This exhibition is comprised of paintings, sculptures and objects by artists from the community of Ramingining in Arnhem Land in Australia's Northern Territory. The inhabitants of this indigenous community are known as the Yolngu and make up the single biggest Aboriginal group in Arnhem Land.
The Aborigines are Australia's original inhabitants, living there for at least 50,000 years. They are hunting and gathering peoples and have developed a detailed knowledge and a great appreciation of their environment, including the plants and animals they depend on for survival. Aborigines feel a deep connection to the natural world, which has shaped every part of their culture. The Yolngu's conceptualization of the natural world has been handed down from generation to generation through the integrated art forms of song, dance, carving, and painting.
The complex social structures that organize religious and secular life as well as relationships to ancestral beings are articulated through Dreamings. Many Dreamings stories originate in one area and travel across a region, acquiring a wider significance as they link different clans. One such Dreaming is that of the Djang'kawu that belongs to the coastal saltwater clans including the Yolgnu. This is a creation story that recounts the Djang'kawu Brother and Sisters who encountered various creatures on their voyage to the Eastern shore of Arnhem Land where they made their first camp. In their travels they named and created all manner of animal and plant species and made waterholes by driving their digging sticks into the ground. The sticks themselves became trees.
The Yolngu classify the world in many ways-according to the inner nature of things, where and when they are found, and what they are used for. The seasons-up to eight different seasons, not just "the wet" and "the dry", are recognized-people and the living environment are described according to their individual qualities and the relationships between them. As a consequence, images of plants and animals are never just depictions of nature but are closely bound up with the social structures that define Yolngu culture and its intricate kinship system. Creatures are not just animals; they are ancestral beings in physical form.
The Yolgnu artists of Arnhem Land are renowned for their rock and bark paintings, sculptures, and weaving. In contrast to the desert painters from Central Australia whose dot paintings are of international renown, the distinction of artists from Arnhem Land including Ramingining, Maningrida and Milingimbi is their cross-hatching technique (miny'tji and dhulang) that sometimes covers the entire painting. A large number of the works in this exhibition are paintings on bark, which is used instead of canvas. The bark is stripped from stringybark trees (eucalyptus tetradonta) at the end of the wet season, while the red, yellow, black and white pigments are derived from natural materials such as crushed rocks. It is common for pigments from different areas to be traded between Aboriginal communities.
In Arnhem Land, artistic styles are distinguished according to a number of related criteria, including the type of country the artists occupy: freshwater, saltwater, forest, or rocky landscape. Another determining factor is the artist's clan, language-group, and moiety affiliation, the patrilineally-inherited division of a community into two complementary social groups. The Yolgnu have two moieties: Dhuwa and Yirritja. Moiety determines an artist's right to use particular designs and patterns. These rights are often referred to as the "sacred law," meaning the paintings, ceremonies, sacred objects, and songs associated with the land. One such example is the shark (mana), which is associated with the Dhuwa moiety and is only used by artists of this attachment. The crocodile (baru), on the other hand, is associated with the Yirritja moiety and its image is only used by artists of this group.
Art has always played an important role in Aboriginal culture, particularly as to how it relates to spirituality. Works of art and the production of art are an important part of rituals and ceremonies. As an acknowledgment of this symbolic value, the diverse environments surrounding Ramingining are represented in this exhibition according to six principal divisions: