water Monitor]’ 1942, by Maama Mununggurr. Natural pigments on Bark, 186.2×109.5cm. The Donald Thomson Collection, the University of Melbourne, and Museum Victoria. (c) Courtesy of the artist’s descendants and Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre in Yirrkala

Why did Anindilyakwa elders and Yolngu elders share their sacred knowledge with us almost 75 years after they were first taught? A person who stands in front of a Madayin Minytji experiences a human figure that emanates from the vibrancy and ochre-coated bark.

The mandarin midaytji then connects the person with the embodiment of their ancestors and the land so that they gain respect for Anindilyakwa and Yolngu’s ways of being.

This respect for those who are able to live their lives on their terms, with total self-determination and autonomy, may be the duty of the invitation.