Next time you walk into the National Gallery of Victoria’s Federation Court expecting to step onto its bluestone floor, you won’t. Instead, you’ll find yourself standing upon a conceptual and spiritual river of stars. As one foot follows the other through a graphic black and white ochre galaxy – painted using a skewer-stick and human-hair paint brush – look up to see your reflection in a mirrored ceiling that inverts sky, sea and land.

Yolŋu artist Naminapu Maymuru-White is behind this stunning immersive work, titled Riŋgitjmi gapu, 2021 (this roughly translates to “river of heaven and earth”), which is one part of Bark Ladies: Eleven Artists from Yirrkala, the NGV’s newest exhibition.

After immersing yourself in Maymuru-White’s Milky Way (“Milŋiyawuy”), three more sections are yours to explore. The first space, with its low ceiling and moody lighting, features work by five sisters with distinct styles. There’s Gulumbu Yunupiŋu’s earth-coloured, highly intricate depictions of universe and stars; Nyapanyapa Yunupiŋu’s white and cream circles; and Eunice Djerrkŋu Yunupiŋu’s bold, cartoon-esque illustrations of mermaids and marriage. Between these Yunupiŋu-sister adorned walls, ḻarrakitj (painted hollow poles) stand tall; again, you’ll find yourself gazing skyward.

Next, walk into a bright, cathedral-like space featuring a big queue of works displayed on mirrored walls and unconnected plinths. This striking mirrored backdrop “creates infinity, representing the ongoing and continuing nature of the practices,” says curator of Indigenous art, Myles Russell-Cook. The glimpses we catch of ourselves throughout the exhibition will evoke different responses for different viewers. For this writer, the mirrors serve as a comforting reminder of our miniscule existence; our unimportance in the grand scheme of things.

There’s also a children’s gallery (which adults will appreciate, too), where you’ll be transported to North-East Arnhem Land to learn about language and land, and a cinema to learn about Maymuru-White’s incredible floor-based work.

“The exhibition came about two years ago,” explains Russell-Cook. His curation was conceptualised in 2019, the NGV has been acquiring important works by Yolŋu women artists from the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre (Buku) in Northeast Arnhem Land for some 30 years. Select works on bark and ḻarrakitj from this extraordinary collection – plus new, never-before-seen pieces (including Maymuru-White’s aforementioned floor-based work) – form Bark Ladies.

“This exhibition is a collaboration in the true sense,” says Russell-Cook, referring to the NGV’s strong relationship with Buku. In putting the exhibition together, he visited the Northern Territory on numerous occasions to talk to the artists about their designs and ideas, and to Buku coordinator Will Stubbs. “The arrangement of work has been discussed at length to make sure there was a great deal of support,” says Russell-Cook.

Everything about this exhibition is impeccably considered from both sides of the collaboration, including, first and foremost, the 11 artists featured: Nancy Gaymala Yunupiŋu, Gulumbu Yunupiŋu, Barrupu Yunupiŋu, Ms N Yunupiŋu, Eunice Djerrkŋu Yunupiŋu, Noŋggirrŋga Marawili, Dhambit Munuŋgurr, Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda, Naminapu Maymuru-White, Malaluba Gumana and Dhuwarrwarr Marik. These established artists are known around the world for their wonderful daringness to disrupt convention.

Bark Ladies isn’t exactly a retrospective – women from Buku have only been painting on bark and making ḻarrakitj since 2000. “[These] women have been at the forefront of the contemporary movement,” says Russell-Cook. While men’s work had long been connected to storytelling and tradition, women had the opportunity to challenge conventions and be experimental when they started painting in the 1990s, he explains.

There is an important message in this star-studded exhibition that purposely confuses earth and sky, says Russell-Cook: Naminapu Maymuru-White’s signature style of crosses and dots represents “everything we know and everything we don’t know”. The crosses illustrate all the stars we can see, and the dots are those we can’t see. You’ll walk out of Bark Ladies with a newfound or deepened appreciation for the invisible stars.

Bark Ladies: Eleven Artists from Yirrkala will run from December 17 to April 25. Entry is free.

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