Tales of a mystic artist

AN artist known for linking indigenous rock artists of the past to the bark painters of today is on show at Latrobe Regional Gallery.

As part of the CBUS Collection of Australian Art, the Wally Mandarrk bark paintings, using thick white paint and tree bark depicting ‘mimih spirits’ in bush food, animals and plants, are considered national treasures.

A senior member of the Barabba clan from Arnhem Land, the indigenous artist underwent initiation rituals and ceremonies and was believed to possess special powers called ‘mankordang’.

He was said to have powers such as healing, journeying great distances at unnatural speeds and conducting sorcery.

A book on the CBUS Collection described his unique practice: “Mandarrk worked mostly in isolation away from non-indigenous settlements and steadfastly eschewed European influences such as the use of synthetic paints and other non-traditional materials.”

Mandarrk’s bark paintings are represented in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Latrobe Regional Gallery director Mark Themann said Mandarrk was a much respected artist and senior elder.

“He’s a cross between a mystic and an artist,” he said.

Dr Themann said bark paintings were more secular than rock painting and had less to do with indigenous ritual and spiritual practice.

He said bark paintings were important, but were items that could be traded.

Dr Themann said the National Gallery of Victoria regarded the work very highly and museums would “take the work in a flash”.

“Some of the work has been shown here before, but it’s not been shown like this in its entirety,” he said.

The exhibition also includes a documentary film about the artist.

The show will run until 13 March.