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This is a bark blanket from the Aboriginal people of the rainforest of north-eastern Queensland. One side of the blanket is decorated with symbols painted in red and black using natural pigments. Collected about 1928, it measures 79 cm x 114 cm.
This extremely rare example of a painted blanket attests to the rich diversity of Aboriginal cultures across Australia. The Indigenous people of the rainforest between Ingham and Cooktown in Queensland belong to four different language groups and were known for making bark blankets, bicornial (two-cornered) baskets, large kidney-shaped painted shields, long fighting sticks or 'swords' and painted cross boomerangs.
Blankets such as this one were made from the inner bark of a native fig tree. The bark was cut with a stone axe and stripped from the tree. The thin sheets of inner bark were then peeled off and made pliable by pounding them with a wooden mallet over a smooth tree-root anvil. The finished blankets could be folded into small parcels and carried inside baskets when traveling between camps.
Bark blankets from the Tully River area were traded with other Aboriginal groups living to the north and south, often in exchange for the distinctive bicornial baskets of the region. For thousands of years objects and materials that were scarce or found only in a few localities were exchanged along complex Indigenous trade networks that extended across vast parts of Australia.
Natural pigments have been used as paint and the detail on this blanket suggests the paint was probably applied using a fine stick. Red ochre is especially important to Indigenous Australians and is traded across large areas of Australia, sometimes transported thousands of kilometres before it is used. To make the paint, the pigments are ground into powder with a pestle-type stone and mixed with a binding fluid.
This blanket was collected around 1928 on Queensland's Tully River. From the 1870s onwards, the remote valleys behind Tully, Cairns and Mossman were a prime focus of mining and other ventures. Botanists, ornithologists, ethnographers and photographers all ventured into the region soon after. They traded for artefacts and took photographs of Aboriginal people, later giving or selling many of these objects and images to museums.