This is a bark painting depicting a dugout canoe (top) and a Macassan prau or sailing vessel from Yirrkala in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. The canoe and sailing vessel are outlined in white pipeclay and have been filled in with red and yellow ochre and white pipeclay. The bow and stern of both vessels are decorated with an intricate stripe and dot pattern. The bark painting, measuring 70 cm by 37 cm, was painted between 1934 and 1939 on a bark sheet from a stringybark tree ('Eucalyptus tetrodonta').
The bark painting provides evidence of contact with the Macassans from Sulawesi (in present-day Indonesia), as vessels with sails of this style were not used by Aboriginal people of the area. The Yolngu people used bark canoes until contact with the Macassans, after which they began making dugout canoes. Dugout canoes made from a solid tree trunk were more seaworthy and enabled the Yolngu people to move out into the open ocean to hunt dugongs and turtles.
Often painted on the interior of bark shelters, paintings like this one exemplify one of the means of artistic expression developed by the peoples of Arnhem Land. The bark paintings illustrate accounts of land and ancestral beings and may depict animals, clan designs and astronomical features as well as containing imagery from daily life.
The unknown artist of this work would have cut bark sheets from stringybark trees in the wet season, timing it so that the bark was soft, pliable and easy to peel. The sheets would then have been flattened and dried over a fire or in the sun, and the surface smoothed with a piece of abrasive sharkskin acting as sandpaper, or with a knife.
The painting is done with brushes made from pieces of soft bark and sticks of various widths, with fine brushes made from human hair allowing Yolngu artists to paint with great detail. The pigments used are red and yellow ochre and white pipeclay. If these were not available locally they were traded through social networks. In the past the pigments were mixed with fixatives such as wax, honey, egg yolks and orchid juice. Today synthetic primers are also used.
Macassan traders visited the coast of northern Australia between 1500 and 1907, until government taxes made their trade unprofitable, to fish for trepang, a sea slug delicacy used in cooking. In the process, the Macassans introduced domesticated tobacco, the tamarind tree, the dugout canoe and some words into the local languages. Objects such as smoking pipes made in the Macassan style and metal tools and weapons are further evidence of their visits.
The bark painting was purchased by the Australian Museum in 1939 from Reverend Wilbur Chaseling who had set up the mission station at Yirrkala in Arnhem Land. He was in close contact with the traditional custodians of the land and collected many artefacts. It is not known if the painting is one from a bark shelter or if it was commissioned by Chaseling.