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November 16, 2018

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Australian treasures speak of Dreamtime

A collection of bark paintings by the Aboriginal people of Australia went on show yesterday at the city’s Natural History Museum.

Bark paintings, considered national treasures of Australia, remain largely unknown to the rest of the world. The National Museum of Australia, keeper of the world’s largest collection of bark paintings, has brought 110 typical examples to China.

“Old Masters: Australia’s Great Bark Artists,” will occupy the temporary exhibition hall at the museum till January.

The works on show were all created between 1948 and 1985 by people living in Arnhem Land, in Australia’s Northern Territory.

Ancient Chinese people passed on their civilization and culture through oracle bone scripts. In the same way, Aboriginal Australians, who have lived in Australia for more than 65,000 years, turned to bark painting.

They stripped bark from trees as canvas and extracted ochres and clays from the earth as pigment. They painted the animals around them such as crocodiles and kangaroos. They chronicled their everyday lives from hunting to important rituals, and their myths and beliefs.

Many of the exhibited works contain elements of the rainbow serpent, a spiritual and cultural symbol of Aboriginal Australia, occupying a similar roles to the dragon in Chinese culture. The rainbow serpent has crocodile’s head, fish’s tail and a water lily-covered back.

“The Aboriginal people who made these works made them to communicate who they are to the young people in their own communities, to the wider Australian community and then the world,” said Mathew Trinca, director of the National Museum of Australia.

Beyond the obvious cultural value, Trinca believes the exhibition is a lesson for the world.

“The collection speaks from the heart of Australia and it is the best way to open up their souls. In all places, real DNA relies on the people who live there.

“This collection speaks about the responsibility to our environment. And that’s what we, non-Aboriginal Australians are learning from Aboriginal Australians. And also, they can teach the rest of the world,” he said.

The collection arrived in Beijing in July, the first time Australian bark paintings have been exhibited overseas.


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