Top End Bugi x Buku Arts

The Koskela Gallery is overflowing with excitement to present to you Top End Bugi, our first bark show! A collaborative exhibition featuring bark art from three art centres in Australia’s Top End, Buku-Larrngay Mulka Centre, Maningrida Arts and Culture, and Ngukurr Arts Centre opening on the 19th of September. Each week in the lead up to the launch we will deep dive into the history, cultures, and style of one art centre. This week, we are delighted to introduce you to Buku! 

Buku-Larrngay Mulka Centre is an Aboriginal owned and run hub of creativity and community! Located in the north-eastern region of the Northern Territory, this small community has a big impact through their incredible art and in particular their work on Ṉuwayak (bark)Aboriginal peoples have been practicing bark painting for thousands of years. The bark provides a natural canvas to convey creation stories, connection to place, and a tactile way for important knowledge to be passed down from one generation to the next. The act of creating these works takes precision and patience. Bark from the Stringybark tree is stripped, trimmed, dried by the fire, and then weighted down. Traditionally using natural pigments of the earth such as ochre and charcoal, artists then paint the barks using fine and layered strokes. 

Left: Djawakan Marika harvesting bark. Image courtesy of Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre.
Right: Wanapa Munuŋgurr and Nambatj Munuŋgurr flattening bark using traditional firing techniques. Image courtesy of Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre.

Buku has a robust history of art-making and innovation. Situated in Yirrkala, North Eastern Arnhem Land, the Yolŋu community maintain a deep understanding of how to create, sustain, and thrive off of their ancestral lands. Bark painting is an important part of the continuation of traditional art practices and a salient feature within Buku's repertoire. With a significant political history, bark art paved the way for the Land Rights movement and continues to strengthen connections between artists and their cultures. Today, artists enjoy the practice as a way to connect with their culture and ancestors, as well as an educational tool for the community, often depicting native foods in the area, which are abundant in nourishing and healing qualities. 

One of the centers most prominent artists, Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda, uses her art to project the strength, knowledge, and passion of the Yolŋu people. She portrays the nourishing vitality of plant life around Yirrkala, using techniques passed down from her father. Mulkuṉ's work is a fusion of traditional techniques mixed with contemporary motifs. She paints nutritious plants that stray from traditional Yolŋu beliefs and stories. This is because Mulkun has watched her community suffer by eating the wrong foods; white peoplefood and wishes to express through her art the copious amounts of nourishing foods in the area. 

"Even the very food which her grandchildren eat is a form of poison in comparison to that which she gathered and ate with her own grandmothers. Instead of getting angry, she has sought to educate. Bringing alive the delicate food plants and shellfish which still flourish but are ignored and revealing their secrets." - David Wickens (Buku-Larrngay Mulka Centre, co-ordinator) 

Therefore, through her reverence of traditional gathering processes from the Yirrkala land, Mulkun hopes to create a better world and quality of life for her community and express the power and knowledge of Indigenous voices to the world.  

Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda painting on Stringy bark. Image courtesy of Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre.

The sacred art of the Yirrkala region details the spiritual forces behind the ongoing creation and continuing identity of the fresh and saltwater country. The coastline and hinterland are largely unspoiled and still managed by the traditional owners, the Yolŋu people. The ecosystems of both the land and sea are pristine and provide an abundant food source, including yams, fruits, fish, kangaroo, wallaby, turtles, and eggs. The foods and land support the Yirrkala community which they celebrate and maintain through continuous ceremonial activity. There is a constant interplay between the law, the land, and the art of the Yolŋu, their ceremony, and lifestyle. 

The history of bark art in Buku is one latent in political activism and proudly helped to shift perceptions around Indigenous sovereignty over the land. The community was founded by a mission on Yirrkala land in 1935 in an effort to quell the government's consideration of a punitive expedition (massacre) against the Yolŋu people. However, with the eventual withdrawal of the Mission and the progression of the Land Rights and Homeland movements, in 1976, the Yolŋu artists were able to establish Buku-Larrngay Mulka Centre in the old Mission as an act of self-determination. 

In 1963, the Yolŋu people created a petition against a proposed mining development on Yirrakala land. The clan groups living in the area presented on painted bark boards, written in both Yolŋu Matha and English, their position against the development. The bark petitions are still on display in the Australian Parliament in Canberra as they signify a key point in history; they were the first traditional documents prepared by First Nations peoples and recognised by the Commonwealth Parliament. This is especially poignant given that members of the Indigenous community weren't officially recognised as citizens until 1967.  

Despite the government’s obtuse response to their petition, and the eventual greenlight for the mining company, these bark petitions created waves in the Land Rights movement. They increased awareness to the Yolŋu claim, inspiring a national protest which was followed by a debate that led to the Land Rights Act in 1976 and, in 1992, to the High Court’s Mabo decision overturning ‘terra nullius’ and recognising Aboriginal occupation of Australia before European settlement. 

Buku-Larrngay Mulka Centre has a long history in bark art, with the Yolŋu people creating works from the natural canvases of the land for thousands of years. With a proud political history, these forms of art are both beautiful, and meaningful. 

To read about the other collaborating art centres, click here for Ngukurr Arts and here for Maningrida Arts and Culture

Virtual tour of the exhibition

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