Madayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala is the first major exhibition of Aboriginal Australian bark paintings to tour the United States. Curated by Indigenous people and presented from their perspective, it offers a unique glimpse into a rarely seen but globally significant art movement. Madayin will be on view at American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center Feb. 4-May 14, 2023.
Hailed as one of 90 exhibitions to see this season by The New York Times, Madayin was organized by the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia in partnership with the Indigenous-owned Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre in Australia. American University Museum will be the second venue to host this touring exhibition after its recent premier at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth.
The largest and most important exhibition of Aboriginal Australian art mounted in the western hemisphere in more than 30 years, Madayin reinforces the leading role of Indigenous artists in shaping global contemporary art.
“Madayin represents one of the most extraordinary art movements of our time,” said Jack Rasmussen, AU Museum’s director and curator. “Sharing these compelling works from Yirrkala with our visitors is another way American University Museum is fulfilling its commitment to focus on presenting international contemporary art in all its amazing diversity.”
Vivid, intricate and mesmerizing, the paintings represent the continuing vitality of an ancient Indigenous artistic tradition. For thousands of years, Yolŋu people around Yirrkala in northern Australia have painted their clan designs on their bodies and ceremonial objects. These designs are not merely decorative, they are sacred patterns containing important ancestral knowledge. Yolŋu describe them as “madayin” — a term that encompasses both the sacred and the beautiful. Bark paintings are created using natural pigments on carefully prepared sheets of eucalyptus bark, with shimmering detail achieved using a fine paintbrush made of human hair. The organic irregularities of the medium give each work a dramatic sculptural presence, with some standing more than 12 feet tall.
Madayin is the first time that Yolŋu Aboriginal Australian people have been asked to participate fully in the decision-making processes of an international touring exhibition.
“I didn’t know what a ‘curating’ job meant. It was the first time I had heard the word, and the first time it hit my mind, how to do the job of curating,” said Mr. Wanambi, artist and Yolŋu co-curator of Madayin whose artwork is on view in the exhibition. “No Yolŋu have done that job before, only balanda (non-Yolŋu) have done it, but in a different way because they have a different way of understanding.”
Recognizing Indigenous authority and leadership, Madayin opens the door for Yolŋu people to tell the 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.
“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, Yolŋu leader and artist, explained. The idea for the exhibition was born when Marawili found his clan designs on bark paintings in American museums during a residency at Kluge-Ruhe in 2015.
Energetic and spiritual, the paintings — some dating to 1935, others newly commissioned by Kluge-Ruhe from leading Yolŋu artists specifically for this project — feature linear and geometric patterns interspersed with human figures and animals. Depictions of crocodiles, sharks and kangaroos help tell the story of Yolŋu homelands and show the world a way of life in harmony with other people and the natural environment.
“We have a great culture and a great story to tell about living in a peaceful and humble and fruitful way on this country,” Marawili said. “There are people who want to interrupt the country and destroy it through mining or by taking what belongs to other people, but we are here to represent the country. We live on the country and manage it. Our artworks represent the country and we can show the pattern, the story and songlines to prove we are from this country.”
A video of Yolŋu clan leaders will ceremonially sing visitors into the exhibition. At four critical junctures, visitors will see floor-to-ceiling video projections of ceremonial dance produced by acclaimed Yolŋu filmmaker Ishmael Marika.
Madayin features more than 80 paintings from the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia and other major museums and private collections in the United States and Australia including the National Gallery of Australia, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Museum and Gallery of the Northern Territory and the University of Melbourne; many of the artworks on view have never been seen previously in the U.S. The exhibition is accompanied by a comprehensive 348-page bilingual catalog (in Yolŋu Matha and English) distributed internationally by DelMonico Books D.A.P.
A range of public events are planned in support of Madayin on March 31 and April 1, 2023. The full program is titled Matha Ŋupanmi: Exploring Yolŋu Aboriginal Australian Art and Ideas. Translated from Yolŋu Matha, matha ŋupanmi means “following and exploring each other’s words.” More details will be announced soon at american.edu/cas/museum.
Madayin premiered at the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth in September 2022. Following American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, the exhibition will continue a sweeping nationwide tour at Kleefeld Contemporary Art Museum at California State University, Long Beach (Aug. 22-Dec. 2, 2023); The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia (Jan. 26-July 21, 2024) and Asia Society, New York (Sept. 24, 2024-Jan. 5, 2025).
The Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia is the only museum in the U.S. dedicated to the exhibition and study of Indigenous Australian art.
Madayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala is organized by the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia in partnership with the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre, Yirrkala. The Hood Museum collaborated on the exhibition’s content and presentation. Madayin is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Australian Government, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Australia Council for the Arts, the Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, Crozier Fine Arts, the Jefferson Trust and Fondation Opale. The exhibition has been made possible through the longstanding relationship between Kluge-Ruhe and the Yolŋu community at Yirrkala. More information about the exhibition can be found at madayin.kluge-ruhe.org.