Balang (Mick) Kubarkku’s life spanned a period of incredible change for his people, the Kunwinjku (eastern Kunwinjku), of central Arnhem Land. From the Kulmarru clan, Kubarkku was of the Dhuwa moiety and Balang subsection. He was born at Kukabarnka, part of his homelands in the Marrinj clan estate, which included Yikarrakkal and Kubumi. He died in May at the township of Maningrida, central Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. Kubarkku was born into a world that had minimal contact with non–Indigenous people and culture, when the only white people who travelled to largely inaccessible Arnhem Land were traders, anthropologists and later missionaries. The first bark paintings were collected in the 1870s from Port Essington. Maningrida did not exist until just after Second World War when it was established as rations distribution centre/trading post; however, the timeless culture of the Kunwinjku has been inherent in the land for thousands of generations. As with many Indigenous artists from traditional communities, Kubarkku was tutored in artistic and cultural practices by his father, Ngindjalakku, initially creating paintings for sacred ceremonies and later selling his works through the government established township of Maningrida. At the time of his death, Kubarkku had been infirm for some time and had not created any works of art since the early 2000s. Very few works were created after 1995, when Kubarkku was acknowledged for his artistic vision and prowess in the exhibition Rainbow, sugarbag and moon, with Wamud Namok, AO, curated by Margie West, then Curator of Aboriginal Art and Material Culture at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. These bark paintings are part of a group of 18 barks recently acquired by the Gallery, marking an extremely valuable addition to the holdings of this significant artist’s work in the national collection, bringing the total number of works in the collection by Kubarkku to 25. Spanning four decades by one of the country’s most significant Arnhem Land artists, the group of barks were collected by a single vendor over a number of years. Kubarkku was a traditionalist in his approach to painting, mirroring his upbringing with minimal contact with white people prior to war. His art adhered to the style reminiscent of rock art painting, similar to his colleague and countryman Wamud Namok and other contemporaries such as Anchor Kulunba, Peter Marralwanga and Crusoe Kuningbal—all of whose descendents are among the current group of acclaimed Kunwinjku artists. Kubarkku produced highly figurative work, allowing space around his depictions of totemic animals and spirit beings, differing markedly from the innovative and increasingly abstracted rarrk (cross–hatched) designs created by acclaimed Kunwinjku artists like John Mawurndjul. Initially he commenced painting at Gunbalanya (Oenpelli) after the war before moving to Maningrida in 1957, where he and David Milaybuma were the first regular painters at Maningrida. The present Maningrida Art and Culture—arguably one of the country’s most recognised and successful art centres—evolved from the establishment of an art and craft centre in 1968, auspiced through the Maningrida Progress Association. His representations of malevolent spirit beings and ancestral figures resonate with power, and the works of Kubarkku and Namok are a direct connection to the ancient tradition of painting on rock surfaces and bark shelters, a tradition that ceased in 2004 when Wamud Namok painted the last image on rock galleries near his homeland. Kubarkku’s first paintings were on bark shelters and he later incorporated the rarrk designs associated with the Mardayin ceremony into his art. Among his repertoire were Ngalyod, the Rainbow Serpent; Namarrkon, the lightning spirit; Kodjok Bamdjelk, the pandanus spirit; lorrkon (hollow log coffin); namorroddo, yawk yawk and mimih spirits; and assorted freshwater fish species and native animals such as the namanjwarre (estuarine crocodile) and lambalk (sugar glider). He is the cultural custodian, or djungkay (manager), of the Bird Moon Dreaming.
"Namarrkon, the Lightning Spirit is associated with the intense electrical storms of kunemeleng, the pre–wet season between October and December. Namarrkon I typically illustrated in the rock art and bark paintings of the region with a circuit of lightning encircling its body. Kulburru, the stone axes which protrude from his joints, are hurled by Namarrkon to cause the lightning and thunder that accompany tropical storms. The body form of Namarrkon is said to represent ngaldjurr the Leichhardt’s Grasshopper (Petasida ephippigera), which is active and most visible during this time of year."1
Contemporary Arnhem Land artists create works for the art market, acquired for public and private collections, and none paint designs on the rock art sites, some of which dated as old as 50 000 years (if not older). Kubarkku was one of the few men who could recall those artists of earlier generations and was able to provide detailed interpretations of images on the rock galleries.
Brenda L Croft
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art
Margie West (ed), Rainbow, sugarbag and moon: two artists of the stone country
, exhibition catalogue, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin, 1995.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010