Top End Bugi is a showcase of innovation and expertise from the Arnhem Land artists of Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre, Ngukurr Arts Aboriginal Corporation, and Maningrida Arts and Culture. Presenting a series of works on Stringybark and a selection of Larrakitj, Top End Bugi celebrates the creativity and diversity of bark artists, emerging and established. Connecting city and country, Top End Bugi provides a spotlight for contemporary bark art. Combining Top End, a collective term for the northernmost region of the Northern Territory, and Bugi, the Darug (Sydney Aboriginal Language) word for bark.
Top End Bugi launches on the 19th of September. In the lead-up, we are taking a deep dive into each art centre involved, this week we would like to take you on a journey through the history, artists, and art-making practice of Ngukurr Arts.
Ngukurr is a thriving community located just off the banks of the Roper River in South East Arnhem Land. Established as a mission town in 1908, Ngukurr has become a creative hub and place of collaboration between clan groups. There are seven main language and cultural groups in town, with each group represented by a Director. Through this integration and celebration of diversity within the community, Ngukurr Arts has flourished with multiple art-making styles and methods. The seven clans include Ngalakgan, Alawa, Mangarrayi, Ngandi, Marra, Warndarrang, Nunggubuyu, Ritharrngu-Wägilak, and Rembarrnga. Together, these clans are known as Yugul Mangi.
In an interview with the art centre manager, Jude Emmett by Japingka Aboriginal Art, he comments on the optimism and community spirit rich at Ngukurr:
"I’ve been working in remote communities for 15 years now. I don’t know if it’s Ngukurr at large or the positivity of the senior authority figures here, but there is a real optimism about the future. Young people here are learning their language and learning about their culture. They are also embracing Western technology, smartphones, creating images and all that technology allows. It is becoming part of the whole."
This celebration of new technologies with traditional forms feeds into the playful and unconventional approach to art-making at Ngukurr Arts. The artists incorporate traditional stories and motifs through a contemporary lens, using unexpected colour palettes and styles, with bark art being no exception! Historically, bark art is a teaching practice, where sacred stories, designs, and ancestry knowledge is passed from one generation to the next. Each artist from Ngukurr approaches art differently and incorporates their own personal style. However, bark art is a relatively new style of art-making to Ngukurr Arts. Therefore, the artists have been enjoying experimenting with the form and taking a more playful approach. Through this, we have been able to curate an exhibition brimming with diversity in style, stories, and meaning, which we can’t wait to present to you!
Even though the bark art may look a little different at Ngukurr, the extraction process of the bark is very much the same. The collection process begins after the wet season when the Stringybark tree is stripped, cured by fire, weighted, and left to dry. Here we see a video of artists Sebastian Thingle, Roy Natalima, and Walter Rogers extracting the bark.
We are pleased to introduce to you, the artists behind the bark from Ngukurr.
Jill Daniels is from the Bhunagajini clan and experiments with all forms of art-making at Ngukurr, including canvas paintings, block prints and bark art! Her naïve depiction of land and sea animals, her predilection for ocean themes and waterways, and signature use of bold bright colours have been artfully expressed through her latest bark paintings. She first found her love for painting in 2003 through Ngukurr Arts, as well as by drawing inspiration from her sister, Amy Johnson who is a renowned artist herself.
Norman Wilfred has a long history of using bark as his canvas for art. He was born in 1964 in Mountain Valley but grew up in Ngukurr. At 16 years of age, Norman made the long (250km) journey to Walker River on foot in search of his country with his father. After a couple of days around Walker River, they found Ngilibitji, where they set up camp and built a paperbark house, living off the land and bush medicine. It was in this time that Norman learned the art of bark art from his father. Using paperbark as their surface, the pair would create unique pieces that started to gain traction in the surrounding areas, with people from Katherine flying in to buy their works! His reputation for creating such beautiful works across bark has only grown through his current practice at Ngukurr Arts. Here you can see the meticulous process involved, and his delicate technique in action.
Wally Wilfred is from the Wagilak Clan and has been painting with Ngukurr Arts since 2003. Wally has a diverse artistic practice, spanning both painting and sculptural works. Wally’s practice is inspired by his grandfather Sambo (Djambo) Barra Barra through his exploration of traditional and contemporary culture with history and storytelling. Wally's style is a unique fusion of traditional techniques with the unconventional use of bold colours. This is particularly apparent through the bark artworks he has produced for Top End Bugi. They each portray an important element of cultural stories and practices to his country, but are expressed through vibrant and colourful forms. Devil Devil speaks to the reverence for ceremonial practices around death and the cycle of life in his culture. It is a beautiful depiction of strength in the community and connection to country.
Wayne Bingal’s works beautifully encapsulates his respect and connection to nature. He enjoys painting wildlife such as barramundi and long neck turtles swimming in billabongs. He often depicts these animals along with men and their hunting tools in order to demonstrate the beauty of the circle of life, and mans' dependence on the land.