New Art from Yirrkala: Painting the Waters of Gangan

Three new exhibitions of art from Yirrkala will be opening soon in Sydney and Darwin and each should prove exciting and interesting in its own way.

In Sydney, Annandale Galleries is hosting Young Guns: barks and ceremonial poles by emerging artists from Yirrkala, June 8 – July 15, 2006. This show features the work of five young artists from the outstations around Yirrkala. The paintings and poles can be seen now on Annandale’s website, and they look to be ambitious expansions of the recent traditions of abstraction and “invisibility” from Yirrkala. Among the poles, Gunybi Ganambarr’s three-dimensional relief work is breaking new ground in the larrakitj tradition.

At the Biennale of SydneyZones of Contact, new work by Djambawa Marawili includes barks and ceremonial poles. These works build on the exciting paintings Annandale showed a year ago in the Source of Fire exhibition. (Works from the Biennale will be available through Annandale as well.) And if Will Stubbs and Bill Gregory can pull it off, I understand that they are planning to mount an exhibition of the poles, complete with beach sand from Yirrkala, on the piers (Pier 2/3 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay). If you’ve ever seen the Gan’yu Gallery in the Botanic Gardens in Darwin, or elsewhere, you know that Will has a talent for dramatic outdoor presentation of Yolngu art. Please send pictures if you go.

On June 15 a new exhibition of works from Yirrkala opens at Raft Artspace in Darwin, and runs through July 7. It is entitled Gangan: The Discipline of Design – One Law, Three Hands, Watjurr Gumana, Yamutjin Wunungmurra, Djirrirra Wunungmurra. The advance publicity states: “This is an exhibition of works by related members of the Dhalwangu clan who are painting the same country through the template of sacred clan design using the same medium & the same palette of four colours.”

Dhalwangu artists from Yirrkala have been painting the stories of Gangan for some time now in a radical new way, and I am eager to see how this exhibition shapes up. I’ve been following the development of paintings of Gangan for a couple of years now. My interest was piqued when I realized that several artists were using variations on the same vocabulary to construct new, abstract works. I love the complexity of Yolngu painting, but the density of symbols and meaning is endlessly daunting. And so I’ve been using the works of these Dhalwangu clan artists as a way of focusing my attention on both the “what” and the “how” of a slice of work from Yirrkala and as a means of educating myself. As an introduction here, I want to focus this post on some earlier works (reproduced below by kind permission of Will Stubbs at Buku-Larrnggay Mulka) that use this common visual vocabulary and palette to depict the waters of Gangan and Dhalwangu Law.

Gangan Outstation, which lies northwest of Blue Mud Bay in eastern Arnhem Land, is the homeland of the Dhalwangu people and the most sacred site of the Yolngu Yirritja moiety. Barama, the great creator Ancestor and lawgiver of the Yirritja, came upriver from Blue Mud Bay, emerging at a freshwater site known as Gulutji. It was at this site that he called together a council of Dhalwangu elders and sent off two, Lany’tjung and Galparimun, to give the law to all Yirritja people. This story is the Yirritja equivalent to the great, and better known, Dhuwa creation myth of the Djang’kawu Sisters, which begins on the beach at Yalangbara, just to the south of Yirrkala.

The area between Gangan and Blue Mud Bay is a vast flood plain. During the Wet, rainwater falling upstream flows southeast towards the Bay, eventually causing the river to spill its banks. At the height of the Wet, a plume of fresh water actually pushes out into the Bay so far that men in their canoes can dip their hands into the open water and drink from it. Conversely, as the land dries out after the monsoons stop, salt water from the Bay extends farther and farther upstream, and the waters of the swampland become increasingly brackish until the weather turns and the cycle starts over again.

The mixing of freshwater and saltwater, the literal ebb and flow of opposites, the balancing of contrasting forces, serves as a metaphor that captures the vital essence of Yolngu thought. This is perhaps most clearly seen in the division of everything in the natural world into the Dhuwa and Yirritja moieties, but it is a structure that pervades Yolngu philosophy and Yolngu art at every level. The correspondence of opposites finding expression in so many different ways, each echoing another over and over again, is a source of the great resonance in the Yolngu worldview and the seemingly endless complexity of meaning in their visual art and ceremonial practice.

In recent years a number of Dhalwangu artists have begun painting the stories associated with Gangan in the new, highly abstract style that has come to characterize a certain strain of Yolngu painting. Stripped of the usual representative iconography of the creatures associated with these stories (Gany’tjurr the reef heron, Baypinga the saratoga, Baraltja the serpent), the works employ instead geometric clan designs to present the essential law of the Yirritja. This is a revolutionary change in Yolngu painting, as purely geometric designs were formerly limited to use in ceremony and generally had a restricted audience. I confess to ignorance in truly understanding the implications of this change but I must assume that in some way these designs are public and differ from sacred paintings in an essential manner.

The painting below is by Waturr Gumana, son of the Dhalwangu lawman Gawirrin, the most senior man at Gangan and (I believe) the only surviving painter who participated in the creation of the Yirrkala Church Panels in 1962-63. I produce it as an exemplar of new work from Gangan in part because of its complexity and in part because when, about two years ago, I asked Will Stubbs to look into the near future of Yolngu painting, this is the painting that he chose as his example. Much of what I have to say is based on Will’s documentation; I have made some additional inferences about certain elements of the design from annotations in the book Saltwater: Yirrkala bark paintings of sea country(Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre, 1999). As the disclaimer always says, the mistakes are mine, and I await corrections.

Waturr Gumana, Dhalwangu Law, 165×63 cm, 2004

The central, strong vertical element in this painting, occupying the middle ground almost to the bottom of the bark, represents the flow of the sacred waters of Gangan from the area at Gulutji, whence Barama emerged to deliver the Yirritja law, down to the saltwaters of Blue Mud Bay, which are represented by the broad band of zigzag lines stretching the width of the piece. It is through this area, geographically, that the fresh and salt waters ebb and flow with the seasons.

Top to bottom, the painting can be divided roughly into three horizontal sections. The first comprises the diamond and oval/diamond patterns that occupy roughly the top half of the piece. The second is dominated by the vertical and horizontal bands alternating at right angles at the mid-section (with a set of diamond patterns in the right in one section). The third, of course, is the broad swatch of wavy lines at the bottom representing Blue Mud Bay. 

I want to look at each of these sections and try to explicate some of the designs within them and the references that lie behind them.

First section:


The uppermost of these three sections is itself divided into four horizontal parts, two of which are reproduced in the detail immediately above. The topmost of these contains a diamond pattern, with each row of diamonds separated from the next by a strong, straight line. This represents Buyku, or “fishtrap,” land that is shared by all the people who live along the river. The design is drawn from that of the fishtrap, made from strong, wooden stakes (the straight lines) and latticed strips of paperbark. The great hunter of Yirritja lore, Gany’tjurr (the reef heron) stalks Baypinga (the saratoga) from the waters of Gangan much as the Yirritja people take fish from the river with their traps.

The diamonds of the next part of the painting are the classic Dhalwangu clan design. Each of the Yolngu clans has a characteristic clan design used in its sacred paintings. In general, Yirritja designs are formed of diamonds and elongated ovals, while Dhuwa designs are more rectilinear.

This classic representation of the Dhalwangu marks Gulutji, the freshwater area near Gangan where Barama emerged. It thus serves to identify the Dhalwangu with the origin of Yirritja law. To either side of this diamond pattern are rows of black, wavy lines. Similar wavy lines run vertically from this point in the painting down to the bottom edge of the first major section. In many paintings where Barama is figuratively depicted, these wavy lines stream down from his arms. They represent ngurrutj, the weed that clings to him as he rises from the waterhole at Gangan. 


The third and fourth parts (above) are composed of a design that combines diamonds and ovals. The lower left hand section shown in this detail is slightly different in that the design ends on one side not with a closed diamond but with an open half-oval. I have to admit I am puzzled by this slight variation, and its significance is not clear to me. The rest of the patterns shown here, though, are often associated with Baraltja, the sacred flood plain that empties into Blue Mud Bay. 

Baraltja is the home of Burrut’tji, the lightning snake (also known as Mundukul). When the rains of the wet season begin to fall they drain toward the sea, pushing nutrients ahead of them on which Baraltja feeds, and clearing out the brackish water that has built up during the Dry. When Baraltja senses this change in the water, he rises up on his tail and spits lightning into the sky, bringing on the great monsoonal storms. The freshwaters then push out and mix with the salt of the bay.

Second section:

The pattern changes radically in this section, to the squared off designs typical of Dhuwa clans, and indeed the area where the floodplain of Baraltja flows out into the Bay is Dhuwa Djarrwark country. The Djarrwark clan is in the important yothu yindi (mother-child) relation to the Dhalwangu. The diagonal cross-hatch patterns within the overall design, though, indicate Yirritja presence, or as Waturr says, “we can easily mix it.” As the mixing of salt and fresh water begins, it is mirrored here in a mixture of styles associated with both Dhuwa and Yirritja clans.

On the right hand side of this section, the Dhalwangu diamonds appear again. In this location they are associated with the design for Yirritja honey; the diamonds here represent the latticework of the bee’s honeycomb. The place referenced is known as Dhulanmirriwuy, which belongs to the Manatja “arm” of the Dhalwangu. The sweetness of the honey is itself a metaphor for the sweetness of freshwater springs that often bubble up from the sand on saltwater beaches. This in turn reminds us of the freshwater plume that the wet season carries out into the salty waters of the bay.

In the center of the painting now a series of horizontal ellipses refer to motu, which is a build-up of mangrove leaves in the creek. Below, another set of irregular red and yellow ochre designs, aligned vertically with the flow of the freshwater out of the creek, resembles the Mardarrpa clan design for mangrove leaves. The Mardarrpa clan stands in relation to the Dhalwangu of mari-gutharra (mother’s mother/daughter’s child), the most significant and vital of relationships between Yolngu clans. Their lands lie east of the creek but within the flood plain; when the wet season rains come the river overflows its boundaries and inundates these Mardarrpa plains.

The horizontal bands that stretch across the painting (and frame the honeycomb design above and below) also reference sandbars which occur at the mouth of the mangrove creek of Baraltja. This sandbar, known as balin or barala, is another manifestation of Burrut’tji, the lightning snake. 

Third section:

The zigzag design on this final section of the painting represents Garraparra, the Dhlanwangu saltwater blown into waves. Farther out these waters are known as Mungurru, which is Yirritja saltwater belonging to all clans. I don’t know if the symmetry is intentional, but the design at the very top of the painting represents land which belongs to all the clans. It is here that the freshwater ends its journey. It mingles with the salt, evaporates, and gathers into the wet season storm clouds that will eventually shower the land again with life-sustaining rains. The cycle is completed through the unification and transformation of opposites.

Other representations:
The forthcoming exhibition of Dhalwangu painters at Raft aims to present the various ways in which these artists present and interpret the stories associated with the waters of Gangan. For illustration, I am including two other works, larrakitj or funeral poles, painted by Nawuprapu Wunungmurra (top) and his sister Djirrirra (bottom), who are children of Yanggarriny. For easier comparison of the two, I’ve rotated the images by 90 degrees.

Nawurapu Wunungmurra, Dhalwangu Gapa, 152×11 cm, 2003


Djirrirra Wunungmuura, Dhalwangu Larrakitj, 173×15 cm, 2005

The pole by Nawurapu uses the design of motu, the mangrove leaves; the diamond pattern in the center representing fresh water mixing with salt (the oval shapes), calledgapuwiyak; and the zigzag of the salt water of the bay (garraparra). The more complex designs of Djirrirra’s pole recombine all of the elements found in Waturr’s bark painting, with slight variations and accommodations made to the three-dimensional structure of the larrakitj.

The journey of the freshwater down the creek from Gulutji to the sea, from fresh to salt, from liquid evaporating into clouds that will in return send fresh water back to the country, is a metaphor for the journey of the soul or spirit of man. The confluence of salt and fresh, the traversing of Yirritja and Dhuwa country with its connotations here of theyothu yindi relationship, all are central to Yolngu philosophy. When I explore these paintings, I am already reminded of the lesson Deborah Bird Rose described in Dingo Makes Us Human (Cambridge, 2000) learned from the Yarralin on the western coast of the Top End. Differences in life are a given. It is the Dreaming that forges the connections between them.

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1 Response to New Art from Yirrkala: Painting the Waters of Gangan

  1. Pingback: The Art Awards, 2012 | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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