Old Masters spans a critical period in the history of the art of Arnhem Land and its peoples, from 1948 to 1988.
The Second World War is a significant historical marker for the people of Arnhem Land, due to the bombing of Darwin and parts of the northern coast of the region.
Anthropologists arrived after the war, and were followed by the collectors, both private and public, to see at firsthand the art of Arnhem Land, and to meet its creators and collect their work. They took their art to new audiences, in Australia and abroad.
The National Museum of Australia opened to the public in 2001. By and large its collections have been confined to storage, and many of the artists have been little known outside their communities.
Nonetheless, over the past decades the old masters in this exhibition have attracted the attention of the art world and the public at large; and recent generations of Arnhem Land bark painters continue to build on their artistic heritage, taking their art in new directions while building on past achievements.
Old Masters is a small taste of the Museums collection of bark paintings; it is but a sample of the richness, diversity and complexity of Indigenous cultures across Australia. Through this exhibition, the Museum encourages all Australians to share in the history and culture of Indigenous Australians.
Arnhem Land lies in the subtropical north of the Australian continent. The physical environment varies from the rocky escarpment in the west, extending into Kakadu National Park. To the east lie the savannah forests and the Arafura Wetlands of central Arnhem Land. Chains of islands lead to the eastern coast of Arnhem Land and south to Blue Mud Bay.
From 1916 to the 1970s, missions and settlements were established throughout the region. In 1931 the Australian Government declared Arnhem Land an Aboriginal Reserve, and with the introduction of land rights in 1976 many Aboriginal people returned to live on outstations on their traditional lands. The settlements continue to provide resources, including art centres for the outstations.