Madayin
Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian
Bark Painting from Yirrkala

February 4 – May 14, 2023

“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 Yolŋu. 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, Maḏarrpa Miny’tji, 1996

Djambawa Marawili AM, Maḏarrpa Miny’tji, 1996. Natural pigments on eucalyptus bark, 128 1/2 x 40 inches. Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia Gift of John W. Kluge.

Exhibition Overview

Listed by the New York Times as one of 90 exhibitions to see this season and hailed as “enthralling” by the Wall Street Journal, Maḏayin—a term that means sacred and beautiful—makes history as both the first major exhibition of Aboriginal Australian bark painting in the United States and the largest display of Aboriginal Australian art in the Western Hemisphere in 30 years.

For millennia, Yolŋu people around Yirrkala in northern Australia have painted their clan designs on their bodies and ceremonial objects. Around 1935, these designs started to become memorialized as bark paintings. Each painting is a story, intended to be handed down from one generation to the next. Vivid and mesmerizing, the designs represent the kinship and interconnectedness between people, plants, animals, fish, water, and the ancestral land itself.

A special feature of the exhibition is that it marks the first time that Yolŋu people have been asked to participate fully in the decision-making processes of an exhibition. This recognition of Indigenous authority opens the door for Aboriginal Australian people to tell their story of their culture and heritage, creating a new model for curatorial partnership between Indigenous people and Western museums and opening the door for diverse and previously unheard voices in American museums.

Madayin was organized by the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia in partnership with the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre in Australia. The American University Museum is the second to host this touring exhibition after its recent premiere at The Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth.

For more information, see this blog from Kluge-Ruhe.  

Dhambit Munuŋgurr, Ocean, 2019

Dhambit Munuŋgurr, Ocean, 2019. Natural pigments and acrylic on eucalyptus bark, 78 11/32 x 42 17/32 inches. Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia.

Naminapu Maymuru-White, Milŋiyawuy │ Milky Way, 2019

Naminapu Maymuru-White, Milŋiyawuy │ Milky Way, 2019. Natural pigments on eucalyptus bark, 84 5/8 x 36 3/16 inches. Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia.  

Mithinari Gurruwiwi, Naypinya, 1963

Mithinari Gurruwiwi, Naypinya, 1963. Natural pigments on eucalyptus bark, 55 ¾ x 22 3/8 inches. Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia Gift of John W. Kluge.