Visitors to the NGV might notice something beautiful, almost interstellar, has transformed Federation Court (aka the gallery foyer). Between the ticket desks and the Great Hall is a monochromatic painting that covers the entire floor, with splodgy white rivers undulating over a stark, black background marked with more, seemingly endless white dots and flecks.
Look up and you'll see the whole work is reflected in a giant mirror, giving the impression of a starry night sky. And it's meant to – this is 'Riŋgitjmi gapu', or the 'river of Heaven and Earth', a work by Yolŋu artist Naminapu Maymuru-White showing as part of Bark Ladies: Eleven Artists from Yirrkala.
This free exhibition puts the spotlight on artists featured in the NGV's significant collection of bark paintings and ḻarrakitj (hollow wooden poles that have been painted) from women artists associated with the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre, located roughly 700km east of Darwin.
Yolŋu women have taken to the art-form relatively recently – women did not paint sacred themes on bark or ḻarrakitj prior to 1970. Myles Russell-Cook, the NGV's senior curator for Indigenous art, says the artform had long been considered men's business, which resulted in the creation of more experimental and daring paintings when women in the community took up the brush. "Part of that comes from the relative freedom that women had by (when painting on bark) not being quite as connected to this long, inherited visual language."
"There are incredible customary stories and cultural knowledge in every work within the show, but it's presented in a very contemporary way."
The NGV has been collecting these works for the last two decades, with Bark Ladies presenting art from Naminapu Maymuru-White, Noŋgirrŋa Marawili, Eunice Djerrkŋu Yunupiŋu, Dhambit Munuŋgurr and Dhuwarrwarr Marika, and many more.
The exhibition begins with works that explore Yolŋu conceptions of the universe, fire, and creation, before inviting you into a second gallery space that highlights some of the exhibitions most significant works. These include waterlily paintings by Malaluba Gumana, works that look like optical illusions by Dhuwarrwarr Marika, striking blue creations from Dhambit Munuŋgurr (you might recognise her works from the NGV Triennial) and of course the starry monochromatic paintings of Milŋiyawuy (the Milky Way) by Naminapu Maymuru-White.
Other highlights include an infinity room of ḻarrakitj, Dhuwarrwarr Marika’s 'Birth of a Nation' (a finalist at the 2020 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards), Noŋgirrŋa Marawili's series of pink-hued works (the vivid colour created by mixing recycled printer cartridge ink with ochre) and the last paintings produced by the late Ms Wirrpanda. There's also a new work by Dhambit Munuŋgurr, a portrait of Julia Gillard giving her famous misogyny speech. "Which I think will really wow people," says Russell-Cook. 'It's quite wild."
Bark Ladies: Eleven Artists from Yirrkala opens December 17 and is free to visit.