Practising Art – a Guide to DAAF 2021 Carving, Bark and Woodwork

Visiting an art fair for the first time? You’re in for a treat! Art fairs like Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair are such an amazing way to see a whole lot of work in a relatively small period of time. But for the unseasoned, it can be a little intimidating!

Our series Practising Art is here to save the day, taking you through the fair medium-by-medium and introducing you to some of the standout Art Centres and artists you should make a point of checking out online. Today, we’re talking carving, bark and woodwork.

Work in this field is simply stunning, and sees practitioners taking on traditional making techniques that have been around for millennia, translating them into incredible contemporary works of art.

Let’s carve it out.

Words by Camilla Wagstaff. 

Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre: Naminapu Maymuru

Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre in Yirrkala – a small Aboriginal community on the north-eastern tip of the Top End of the Northern Territory – has a long, proud history as one of Australia’s premier Art Centres and Indigenous culture strongholds. Its artists have established a worldwide reputation for excellence and taken out many of Australia’s major art prizes for their intricate works on bark, Larrakitj (Memorial Poles), carved sculptures and works in other mediums.

Like many Buku artists, Naminapu Maymuru’s practice highlights the endless innovation possible within the often-strict rules of cultural inheritance. With skills spanning carving, painting and printmaking, Naminapu was one of the first Yolŋu women to be taught to paint sacred designs by the Yolŋu Elders. Her striking figurative constellations are a unique contemporary expression of the traditional Milky Way story. Her work has been recognised at the prestigious National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards and is represented in most major institutional collections in the country.

Naminapu Maymuru, Milŋuwuy – River of Stars, Earth Pigments on Stringybark, 128 x 47cm, 2021, Photo courtesy Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre.

Tiwi Designs Aboriginal Corporation: Thomas Munkanome

Tiwi Designs is renowned for the diversity of work produced by its artists, which spans wood carvings, ochre paintings, screen-printed fabric and ceramics. This contemporary practice has a long and interwoven connection to Tiwi culture, body painting practices and traditional ceremony.

One such connection is explored in the work of Thomas Munkanome. Affectionately known as “the cockatoo man”, Thomas is a prolific carver working on Bathurst Island. His much-loved cockatoo sculptures are collected far and wide, and he is also fond of carving pelicans and stingrays, taking inspiration from his island surrounds and cultural stories. Be prepared for a long waiting list for these iconic, character-filled works.

Cockatoos, Thomas Munkanome, Natural ochres on ironwood, 2020, small, medium and large, photo courtesy of Tiwi Designs

Maruku Arts: Cynthia Burke

Serving more than 500 artists in the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Lands of the Central Desert, Maruku Arts is well known for its outstanding collection of Punu (woodcarving) works.

Over thousands of years, NPY communities have developed a rich material culture and skillset reflecting their intimate relationship with the land. With skill and patience, the limited resources of the desert have yielded highly efficient tools and beautifully crafted representations of desert life.

One to watch is Cynthia Burke, who lives and works in Warakurna, Western Australia. Previously exhibited as a painter and Tjanpi weaver, today Cynthia is one of Maruku’s foremost up and coming wood carvers, and one of its directors. Her practice carries on the traditions of the Tjukurpa, the law and way of life governing her Country.

Bowl, Cynthia Burke, Murr-murrpa (Bloodwood), 815 x 295 x 92mm, 2020, photo by Liane Wendt, courtesy of Maruku Arts.

Wik and Kugu Arts: Garry Namponan

Wik and Kugu Arts has made a name for the wooden sculptures produced in the men’s workshop, which represent an extension of traditional cultural practices related to animal totems. Located in Aurukun, a small and remote Aboriginal community on the north-west coast of Cape York Peninsula, the Art Centre services artists from the five Aurukun clan groups, Apalech, Puch, Sara, Wanam, and Winchanam.

Garry Namponan is one of the leading carvers at Wik and Kugu, becoming especially famous with collectors and curators for his carved Ku (Camp Dogs). Garry studied art at the Northern Territory’s Bachelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education in the early 1980s. His work has been included in major national and international exhibitions and is represented in numerous public and private collections here and abroad.

Ku’ Ngekanam (wild dog), Garry Namponan, 2021, natural ochres on milkwood, photo courtesy of Wik and Kugu Arts

Elcho Island Arts: Megan Djuramalwuy Yunupingu

The artists working out of Elcho Island Arts in Galiwin’ku – the main community on Elcho Island – have been widely recognised for their extraordinary traditional works of art. Favourite mediums include Dharpa (wood sculptures) Gunga djawaryun (Pandanus weaving) Ṉuwayak (bark paintings) Ḻarrakitj (memorial poles) and Baṉumbirr (Morning Star Poles). Some artists have also created contemporary art with wood block printing and acrylics on canvas.

Megan Djuramalwuy Yunupingu, a Gumatj woman, is an established Dharpa Artist who is well-known for her beautiful carvings of native owls. For many years Megan’s Aunts Judy Manany and Susan Djuldjul inspired her to work with wooden sculptures and pandanus fibres. More recently, she has also turned her hand to natural fibre weaving.

Worrwurr, Megan Yunupingu, Carved Milkwood and Ochre, 2021, 22 x 8.5 x 9cm, Photo courtesy of Elcho Island Arts


More to come from the ‘Practising Art’ series as we delve into the exciting mediums and artistic practises of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists who’ll be part of DAAF online this August 6-11 2021!

Be sure to check out this year’s program and incredible list of over 70 participating Art Centres: 

What’s on your DAAF Wishlist?

What’s on your DAAF Wishlist?

With the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair (DAAF) just three weeks away, the team is filled with excitement and anticipation. This year's Fair promises to be truly special, featuring a stellar Public Program, talks and demonstrations from renowned First Nations artists, and...

read more
Enriching Ancestral Cultural Figures and Stories

Enriching Ancestral Cultural Figures and Stories

Welcome to our Featured Art Centre Artist Series, where we delve into the captivating world of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artistry. Across six topics, we explore the intricate interplay between country, cultural figures & stories, totems and animals, as...

read more
Keep the Fire Burning! Blak, Loud and Proud

Keep the Fire Burning! Blak, Loud and Proud

As NAIDOC Week arrives from 7-14 July 2024, we’re taking a moment to celebrate the incredible Indigenous Art Centres, artists and Arts Workers who keep the fire burning every day. This year's Naidoc theme celebrates the unyielding spirit of Indigenous communities, and...

read more