Saturday, August 10, 2013

Australian Aboriginal Silk Paintings[1-2]

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

Most of the Australian Aboriginal ArtCloth that is world renowned centers on the Batik technique that was introduced to the women of Ernabella In 1971 by a young American, Leo Brereton, who learnt the technique in Indonesia. This technique quickly spread to the surrounding aboriginal communities and so it became the artistic medium of choice for a number of women in these communities.

Painter: Nyukana Baker,
Fabric Length, 1970s.
Batik on Silk.
Size: 351.5 x 93 cm.
Enid Bowden Memorial Collection (Australia).

What lies in their shadow somewhat are the aboriginal silk paintings (which is also a form of resist dyeing) that has become the forte of Eastern Arrente artists at Ltyenye Apurte (Santa Teresa) and in the Top End, namely the Daly River artists at Merrepen Arts. These ArtCloth works are spectacular in that they also highlight and document an Aboriginal spiritual consciousness.

Ltyentye Apurte (Santa Terese).

Today’s post gives tribute to this form of Aboriginal ArtCloth.

Silk Painting – A Brief Overview of the Technique
Silk painting in China is believed to date back as far as the Waring States period (476 - 221 BC), reaching its height as an art form in the Western Han dynasty (206 BC to 25 AD).

Artisans of the imperial courts first used silk as a medium for calligraphy painting, which at the time was thought to be the highest and purest form of painting. They used black ink made of pine soot and animal-based glues to silk scrolls.

Over the years the art developed to include human figures and depicted religious and mythological characters as well as forms from nature. The oldest silk painting artifacts were unearthed from a tomb built in the Warring States period in Changsha, central China. The two silk paintings that were discovered featured mythical beasts - the dragon and phoenix traditionally believed to help the dead enter heaven.

One of the earliest discovered silk paintings has been titled – “Lady, Dragon and Phoenix”. The painting depicts a noblewoman on a boat praying to a dragon and phoenix.

When silk weaving was introduced in France in the sixteenth century, silk painting accompanied its introduction. Like marbling, it became unfashionable for a time only to re-merge over the last half century as an exciting art form.

Painting on silk is quite different from any other form of fabric painting – such as on velvets or on cotton etc. The difference centers on the fact that silk paints and dyes are translucent rather than opaque. Normal fabric paints are a thicker and deeply infuse into the core of the fabric changing the handle of the cloth. On the other hand, silk paints and dyes sit on the surface of the fabric, thereby yielding the unique sheen of the silk being preserved and not blotted out, and so not altering the hand of the silk.

Desert Opal Caterpillars.
Printed by Pauline Clark over mop-up by Liz Wauchope.
Courtesy of Reference[2].

Another feature are that the colors of the silk paints generally are strong and lively, although they can be made to appear soft and with a pastel hue if diluted, giving the artist a wide range of moods to choose from. They are color fast, washable or can be dry-cleaned, thereby acting as a perfect medium for wearable art (such as silk scarves, garments etc.)

Detailed serti method silk, with silk painting equipment.
Courtesy Reference[2].

There are many different types and qualities of silk, all of which can be painted. Some silk paints such as the French silk paints, require you to use 100% silk or a combination of silk and wool. Some silks are produced containing sizing and so have a stiff handle. These silks need to be washed and dried before they can be painted, otherwise the sizing can prevent the paint from effectively adhering to the silk fibers.

Silk also comes in different weights (commonly measured in grams per meter). There is also a wide variety of weaves, each of which has a different surface texture. Both of these factors will effect how the paint and the resist (called gutta) will react with the silk and so will alter the final appearance.

Typically, the types of silks used are Habutai (or Jap), and Pongee, Chiffon and Georgette, Crepe de Chine, Twill, Satin and Satin Crepe, Noil and Raw Silk and Jacquard. In each silk category care must be taken with respect to dilution. For example, Noil and raw silk are very heavy weights with no sheen. Noil has little flecks of brown matter through it. Neither fabric is suitable for scarves but both are good for outer garments such as jackets and pants. Both fabrics will soak up large quantities of paint, but because they are heavy weights, will bleed little. The thick weaves soak up paints so much that colors become more intense and so to lighten the colors, the paints need to be heavily diluted. Some of the paints will wash out the excess paint in the first wash etc. Also gutta (the resist) does not penetrate the tight, thick weave easily and so care must be taken in diluting it since if it is too diluted the resist will be unable to keep the paint diluting through the gutta (resist) lines.

Natural Raw Noil Silk Fabric.

Silk paints are specifically designed for use on silk and wool. They do not work on synthetic material. There are several brands of silk paints (e.g. Orient Express) with more being added to the market all the time. The main differences in the brands are the color ranges. Note: There is no white since to get white areas on the silk you do not paint in these areas. There are also powdered dyes which are not specific to silk but which can be used in the same way and have many properties of silk paints.

Gutta is a resist which the paints cannot penetrate and so is used as an outliner to draw your design on the silk. Basically it prevents the paint from spreading from one area to an adjoining area and so acts like wax does in the Batik technique. It is composed of a latex or vegetable gum and unlike wax, it stays at a usable consistency without heat and so it is easy to use and to learn how to draw fine lines with an applicator pen. White spirit or Shellite are used to dilute spirit base gutta and to remove it from the silk completely if so desired.

Most silk paints and dyes are extremely susceptible to water until the color has been fixed into the fabric. There are a variety of fixing agents beginning with chemical fixatives to heat fixatives (such as steaming, ironing and microwaving etc.)

Jacquard Gutta Resist.

Diiffusants and anti-diffusants are also added to the paint and to the gutta respectively, in order to obtain painterly effects on the silk medium. For example, when a diffusant is added to paint, it makes the paint bleed faster and run more smoothly on the surface of the silk, thus making the background more easy to paint as well as giving a rock-salt effect to the finish.

Use of an applicator pen with a diffusant added to paint.
Courtesy reference[2].

Case Study: Silk Painting at Santa Teresa Mission
The Santa Teresa Mission was built in 1953 at Ltyentye Apurte, a sacred rain-making site, located eighty kilometers South-East of Alice Springs (South Australia). In the early 1950s Mr. Sojack, an European artist, visited the Mission, giving lessons in water color painting to the students of the Mission’s school. In 1987 when Sydney artist Cait Wait visited the Mission and became a resident for six years, she was asked to impart to the students textile skills and decided to focus on lino-block printing and fabric painting. She decided against Batik due to the success of the Central Aboriginal communities and the Tiwi Islanders using that technique.

In 1988 government funding was used to create in 1990 "Keringke Arts" (meaning Kangaroo track – named after a rock hole near Santa Teresa, created by a big Kangaroo ancestor, whose tracks are imprinted in the rock). The group specialized in producing hand-painted silk scarves, lengths and garments. Kathleen Wallace who was the traditional owner for the rock hole and who named the group, became a leading practitioner of this art.

Aboriginal Silk Paintings From Different Regions of Australia

Artist and Title: Kathleen Wallace – Spirit Figures Singing (1995).
Technique: Fabric Dyes and Metallic Paint on Silk.
Size: 200 x 115 cm.
Santa Teresa.

Artist and Title: Kathleen Wallace – Untitled (Detail, 1997).
Technique: Painted on Silk.
Size: 200 x 120 cm.
Santa Teresa.

Artist and Title: Kathleen Wallace – Irrernte-Arenye (Spirit Figures) Singing (Detail, 1997).
Technique: Painted on Silk.
Size: 200 x 115 cm.
Santa Teresa.

Artist and Title: Muriel van der Byl – Marringhan (1992).
Technique: Painted on Silk.
Size: 83 x 110 cm.
Santa Teresa.

Artist and Title: Marita Sambono – Rainbow (Detail, 1997).
Technique: Painted on Silk.
Size: 246 x 113 cm.
Daly River.

Artist and Title: Marita Sambono – Night Sky (Detail, 1997).
Technique: Painted on Silk.
Size: 230 x 116 cm.
Daly River.

Artist and Title: Miriam Rose Bauman Ungunmerr – Dragon Fly (1997).
Technique: Painted on Silk.
Size: 245 x 190 cm.
Daly River.

Artist and Title: Marlene Young – Brabralung Dreaming (1995).
Technique: Painted on Silk.
Size: 295.5 x 116 cm.

Artist and Title: Eva Wanganeen – Silk Shield (2013).
Technique: Painted on Silk.
Size: 295.5 x 116 cm.
Contemporary/Traditional, Queensland.

Artist and Title: Eva Wanganeen – Nurruti (2013).
Technique: Painted on Silk.
Size: 295.5 x 116 cm.
Contemporary/Traditional, Queensland.

[1] J. Ryan and R. Healy, Raiki Wara, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (1998).
[2] L. Wauchope, Silk Painting, Simon & Schuster, Sydney (1992).


Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this information and the images. I have loved Kathleen Wallace's silk painting of Irrente Arenye (Spirit Figures) Singing Detail 1997 since I first saw it on a travel book cover in 2006. I am a big fan of the Keringke Art Studio and deeply impressed by the work of Aboriginal artists generally. Sincerely, Jennie (Vancouver, Canada).

Art Quill Studio said...


Thanks for your kind words and comments. I am delighted to hear that you loved Kathleen Wallace's silk paintings . . . they are stunning ! As you can see I am a great supporter of Aboriginal ArtCloth and prints on paper since it is simply great ! Keep checking back as I will include future blog posts on Aboriginal ArtCloth and works on paper from other regional and urban centres. Marie-Therese.