Old stories; new approach – Trinity College showcases an evolution of Aboriginal art in its latest exhibition.
Annie Studd, Ruby Alderton and Denise Salvestro at the Balnhdhurr exhibition opening at Trinity College
In Yolngu tradition, there was no written language. Instead, stories and knowledge were passed within and between generations through art, song, dance and ceremony.
Art has also long been a way for Yolngu people to communicate their history and culture to the outside world, and Melburnians can now learn more through a new exhibition at Trinity College, the University of Melbourne.
Balnhdhurr – A Lasting Impression showcases nearly 100 artworks produced through the Yirrkala Print Space, operational since 1995 in its namesake town, poised on the tip of North East Arnhem Land. The workshop has played an integral role in the evolution of Australian Aboriginal art and storytelling methods by gradually introducing new materials and techniques to the local Yolngu people.
Traditionally, Aboriginal art is produced using only natural materials, but over time, Yirrkala has embraced contemporary methods and mediums, such as lino printing, screen printing, etching and woodblock printing. In the process, it has opened up a new way to tell old stories, while engaging a cross-section of the local community.
‘The process of cutting down bark, drying it, flattening it, sanding it and painting it takes a long time,’ explains young Yolngu artist Ruby Alderton, who has a close connection to the Yirrkala Print Space and is exhibiting as part of the Balnhdhurr exhibition (Ruby is also the daughter of Banduk Marika AO, honoured as the Northern Territory Senior Australian of the Year in 2020, and granddaughter of highly respected Yolngu clan leader, Mawalan Marika). ‘It makes it a lot easier on some of our elderly artists to be able to just sit down and quietly carve out a lino,’ she says.
‘Another very important thing is showing new-age mediums to younger people. Being able to use photography in printmaking, for example, and creating really cool, contemporary artworks helps keep up with younger people's demand as well, so printmaking in our communities has been very important,’ says Ruby.
Ruby Alderton with some of her work featured as part of the Balnhdhurr exhibition
While the artists engaged through the art centre create their own designs, the Yirrkala Print Space, true to its name, helps print the artworks, before they are bought by the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre to sell on behalf of their creators.
The artworks also tour galleries across Australia – for instance, through the current collaboration with Trinity College – thanks to the support of not-for-profit organisation Artback NT, which is committed to promoting and touring all forms of art created in the Northern Territory.
Artback NT chair, Dr Denise Salvestro, studied Yolngu print making for her PhD, and turned what was meant to be a one-year stint living in remote Arnhem Land into a ten-year residence and an ongoing love affair with the Northern Territory, its people and its art. ‘They’re incredible artists – they’re amazingly creative and innovative,’ says Denise of her experience working with Yolngu artists. ‘It’s in their blood.’
Denise credits the talent and drive of the local artists, and the continual passing down of knowledge, for helping the Yirrkala Print Space run continuously for 25 years. ‘It’s a wonderful example of what an arts centre can do in a remote community,’ she says. ‘[Buku-Larrnggay Mulka] has an international reputation, and its award-winning art is now exhibited in major galleries.’
Denise says feedback on the exhibition has been overwhelming.
‘Most of the venues have absolutely loved having it. In fact, a lot of them have said it's one of the best exhibitions they've had, with the beautiful artwork accompanied by an impressive educational component,’ she says. ‘The beauty of the Balnhdhurr exhibition is that you can see traditional designs in the works, but through printmaking, the artists have been allowed a bit more freedom in the way they interpret it.’
Ruby also notes the profound impact the artworks have had as she’s toured with the Yirrkala exhibition around Australia. ‘It's been amazing to watch how people have really enjoyed the show, and seeing how it's affected people and educated them in the variety of art. A lot of people don’t realise how different Aboriginal art is all over the country,’ she says.
‘It also shows how Aboriginal people are – we’ve always told our stories through art and song, and this is carrying on a tradition that is thousands of years old. We’re just doing it in a new way.’
The Balnhdhurr exhibition is being showcased in Trinity College’s Burke Gallery from 20 February – 30 April 2020. The gallery is open from 10am–4pm Tuesdays and Thursdays and 10am–1pm on Saturdays. Public welcome, free entry.