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Aborigine Artist Finds Commercial Success in Ancient Technique of Bark Painting

Renowned author Harold Stephens interviews a traditional bark artist in the Australian Outback.

Lakgurr Buey is an Australian aborigine, a black man from the Outback.

He and his wife and an assortment of relatives live in a huge open-sided tent, in a desolate part of the Northern Territory called Arnhem Land. He has, of course, no electricity, no plumbing, not even water.

For food, he shops in town; the rest he grubs from the desert. He invited me to lunch the first afternoon I went to his camp; the meal was a half-cooked iguana he had killed a short while before.

After lunch, of which I ate little, I went with Buey and sat under a gum tree, and there I asked him about his profession. Buey is an artist, and one who is known throughout the Territory. He is not only well known; they say he is rich. For a bark-skin painting, a metre high, he fetches around a thousand Australian dollars. Sometimes more. He can do a couple a month, and the dealer in Darwin said he sells them as fast as Buey turns them out.

One would never know this upon seeing Buey's camp, except maybe for the latest-model Toyota Land Cruiser parked out front. It's a four-wheel drive vehicle, stereo equipped, and he uses it mostly to fetch water. Sometimes the Toyota provides their meals. The iguana Buey and his family had for lunch was run over by the Toyota that morning. The Toyota dealer in Darwin sends Buey a new model every year as soon as it reaches the market.

My interest in Buey as an artist came when I was in Darwin and saw some of his bark paintings. They were replicas of paintings I had seen in rock shelters in the Outback over the previous two weeks. I had been invited by the Australian government to write about the Outback, as they had just opened the area to tourism. What fascinated me most about this vast area was the aboriginal rock paintings we had seen .

I was fortunate to have had a good guide, Sam Lovell, part aborigine himself, who was a stockman before turning tourist guide. Sam knows the Outback as a New York taxi driver knows New York. He took us to caves where his great ancestors once lived, where there are paintings few outsiders have ever seen.

There is something overpowering to be standing in a cave, hundreds of miles form the nearest settlement, looking up at art forms that are the earliest known forms of artistic expression of man found on this planet. Some 20,000 years ago, humans left their mark on the walls and ceilings where all could see them.

It was here, in these protective shelters and overhangs, a home for at least part of the year, that the first Australians began to create. Within such shelters, the walls and ceilings are covered with layer upon layer of paintings depicting through time their changing environment. They are among the oldest and the most significant expressions of human creativity.

Thus, when I saw Buey's works in Darwin, and others like his, I couldn't help marvelling at how aboriginal art has been passed down from generation to generation, from century to century. I had to meet Buey. Once got to Arnhem Land, it took me two days to find his camp.

As I drove up the last quarter mile of dusty track, I wondered how he would receive me; would he even consider talking to a stranger? My worries were soon cast aside, for Buey and his family were too excited about the iguana they had just killed with the Toyota to be annoyed with me.

"Come, come," Buey said in English when I introduced myself "You will have some."

A huge woman in a flowered sack dress, whom I later discovered to be Buey's wife, had a roaring fire lighted. Grabbing the squashed lizard by the tail, she threw it on the open fire, uncleaned, entrails and all.

Buey saw the concern on my face. "It's good," he assured me. "Just like chicken."

I watched them all gather around the fire. They wore a few articles of Western clothing, but their blue-black skin--men and women alike, Buey included--had deep scars from tribal markings.

But they were pleasant, and offered me the first piece of Outback chicken they tore from the uncooked carcass. I declined, saying I had just eaten.

The meal over, and seated under the gum tree, Buey showed me a few of his paintings. He also added the finishing touches to another one, giving me a chance to see how pigment is applied.

The methods Buey uses, including the pigments he works with, are those that his forebears have used for ages. Even the subject matter, which the art experts call "X-ray art," comes direct from the ancient rock paintings.

In this style, Buey depicts the internal features of a subject within its external form. Thus, his animals are portrayed not only in their dominant recognisable aspect, generally in profile, but also with their internal organs and bone structure. Even when he paints the human body in this style, it's usually portrayed with a schematised skeletal form, while, strangely enough, an inanimate object, such as a rifle, may show the bullet within its breech, and a knife is depicted in its sheath.

The subjects he paints are images found in the region, and are naturalistic portrayals. Animals, for example, are usually drawn in an outline and are internally textured or infilled with contour lines, stipples, patches and occasionally with ochre wash. Frequently they are painted larger than life, and fill a wall-sized bark painting.

Buey doesn't paint with an easel. He sits on the ground with his painting stretched out before him on his lap. He first outlines and constructs in red and later applies white or yellow pigments which he uses either to emphasise the outline or as additional decoration. When pigments are applied to the dry bark, they are rapidly absorbed into the surface.

The only items he buys in town are brushes and turpentine. His colours he gathers and mixes from what he finds in the desert. The bark he skins from the trees.

"That's when we move camp," he said. "When all the bark is gone." I looked around, and all the trees in every direction had the bark removed in square patches. Others in Buey's clan cut and prepare the bark for him. Each piece has to dry for at least three weeks before he can use it.

Although Buey speaks English rather well, it's impossible to enter into deep conversations with him. He became bored when I ask him questions like how old something was or when I dealt with an abstract term like "time." He didn't know, for example, how old he was, except that he remembered the war, which put him somewhere in his 50s.

Somehow he did get it across to me that he needed inspiration to work, and inspiration came when he went out alone in the desert.. There he would sit for hours, contemplating what he should paint next. Sometimes he might see a bird in his thoughts, or a fish, and these would become his subjects.

That was my meeting with Ilkgurr Buey, aborigine artist from the Australian Outback. Before I left, I asked Buey one final question. Now that he had money, what would he like to do most? "Travel," he said. I was going to ask him where, to Sydney or maybe even to London or New York? Then he spoke up. "Alice Springs," he said. "I've never been there."

Harold Stephens is one of Southeast Asia's best known writers. Having lived in the area most of his adult life, he's authored 17 books--most recently, The Last Voyage, about his 18-year journey aboard a schooner he built himself--and more than 3,500 newspaper and magazine articles, covering everything from travel to jungle exploring and searching for lost cities. He lives in Bangkok and the San Francisco area. This article originally appeared in the Bangkok Post.

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