Object: Bark Painting

Bark Painting
20th century
Materials: bark, wood, ocher

Bark painting is a tradition that has a long history with the aboriginal peoples of Australia possibly starting thousands of years ago.  The earliest record of bark paintings was made by the French artist Petit in 1800 when he discovered bark paintings on a grave shelter on his travels to Tasmania and the Northern Territory of Baudin.

The earliest bark paintings started out as a way to educate young children about the oral legends of the group and were painted on the bark panels used to line the walls of dwellings.  These paintings illustrated these tales told to entertain and educate while everyone was confined indoors during the rainy season.  The pictures often depicted animals and people in the traditional aboriginal style.  Other bark paintings were done on woven baskets in Melville and Bathurst Island used in mortuary rituals. Bark belts were also decorated in the same manner in the northeast Arnhem Land.  These paintings done on smoke blackened bark were often created by scratching or painting in designs using naturally occurring ochers and mineral pigments.

Collection of these paintings became popular with European immigrants in the late 1800’s. These were cut into portable pieces from the walls of dwellings.  Eventually, Europeans commissioned some of these paintings to be done on smaller sheets of bark by local artists.  In 1912, Anthropologist Baldwin Spencer, an aboriginal art enthusiast, was the first to commission portable bark paintings in Oenpelli in the Northern Territory. The commissions gained popularity and throughout the first half of the 20th century more and more people, mainly anthropologists and missionaries, commissioned paintings.  Bark paintings and other aboriginal art have exploded in popularity amongst western societies in the second half of the 20th Century and to today.  This expanded interest has provided opportunities for Native Australian artist to exhibit their art and culture with museums all over Australia and into Europe and America featuring Australian art. [Katrina Kassis Swihart]

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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