HOW can it be that the most tradition-bound Aboriginal art centre in Australia, Buku-Larrnggay, at Yirrkala on the tip of northeast Arnhem Land, is pouring forth the nation's boldest and most innovative indigenous paintings and three-dimensional works?
Visitors to the startling new exhibitions of Yirrkala art on view this month in Sydney and Darwin could be forgiven for imagining themselves caught up in a whirlwind, so startling are the experiments in form and technique being explored by the established masters of bark painting in the far north. Sculpted stringybark trunks, painted ceremonial poles with natural cavities freely incorporated into the traditional patterns, cross-hatched depictions of waves in motion: there seems no limit to the inventions being pioneered within the strict grid of the region's clan designs.
The reputation of the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land for conservatism in their art was always slightly overdone: even in the 1960s the leaders of the different clans at the Yirrkala mission were willing to display their sacred stories in the form of painted panels at the local church, and throughout the past two decades the best-known Yolngu artists have forged distinctive, highly recognisable styles.
Nothing, though, in the gradual development of the art of the region gave any clue to the creative explosion that began five years ago, with the launch of a movement known simply as Buwayak, the word for invisibility in the local Yolngu Matha language group.
The first Buwayak paintings, shown in an exhibition at Sydney's Annandale Galleries in 2003, were an act of disclosure. They presented not just veils of pattern but glimpses of the totemic creatures implicit in the landscape. They were works that at once concealed and revealed, and launched an exploration, through Yolngu eyes, of the limits to what can be seen or shown. Light, the light of transformation and illumination, pulsed through this work: the shimmer of sunlight on tropical waves, the blaze of bushfire, lightning's jagged strike. That brilliant light is still much in evidence in the two latest exhibitions from Yirrkala.
Raft Artspace in Darwin and Annandale Galleries in Sydney's inner west have long associations with Buku-Larrnggay and have staged remarkable, museum-grade shows of its work in recent years. Both have done so again this season with very different material.
Raft's show explores the tradition of figure carving. Some of the new pieces are dazzling departures from convention; some remain close to the sculpted ranga objects used in ceremony. Annandale offers a suite of drastically experimental works by established artist Wanyubi Marika, together with a selection of barks and decorated poles by six young guns full of promise. Annandale's Bill Gregory believes that young artists from the traditional indigenous world are finding their styles early, in a way that would have been impossible a few years ago.
"Previously, young men would have been almost wholly restricted to helping their elders," Gregory says. "There's a great deal more freedom today. These artists have already found a way of expressing themselves that's unique to them. Their own voices are telling the timeless and age-old sacred stories from which the art derives. They're coming up with the most remarkable work I've seen in the 12 years I've been representing Yirrkala. If there's a golden age in this movement, it's now, or looming just over the horizon."
These are big claims. Do they stand up? And if so, what explains the continuing vitality of the tradition in Yirrkala and its surrounding outstations?
A glance at the Darwin exhibition suggests some leads. The show's title, Bitpit, comes from the word for a new shoot or bud springing from an established tree, and the carvings that fill Raft Artspace are at once familiar and fresh.
There are bird totems with long, thin beaks that reach down to their pattern-covered breasts; there are gaunt spirit sculptures from the domain of mortuary ritual; there is a lovely, black-painted figure, fondly known as the handsome man: he is Barama, the ancestral creator of the Gangan waterhole, and he was made by one of the principal Yolngu artist-philosophers of the older generation, Gawirrin Gumana. His face is austerely sketched, his expression hieratic; symbolic meanings lurk like genetic code within the patterns drawn on his body.
Close by him stands a much more active sculpture: this is Baru, the ancestral figure whose anger burned him so brightly he changed into a crocodile, with rough fire-blazed scales upon his back. The carving, by celebrated bark painter Djambawa Marawili, shows the instant of transformation: it is a Yolngu equivalent to Bernini's marble version of Daphne's metamorphosis into a laurel tree.
This is art that has travelled far from the prescribed ceremonial forms that gave it birth: the well-buried sacred element is being brought closer to the surface and subjected to a procedure of constant modification. The templates of bark painting are being tested and stretched.
In the Sydney exhibition, this tendency becomes even more pronounced.
Wanyubi, whose barks were the triumph of the first Buwayak show, here attempts to capture, in the gleam of rippled cross-hatching, the effect of canoe paddles dipping into water.
Water - fresh, salt, still, flowing - is the medium for clan definition in northeast Arnhem Land, where alliances and interrelations reach baroque levels of intricacy: the moment of Yolngu world creation came when the ancestors first dipped their canoe paddles in the shallow waters off Port Bradshaw and defined the pattern of the coastal seas.
Wanyubi's paintings, then, are a version of that primal act: the artist's whirling vortex forms dance on the curved surface of the poles in the suite and twist heavily on the large boards with their repeating wreaths of brownish paint.
Wanyubi's works stand guard before a gallery full of pieces from the student generation of Buku-Larrnggay, several of whom are still in their 20s. Dhurrumuwuy Marika's nested arcs, Yilpirr Wanambi's tight, divided geometric planes, Yalanba Wanambi's dark contrast backgrounds: all are painstakingly executed, all convey a sense of personal tone.
But the master of the exhibition is Gunybi Ganambarr, 35, a member of the tiny Ngaymil clan, who lives in his mother's community of Gangan and is son-in-law to Djambawa Marawili. The long-serving art co-ordinators at Buku-Larrnggay, Andrew Blake and Will Stubbs, regard Gunybi's entry for this year's Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award as the finest new bark painting that has come their way.
All the works by Gunybi on view at Annandale are creations of the utmost finesse and finish. His ceremonial poles bear traditional Gangan markings, but they are incised, rather than merely painted, and animal forms seem to writhe amid the matrix of clan patterns and shapes. It is his barks, though, that most hold the eye: they are double-sided, rather like medieval portable altars, and the designs on recto and verso relate. The figure drawings on these wooden panels are of exceptional elegance. His diving birds may be the most beautiful creatures painted on a stringybark surface; they loop and curve against the diamonds and cross-hatched gleaming designs. Gunybi's capacity to fuse narrative, form and colour sets these four double-sided pieces among the jewels of the Yolngu painting tradition.
New work of this kind testifies to something much deeper than mere cultural survival or even innovation within a pre-determined model.
It marks an evolution, and that development seems bound up with the message-bearing role of the bark painters working in and around Yirrkala in recent decades. Since the days of the church panels and the pioneering Gove land rights case, brought to court by Wanyubi's father Milirrpum, painting has been a means for the Yolngu to speak to Australia at large, to convey the depth and splendour of their world.
What exactly do we want from Aboriginal art? Tradition and authenticity, or beauty and originality? These two exhibitions, on view at different ends of the continent, suggest that a living, fully realised creative current can offer both, and that there may be many further twists and turns in the journey of ceremonial art into the contemporary market.
A further, intriguing question arises, lurking insistently within the contours of these barks and smoothly sculpted statues and ceremonial poles. They all adhere to their rigid code: only certain colours are admissible; the subject must be a story from the ritual system that explains the cosmos and sets out the relationships between clans and groups; the gleam of the sacred must underpin each work. This is an unyielding tradition, yet works of grace and fluency are being made within it. Can it be that, in the chains and cords of such a rule-bound system, beauty and transcendence are most freely born?
Wanyubi Marika and Young Guns II is at Annandale Galleries, Sydney, until May 10. Bitpit: Carving Project from Northeast Arnhem Land is at Raft Artspace, Darwin, until May 31.