Gupapuyngu bark painting project

Background

The Gupapuyngu bark painting project was undertaken from 2011 to 2013 and focussed on two bark paintings in the Donald Thomson Collection on long-term loan to Museum Victoria (MV) from the University of Melbourne.

Artist George Milaybuma Gaykamangu and his brother Dr Joseph Neparrnga Gumbula holding a small bark painting made to show traditional painting techniques. Image: Ben Healley Source: Museum Victoria

The paintings were produced south of Buckingham Bay in eastern Arnhem Land and are of critical importance to Gupapuyngu Daygurrgurr people. They represent the earliest examples of bark paintings relating to this clan, and are amongst the works that Donald Thomson described as ‘type’ specimens. For Yolngu, they represent an invaluable artistic and historical document.  

The project saw Gupapuyngu Daygurrgurr elders and direct descendants of the artist, Dr Joseph Neparrnga Gumbula, and his brother, George Milaypuma Gaykamangu, come together with Lindy Allen, a senior curator in the Humanities Department at MV and myself to explore and identify key issues in order to establish a culturally appropriate treatment for the conservation and preservation of two historic bark paintings.

The intention was:

  • to establish a process that embedded the custodians in the decision making process
  • to document the traditional owners' concerns and knowledge in order to inform better museum conservation practice
  • to fill a gap in conservation literature on the treatment of bark paintings, as much has been written about the works' structure and composition but little on determining a treatment rationale.

Process

Conservator Samantha Hamilton demonstrating a conservation technique on some samples of bark. Image: Ben Healley Source: Museum Victoria

The project received funding from the Copland Foundation and the University of Melbourne and involved meetings in Melbourne and Milingimbi at various times in 2012. The meetings were documented through audio and visual means that became useful tools for brokering discussions with the extended Gupapuyngu Daygurrgurr clan members and also in delivering technical conservation information on the care and treatment of bark paintings at MV. 

Early in the project, Gupapuyngu Elders expressed a level of concern that conservation practice may damage or alter a work from a cultural perspective and that the involvement of traditional owners was imperative to ensure the right approach was taken. 

The research team worked intensively and exchanged knowledge and practice on the technical and aesthetic characteristics of Yolngu art production, the strong intangible aspects behind the visual forms, as well as the proposed consolidation of the powdery and flaking white paint layer and repair of major structural splits. 

During the consultation process, consideration was given to resolving a number of questions, the key ones being:

  • the implications of a female conservator interacting with sacred imagery painted by men 
  • the involvement of traditional owners in the treatment of or supervision of the treatment 
  • the level of treatment required to preserve the imagery
  • choices around the use of traditional and modern materials and techniques for treatment
  • display and storage requirements.

Outcomes

Upon conclusion of this project, the integration of concerns regarding maintaining the cultural integrity of the works with an agreed conservation treatment strategy has ensured the preservation of highly significant works. 

In addition, conservation documentation has been enhanced with the inclusion of Yolngu language and understandings. 

The project has laid a crucial foundation for long standing relationships and trust that has resulted in a new way forward for the care of bark paintings in this Collection. 

Samantha Hamilton, Objects Conservator, Museum Victoria

Lindy Allen, Senior Curator, Museum Victoria


Read more about the project?

The Museum Victoria project blog

ABC Radio National has also been talking about the conservation of bark paintings. Have a look at what they said: