Yirrwala : Picasso of Arnhem Land
Yirrwala is one of the most prolific and respected Aboriginal bark Painters. His works are unique because he does not stick to a particular regional style. Due to his travels, he had many regional influences. He manages to blend those into a style unique amongst bark painters.
The aim of this article is to assist readers in identifying if their aboriginal bark painting is by Billy Yirrwala. It compares different examples of his work.
If you have a Yirrwala bark painting to sell please contact me. If you want to know what your bark painting is worth please feel free to send me a Jpeg. I would love to see it.
He had a positive influence on many other artists as well and introduced them to techniques from different areas. He actively promoted his bark paintings as art and not ethnographic material. His works are on rectangular pieces of barks with a red black or white background. He was the first Arnhem land artist to take the best of several different Arnhem Land tribal art styles and incorporate them into single works.
Yirrawala Oenpelli and Crocker Island style
Billy Yirrwala was an Oenpelli bark painting artist. His earliest barks are on a plain red background and figures and animals predominantly white. These early Yirrawala barks are like paintings found in Rock shelters from that area. When he moved to Crocker Island he adopts the more fluid Crocker Island style of painting. The limbs of his figures start to flow and bend. His early crocker island barks are strongly influenced by artists like Namadbara and Midjaumidjau.
One of Billy Yirrwala most distinguishing qualities in his barks is the feeling of life and movement. His figures are often dancing upon the bark and his animals graceful and sinuous. As an aboriginal artist, he was not as concerned with the constrictions of the cultural norm. He could paint in a non-traditional manner while still being able to convey the spirituality behind his art.
Yirrwala spent time at Yirrkala Mission and was strongly influenced by the artists there. He learned the technique of painting rarrk (fine cross-hatching) and incorporated it into his Oenpelli style barks. The results were very desirable to European collectors. His barks now had recognizable fluid animals and beings from Oenpelli filled with beautiful rarrk designs.
He used his art to spread traditional aboriginal culture to outsiders. He was aware of European aesthetics while managing to stay true to his roots.
Yirrwala introduced the concept of mixing the best of different regional styles. He shared these ideas with many other artists when he traveled back to Oenpelli.
Artist influenced strongly by Yirrwala include John Mawandjul and Jackie Madagarlgarl
Billy Yirrwala was born around 1897. He was a member of the Naborn clan of Gunwinggu language speakers. His traditional lands lie in the Marugulidban region near the Liverpool River, south-west of Maningrida. He was born in his home country. His father was Nowaritj, a religious leader and keeper of his people’s sacred symbols and cave galleries of rock paintings. He grew up and initiated in a customary manner, learning his father’s designs, songs and stories.
For a time Billy Yirrwala lived at Oenpelli with his first wife, who died after giving birth to three children. He then married Mary Malilba with who he had a daughter and two sons, and later Margaret Monanggu with whom he had a son.
Moving around Arnhem Land, he took a variety of laboring jobs. In his late 50’s he and his family moved to Crocker Island. By this time he was an important and influential bark painter. He was a leader in the ceremonial life of the Gunwinggu, a law-carrier and a medicine man and healer.
In June 1973 Billy Yirrwala represented the Gunwinggu at hearings of the Aboriginal Land Rights Commission held at Maningrida.
Through his art and his struggle for land rights, Billy Yirrwala was part of the broader movement among Aboriginal people to gain self-determination. Compared to other artists he was prolific throughout his later life. He died on 17 April 1976 on Crocker Island.
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Yirrwala Bark painting Images
The following are images are not a complete list of works by the artist but give a good idea of the style and variety of the artist.