Spirit In Bark / Koskela Gallery

Koskela Gallery is excited to present, Spirit In Bark: a Celebration of Bark Art from Across Oceania, featuring works by Elcho Island Arts, Ömie Artists and Maningrida Arts & Culture. This online exhibition is showing from the 18th September - 30th October, 2021.

Bark is a versatile medium both traditionally and in the contemporary art space. Bark can be stretched, whittled, carved and fused into cloth. Our latest exhibition, Spirit In Bark explores the diversity and beauty of this medium across three vibrant art centres, which span from Arnhem Land to Papua New Guinea. Despite the different approaches across the medium, the theme of respect and reverence for this natural, wild canvas is clear across the board. 

Elcho Island Arts

Elcho Island Arts is in Galiwin’ku, an island just off the coast from Arnhem Land and home to hundreds of Yolngu artists. Over the past decade, Koskela has been lucky enough to forge close and personal relationships with Yolngu artists through Yuta Badayala (A New Light), our long-standing Social Impact lighting collaboration.

Spirit In Bark showcases a collection of Worrwurr [Owl] and Dhuḏuthuḏu [Frogmouth owl's] wooden sculptures carved by senior artists, Judy Manany and Susan Djul'djul. The Dhuḏudhuḏu is an important totem to the Elcho Island Arts clans. 

Artist Judy Manany

Artist Judy Manany

Artist Susan Djuldjul Gurruwiwi

Dhuḏuthuḏu belongs to the Dhuwa Moiety, the Ḏäṯiwuy and Ŋaymil and they sing about the owl [Frogmouth – Podargus strigoides] and the song joins the two clans together. They also connect to Gälpu and Djambarrpuyŋu through this law. Its country is near Yäŋunbi and is known as Warrathiri or Munumbal. Elders have said that it is not deep law but just something that they sing and dance.

These wooden sculptures are made from renewable wood  which is usually collected in the dry season.

"We prefer Milkwood and Cottonwood Preferred woods are Maḻwan (Hibiscus Tiliaceus), Gunhirr (Blind-Your-Eye-Mangrove), Wuḏuku (mangrove wood), Barraṯa (Kapok). Firstly, we go to the bush and cut the wood and carry it back to the vehicle. It is often a long walk, through prickly vines and scrub. The bark is taken off and then the wood is left to dry for a short period. It is then shaped by a knife and chisels. It is then sanded smooth and then an ochre paint is selected to go down as the first coat." - Artists Judy Manany and Susan Djul'djul.

The paints used are natural ochres collected from the land. The Meku (red), Gaŋgul (yellow) and Gurrŋan (black) are provided by rubbing rocks of these colours against a grinding stone and then adding water and PVA glue in small quantities.

A new batch of paint is prepared or renewed every few minutes as it dries or is used up. After an outline of the composition is laid down the Raak or crosshatching commences. This is applied using a brush made of a few strands of straight human hair usually from a young woman or girl. The artist charges the Marwat (brush) with the paint and then paints away from themselves in a straight line.

Each stroke is a fresh infusion of ochre. The last layer to be applied is almost always the Gapan (white clay) which is made from kaolin harvested from special sites. This also has water and glue added after being crushed into a fine powder. 

Omie Arts

Featured in the image above: Ömie village that protects the sacred Mount Obo (background), home of the fist people Mina and Suja. 

Ömie women’s bark cloth art of Papua New Guinea was completely unknown to the outside world until it was first exhibited in 2006, but has quickly become one of the most exciting contemporary art movements in the Pacific region. Ömie Artists are now celebrated internationally for their visually arresting and highly sophisticated designs that transport us to their mysterious and lush rainforest world. This exhibition brings together an exquisite body of bark cloth artworks created in the remote mountain villages of the Oro Province of Huvaimo.

Artists harvesting bark from the forest, image courtesy Drusilla Modjeska

Artists harvesting bark from the forest, image courtesy Drusilla Modjeska

Artist Pennyrose Sosa

The works in this exhibition showcase the extraordinary diversity and living vitality of Ömie art through a stunning collection of nioge (bark cloth) dorned with dazzling geometries and finely executed motifs loaded with tribal and clan-specific cultural knowledge.

Each artwork is saturated in an organic, abstract symbolism that could only have sprung from a people intimately in tune to the natural environment where they live – a landscape criss-crossed with sites of great spiritual significance and inhabited by the spirits of ancestors.

These paintings on barkcloth, also known as ‘tapa’, are the customary textile of the Ömie, which have been painted in freehand with a rich and earthy palette of natural pigments and dyes. 

Artists learn the designs through a long line of transmission passed down through the generations, from mother to daughter.

It is this precious lineage that ensures the survival of this art form into the future. Ömie Artists Inc. works exclusively with women barkcloth artists in line with jagor’e (customary law), in order to sustain the Omie’s cultural and artistic heritage. These extraordinary barkcloth paintings stand as a testament to the strength and endurance of the Ömie’s ancient, yet living, traditions.

Whilst Ömie Artists is not an Australian First Nations art centre, Papua New Guinea is similar distance from Armen Land to that of Sydney and Noosa. And considering the thriving and rich culture of the Ömie Artists, The Spirit In Bark exhibition wouldn't be the same without them. 

Maningrida Arts and Culture 

Maningrida Arts and Culture is a Top End art centre spanning over 7,000 square kilometres across Kunibidji country. Djang (the on-going eternal, life-giving transformative power that accounts for every aspect of existence) unities 100 clan estates and more than 12 distinct language groups of the area. Maningrida artists channel this spiritual and creative force through their works, telling stories of country and creation ancestors.

Unlike the other art centres involved, Maningrida artists use only Stringybark trees in their practice. The bark is harvested after the wet season, the first step is to strip the tree, then cure it by a fire and finally leaving it to dry under weights. This helps flatten the natural canvas, although the beauty in these pieces is that over time the edges gently curl up.  

Artist Eleazer Nangukwirrk harvesting barks near Maningrida community

Artist Eleazer Nangukwirrk harvesting barks near Maningrida community

Bark harvesting near Yikarrakkal oustation - artist Paul Nabulumo and his brother Dudley

The art centre has received international acclaim for the artists' powerful articulation of their connection to country, spirituality and political activism. Doloppo bim (bark painting) are a traditional artistic practice to Maningrida, to find out more click here.

Koskela is thrilled to bring together First Nations cultures from across the Oceania to showcase the rich and diverse history of bark. Spirit in Bark is landmark exhibition for the Koskela Gallery, marking the first if our collaborations with a Papua New Guinean art centre and the medium of bark cloth.

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