Dolobbo: Bark of stringybark (eucalyptus teradonta)
Bark paintings are unique to the northern regions of Australia, notably Arnhem Land, Kakadu and stretch as far as Kimberley in Western Australia. Most art centres and galleries in Arnhem Land feature painted barks with intricate line work (crosshatching style referred to as rarrk) and depictions of peoples, animals, and spirits.
Paintings on bark are typical designs specific to an individual artist, clan or skin group. Ceremonial managers, or djungkay, control rights to certain designs. As such, many designs can only be painted by artists with specific permissions. In some cases, these designs were used to paint the body for ceremony and to decorate lorrkons (hollow log coffins) for mortuary rituals. While the designs themselves are traditional, painting on flattened pieces of bark is more modern.
Evolution of painting on bark
Traditionally, artists painted designs on the walls and roofs of wet-season stringybark shelters. This practice has since been adapted for economic purposes and maintenance of cultural knowledges. These adaptations began in the early 20th century when missionaries or government welfare staff across Arnhem Land commissioned Aboriginal people to produce bark paintings to be sold throughout Australia and internationally. Proceeds of these sales went towards running the missions and community art centres and educating non-Aboriginal Australians about Aboriginal culture.
Bark is collected from stringybark (eucalyptus tetrodonta) during Kudjewk (monsoon season, December-March). These wet season months are the perfect time to harvest as the bark is pliable, making removal easy with a low risk of cracking. Artists protect the tree from ringbarking by slicing two vertical lines and peeling the bark from either side. The remaining strip of bark allows the essential flow of water and nutrients ensuring the tree’s survival. Once the bark is off, artists will strip debris off the outer layer, and the bark is placed onto a fire for curing. Heat increases the flexibility of the bark and assists in the process of flattening. The sheet of bark is then placed under a weight and left to dry for up to several weeks. Once dry and flat, the bark is ready for painting.
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