Conversations with Terry Yumbulul

We’ve been gone to Virginia again this week, to hear a pair of lectures at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection. The first was entitled “What is Contemporary about Aboriginal Art?” and was given by Professor Terry E. Smith. Smith is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory at the University of Pittsburgh, and a Visiting Professor in the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Sydney. His talk was presented in conjunction with the ongoing US exhibition of Our Way: Contemporary Aboriginal Art from Lockhart River. I’ll have more to say about this event later this week, including a link to the podcast.

But for now, I want to reflect on the two days I was able to spend at the Kluge-Ruhe in the company of Terry Yumbulul and his wife of thirty years, Clely. For those of you who are unfamiliar with his name, Terry is a Warramiri man from Elcho Island. He has been making art for decades, beginning with paintings on bark, and now working on canvas as well as creating extraordinary sculptures, one of which was entered in the 24th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art awards last August. 

His father was the great Yolngu leader Burramurra, who deserves an essay in his own right. Burramurra was the genius behind the Elcho Island Memorial. The history of the movement that spawned the creation of this signal work of Indigenous art and culture has been told in detail by Ronald Berndt in a classic of anthropological literature entitled An Adjustment Movement in Arnhem Land (Mouton, 1962). 

Briefly, Burramurra, was a charismatic and vastly intelligent man who realized early in life that the only hope for his people was to meet the white men who had come into his country as equals. To this end he learned English, gained an education through the missions established on Elcho, and set out to earn the respect due a man of his dignity and knowledge. Clely told a wonderful story of how Burramurra would meet the weekly mail plane at Galiwin’ku, which brought him seven days’ worth of newspapers (including The Australian). Burramurra would then retire to read them through. He worked as the Island’s premier translator, producing reams of typewritten documents (another whitefella skill he early mastered) in both English and yolngu matha

In the 1950s, Burramurra became convinced that the Yolngu clans of Elcho Island needed to put aside their differences and present a united face to the missionaries if they were to have a chance of retaining their culture. Terry describes his father’s determination in almost Christ-like terms: he proposed that the Yolngu must stop fighting amongst themselves. “We can not keep killing ourselves; you can kill me if you must kill someone.” But better, Terry continued, that the Yolngu offer something of value to the white men to gain respect and autonomy in return.

Two views of the Elcho Island Memorial, 1957

To this end, Burramurra proposed that the clan erect an enormous display of their sacred rangga, the icons that defined their individual clan histories. This was an enormously controversial proposal, as many of the designs that would be revealed when the Elcho Island Memorial was constructed were secret and dangerous, not to be seen by women and children. Burramurra prevailed, however, and gained general if not universal support for his project. Here is Howard Morphy’s telling of the story:

In 1957, after several months of preparation, a set of carved and painted sacred objects, together with some bark paintings, were erected in a public place beside the church. The impact of this memorial is hard to imagine today. Many of the objects displayed had previously been restricted to the secrecy of men’s ceremonial ground. In Yolngu practice and belief only one or two of these objects at a time would have been revealed in the context of clan-based ceremonial performances, and they would never have been seen by women and uninitiated men, on pain of death. And yet here they were, all displayed for public gaze. … The movement had both internal and external objectives. One aim was to modify the form of society by bringing all of the clans together, and to create unity by displaying all of the sacred objects together in public. It was argued by some that the separation of the clans, centred on and symbolized by the sacred objects that they held, made it difficult to create a united front for negotiating with Europeans. …

The memorial was at least as much directed towards European Australians as an internal audience. It was accompanied by a manifesto aimed at the government and the missionaries. The intention was to set up an exchange relation with Europeans: by showing Europeans their most sacred and valuable possessions they hoped to get in return better education, employment, control over access to their lands and more influence in their own affairs. … Some remodeling was an inevitable consequence of colonialism. Aboriginal people had no option but to get their rights recognized in the wider institutional context of the Australian state, to adjust their way of life to living in larger communities and to develop an economy that was adapted to the new circumstances. But if they were to do so in their own terms, the value of their way of life and cultural traditions had to be recognized and the solutions to problems had to be developed from within rather than imposed from outside (Howard Morphy, Aboriginal Art (Phaidon, 1998). pp. 240-241).

This, then, is part of the legacy that Terry Yumbulul has inherited from his ancestors, and that he continues to pursue and fulfill today in his artwork. The example of the Elcho Island Memorial influenced the creation of the Yirrkala Bark Petition less than a decade later: there were close connections between the people at Galiwin’ku and Yirrkala then that persist today. But more significantly, as I spent hours in conversation with Terry over the course of the two days, it became clear to me that he takes very seriously the work of revealing essential truths of Yolngu thought to those of us outside that tradition.

Terry rarely spoke of his father, although at one point we were looking at a picture of Burramurra as a young man and then he became voluble with pride and affection. Clely told of how strong and determined he was, even as an old man in a wheelchair, and how the clans and the government and even the Navy turned out for his funeral, when three days of singing and dancing were joined by formal salutes from guns on the Australian vessels standing ceremony in the waters off the Islands.

Much of our time was spent looking at works of art. As we looked at photographs of paintings and sculptures Terry has completed in recent years, I began to notice something that eluded me at first. Increasingly these days, Terry’s sculptures are adorned with feathers, and feathers, he reminded me, are indices of the sacred. Before our time together was over, I began to feel that in some important ways, Terry is trying to take up his father’s work, and to negotiate the revelation of important knowledge to the non-Indigenous world. As I was retyping the quote from Morphy above, I was struck by how relevant the notion of “adjustment” is to our own times, fifty years after Burramurra’s memorial took shape in the midst of a very different kind of intervention in Aboriginal life on Elcho Island. I suspect that Terry is gathering his feet beneath him to try to deepen our perceptions of the sacredness expressed in Yolngu culture once more. 

Two sculptures, an earlier, unadorned Cuttlefish, and Terry with his 2007 entry into the NATSIAA, the feathered Nguluwadhu

The Kluge-Ruhe holds several important pieces by artists from Elcho, including a major bark by Terry’s father’s brother, Liwukan Bukulatjpi, which curator Margo Smith retrieved from storage for Terry to see. With the bark leaned against the wall of the study room, Terry spoke softly, and in language, identifying the elements of the stories of the flying foxes, the creator whale, and the octopus and cuttlefish that filled the painting’s frame. Clely transcribed his remarks, and afterwards translated them for us. 

Terry with Liwukan Bukulatjpi’s bark painting from the Kluge-Ruhe Collection

I should point out that Terry’s English is excellent and idiomatic. He is quite capable of making subtle and very funny jokes that reveal a nuanced command of his adopted tongue. At other times during our conversations he spoke fluently about the meanings embedded in his own works without recourse to his native tongue, other than to name properly the ancestral beings depicted in them. So listening to him explicate this painting in language gave me the feeling of participating in a liturgy that was too sacred, too meaningful to be entrusted to anything other than the language of its own proper creation.

Terry’s art is painted in an idiom that is unique to him: although it is unmistakably Yolngu art, and identifiably Yirritja work with its taste of Macassan styles blended into the native tradition, it is also graphically quite unlike the work of most other Yolngu painters and sculptors. I tried unsuccessfully to query Terry about this difference, about what set him apart from the graphic tradition one sees in works associated with the artists of Buku-Larrnggay Mulka. I tried to pose the question by asking him to explain the difference between his style of drawing and that of a mainland artist like Gawirrin.

Two creator spirits, two artists: left, Barama by Gawirrin Gumana, right, detail of a portrait of Marrlyalyun by Terry Yumbulul

This exchange was one of the most instructive we had, for two reasons. The first was that I learned first hand how differently he and I could interpret the same words, how different our views of the world–or at least of art–can be. For although I was talking about a style of drawing, Terry responded by educating me about differences in ownership and tradition.

The difference between Terry’s art and Gawirrin’s, he explained, went back to the creators. Gawirrin’s art comes down to him from Barama, the creator being who alone moved upstream, and who is associated with the sacred headwaters of the rivers of Yirritja country. Terry, on the other hand, is a saltwater man whose art often depicts the undersea stories of Marrlyalyun. As he spoke, I began to hear once again the familiar cadences of the Yolngu worldview, the complementary nature of rising and falling, fresh water and salt, river and ocean.

But then a third element came into the story, that of Lany’tjung, the hero who was sent off by Barama to give the Law to Yirritja people, and who is present in the freshwaters of the river, the middle space between headwaters and ocean. And this was the first suggestion of a theme that came to flow through our conversations and that I had not considered before: the importance of a triple vision in Yolngu thought. Dualism and the union of opposites that make the world whole is something that I was familiar with. (These conversations made me realize once again that to think I comprehend anything about the Yolngu view of the world is hubris.) Beyond Dhuwa and Yirritja, fresh and salt, there are important concepts that express themselves in threes, like the river’s headwaters, length, and mouth, and like birth, life, and death.

As we talked on and on, Terry would occasionally lean close to me, look me in the eye, and explain some element in his paintings to me in a hushed voice. Once he had finished speaking, he would fix me once again with his gaze. On a couple of occasions he said, “That is an inside story, just for us two.” What his conversations taught me, without his saying it out loud, is that there are more than just inside and outside stories, sacred and public. There are stories that live between the two, like the river that extends between the source and the ocean, and that indeed a great proportion of what we all know lies in that median realm.

I am not foolish enough to think that I was granted any real inside stories, any important sacred stories. I do feel that I was granted some insights that went deeper than a casual exchange, that I was being taught how to think in a different way about what I was seeing in the artwork, that I was hearing more than the story that might get printed on a certificate. But again, it wasn’t the details, the facts, or the story that was being given to me. I was being exercised, made to look and hear and think in a new manner. I’m struggling to find words to express it, to speak of what lies between sacred and public: if there is wisdom on the one hand and naivete on the other, perhaps I was being offered a middle ground of understanding.

I know that in the evenings when I went back to my hotel room and tried to write up notes from the day’s hours of talking, I came away with very little on the page. The facts I could inscribe were few, and in the end they seemed somehow unimportant in themselves. Terry said that Barama was the water that flowed uphill. I remember that Barama first rose up out of the sea, and then went inland to the springs. I remembered the image of Barama from the Yirrkala Church panels, with zigzag lines representing the seaweed streaming from his chest as he rose up. This concept of “rising” in relation to Barama seems now more important, more essential to the story; it is something that I had not grasped before, and still don’t know that I understand. But this notion of rising does seem to me now to be connected to first origins, to birth, to beginnings. 

So much meaning in Yolngu thought comes to me like the sounds that emerge from the complex ringing of church bells spreading out over the countryside: there are tones or sounds there that come not from the clapper striking the bell but from the confluence of lingering overtones that ring on and on over hills and fields. I find I must resort to metaphor to explain the experience, and I am reminded that metaphor is the vehicle by which Yolngu explain themselves to us, and maybe to one another. 

What stays with me, and astonishes me, is that way that one metaphor turns into another. That Barama, the creator, rises from the sea, yet he is at the source of inland freshwater. That Terry can speak of the river flowing out into the sea, of the salt water overcoming and conquering the fresh water: salt will always subsume the fresh. This simple fact brings to mind a print by Wukun Wanambi that I saw in the 2005 Telstra Awards in which fish are depicted leaping from the current eddying around a large, submerged rock out in the saltwater bay beyond the mouth of the Gurka’wuy River. The fish leap from the turbulence as the soul slips its earthly bounds. 

So in Wukun’s story, the elements of submergence and of saltwater are clearly identified with death. For Terry, the salt water is the origin of life, the domain of Marrlyalyun, his “god of love.” It is in the saltwater of the womb that new life grows, Terry reminded us more than once. Wukun is Marrakulu clan, Dhuwa moiety; Terry is Warramiri clan, Yirritja moiety. Metaphors complement one another, creating a balance in my imaginings. The facts are few, but maybe understanding is beginning to glimmer in the interstices.

Clely Terry
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