The Yirrkala Church Panels: Kinship, Country, and Numbers

In a month of amazing adventures in Australia last August, perhaps the single most mind-boggling day was the one we spent as guests of Will Stubbs and the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala. We arrived at about 8:30 in the morning, and as we stepped out of the taxi Will came down to greet us and suggested we begin the day by walking down to Yirrkala Creek. As we stood on the small bridge that spans the creek Will introduced us to the country, showed us mangrove jacks swimming in the water and a bicycle (not swimming). There was a wavering track in the sandy bottom of the creek, and Will spent a few minutes deciding whether it was the track left by someone trying to ride the bicycle through the creek, or the track of a crocodile that had ventured upstream. He told us not to worry about the ngerrk (white cockatoos) flying around our heads, though usually they are harbingers of death. In fact, later in the day as we ate lunch at the store across the street from the Art Centre, an old man’s voice on the community center loudspeaker announced the planned return to the community the following day of a woman who had recently died in a hospital in Darwin.

As we walked back to the Art Centre, Will commented on the southeast breeze cooling off the morning. He told us that in a few weeks the breeze would stop, and then the waters in the bay would become as still and silvery as mercury, and that on those days you could see a turtle lift its head out from the water five kilometers from shore. And that it was on such a day that the stingray and the crocodile finally ended their battle over rights to a saltwater inlet in Madarrpa country and the crocodile submitted to the stingray’s spear in his thigh. This was a great resolution, a moment of harmony, the reconciliation of the two enemies; and the mackerel jumped out of the sea, the mercury sea, at that moment.

That was quite a welcome to country, but there was much more to come.

We were there four days after the Art Award, so there was a buzz in the air about Banduk Marika and Naminapu Maymuru-White’s success, and it was a treat to meet them both. I was so excited about going out to Yirrkala that I hardly slept the whole night before, and at one point, half in and half out of a dream, I fell out of bed and literally landed on my head. Sometime in mid-morning Will needed to attend to some business, and he left Harvey and me to sit with Naminapu and a few other women for a while. After being introduced and saying how happy I was to be in Yirrkala, I didn’t quite know what to say next. Naminapu told me she was tired, having gotten up with her grandson at four that morning to make the flight from Darwin. In exchange, I offered my story of landing on my head in the middle of the night. Naminapu responded with a quick torrent in her language, which totally puzzled me until all the other women burst out laughing with her. Whatever the cultural differences between Americans and Yolngu may be, enjoying a pratfall seems to be something we have in common. 

After a while, we all agreed we’d been sitting too long, and needed to move about a bit, so Harvey and I took ourselves off for a tour of the museum. Eventually we descended a spiral staircase to the small room that now houses the Yirrkala Church panels. These two paintings, each twelve feet tall and four feet wide, were created in 1962-63 and were originally installed as part of a screen behind the communion table in the Methodist church at Yirrkala. Eight artists from the Dua moiety painted one, and eight from the Yirritja moiety the other, documenting the creation stories of the Yolngu country. All the various clans centered on Yirrkala were represented in the stories depicted on the panels. They are documented, with excellent photographs, in This Their Dreaming: legends of the panels of Aboriginal art in the Yirrkala Church, by Ann E. Wells and E. James Wells (University of Queensland Press, 1971).

From reading her book along with her husband Edgar’s Reward and Punishment in Arnhem Land, 1962-1963 (Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1982), I knew that the painting of the church panels grew out of the early threats to Yolngu sovereignty in the Yirrkala area by the discovery of bauxite and the proposed mining operation that was to be (and eventually was) undertaken there. The Australian government proposed to excise a large chunk of land out of the Aboriginal reserve; the Yolngu were prepared to protest vigorously. The painting of the panels was the first significant “land rights” statement documenting Aboriginal custodianship of their country. When the panels were installed and unveiled in March, 1963, members of Parliament were present, having just concluded a series of hearings at Yirrkala on Yolngu sentiments regarding the proposed mine. The panels, thus, were the forerunners of the famous Yirrkala Bark Petition sent to Canberra in 1965, and a prelude to Milirrpum vs. Nabalco, in which the Yolngu sued to forestall the mining. 

The combined weight of the panels, the petition, and the legal case was not enough to halt the mine, and the Yolngu are suffering to this day as a result of its operations and the grog that came with it. If any good came of the opening of the mine, it might be that the public awareness that the legal case, especially, brought to bear eventually opened the way to the passage of the Land Rights Act (Northern Territory) 1976, the beginnings of the legal recognition of Aboriginal title to land, and the eventual voiding of the doctrine ofterra nullius.

Needless to say, finding myself in the presence of such history was quite literally awe-inspiring, and we sat down quietly to try to take it all in.

Some of the iconography was familiar to me. In the lower portion of the Dua panel, the Marika clan’s depiction of the arrival of the Djang’kawu Sisters at Yalangbara south of Yirrkala was “legible.” Likewise, the possum and the guwak, or cuckoo, that feature so prominently in paintings by Narritjin Maymuru and his family were instantly recognizable at the top of the Yirritja panel. I could pick out the Djapu shark on the Dua side, and Nyapililngu with her basket of bush plums on the Yirritja panel, but beyond that I was lost. The sheer size and complexity of the panels left me gaping. With so much to discover, it was a little hard to focus.

I’m not sure how long we sat there before Will came down to join us. He began to talk about the panels, not as history, nor in terms of the mythological narratives. He began, it seemed, by talking not about the panels at all, but about kinship and its importance to Yolngu law. Now I find the details of Yolngu kinship stunning. Stunning like a fish feels when it’s been hit by a stick. Listening to Will talk about the practical details of marrying into a Yolngu family, hearing him describe his kin relations to some of the people we’d met that morning, and coming to understand that even after fifteen years at Yirrkala, Will still had to slowly and methodically work some of this out in his head in certain social situations was helpful. The struggle to understand Yolngu kinship seemed a little more like a rudimentary conversation in a foreign language and a little less like an attempt to memorize tables of verb declensions and the proper use of the subjunctive tense.

However, we hadn’t gotten very far when Djambawa Marawili joined us and Will turned the lecture over to him. Djambawa began by pointing out his country in the Yirritja panel: the fire story, and Baru the crocodile. It was only later, going back over the details in Ann Wells’s book, that I realized that the crocodile in the painting is shown holding at an odd angle his injured foreleg–the one speared by the stingray in the story that Will had told us earlier in the morning as we returned to the Art Centre from Yirrkala Creek.


Much of what Djambawa told us went far over my head. I found myself losing the thread often, picking it up again when he touched on a topic I was familiar with. But his major theme was that of country and kin, of how the panels represented the combined efforts of the Yolngu people to tell the story of their land and their relationship to it and to one another through the land. We asked at one point if all the Yolngu clans were represented in the panels, and he explained to us how members of all but one of the clans were present in Yirrkala when the painting was done. The artists didn’t want to leave the missing clan out of the painting, but none of them had the authority to paint the story for that clan. The solution was an arduous two-day trip by canoe to consult with the appropriate elders and to secure permission to include a small section representing their story in accordance with their instructions.

What did come through clearly from this conversation was the incredible emotional connection and commitment Djambawa felt to the country he spoke about. As Will joined in, sometimes translating our awkward questions into Yolngu, sometimes offering a gloss on what Djambawa was saying, I began to assemble pieces I had dimly understood into the start of a synthetic understanding.

People are related to the land. That was easy, and a fundamental precept of appreciating Aboriginal art. Various clans are related to one another through the actions of the ancestors. Much of the story of the Djang’kawu is concerned with the travels of the sisters across the country, the places where they camped, the people and the languages they left behind. The Yolngu clans are related by these ancestral travels. And indeed, the country itself becomes related, one part to another, through these travels. Marriages occur between certain people because the countries each belongs to are so married. As in so much Yolngu art, layer upon layer of meaning accretes as one learns more of the stories and the symbols that represent aspects of them. It’s a bit like the metaphor of the layers of the onion, only in reverse: instead of peeling back layers to come to a core of meaning, one almost assembles the layers of meaning atop and around one another. The Yirrkala church panels are a literal Weltanschauung, a view of the world in its wholeness and relatedness.

Will and Djambawa had business to do, so they left us to ponder, compare notes, and try to sort out what we had just learned. I don’t think we’d gotten much forwarder when Will returned alone. Before I could pelt him with questions, he offered an oracular piece of wisdom. “You can’t understand the Yolngu unless you understand the importance of kinship to them,” he told us. “Try to imagine your life without numbers. That would be like life for the Yolngu without kinship.”

[Correction] Will Stubbs notes: “The Baru travels from Madarrpa to Gumatj but was in its Gumatj guise when punctured.”

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2 Responses to The Yirrkala Church Panels: Kinship, Country, and Numbers

  1. Pingback: Nhulunbuy-Yirrkala | Bill LawtonKey Sensitivity

  2. Pingback: Will Stubbs wins ACA Award | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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