Each year during the Darwin Festival/NATSIAA celebrations, Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre takes over a portion of the Botanic Gardens, paints the palm tree trunks white, and installs a print gallery by hanging lights and framed examples of graphic work from Yirrkala. It’s a busy site all day long, and at night it has a special, spectral quality that attracts viewers who might not otherwise be enticed to spend time with exotic Indigenous art. The effect has been heightened by the addition of a stand of larrakitj, painted ceremonial funeral poles, planted in a small island of sand carried in from the beaches of Arnhem Land.
The Galuku Gallery, as it’s known (galuku means “coconut”), is a work in progress, changing from year to year and inspiring variations in other locations where Buku-Larrnggay Mulka exhibits. The larrakitj display, for example, was first attempted at Garma and later included in the 2006 Sydney Biennale when large poles by Djambawa Marawili were erected on the Wharf. The print gallery has also long been a feature at Garma as well. This year a number of innovations came together in Darwin.
Of late, one of the driving forces of transformation for Yolngu centered around Yirrkala has been the Mulka Project, a “Yolngu multimedia archive and production centre” that was launched a year ago in August of 2007. In its short existence the Project has undertaken an astonishing number of initiatives. For instance, it has been instrumental in making available the entire Yirrkala Film Project on DVD for the first time. These 22 films, filmed and released over a period of two decades in the wake of the High Court’s decision to allow the opening the bauxite mine at Nhulunbuy, are a record of both Yolngu culture and its encounter with modernization whose importance is impossible to underestimate. The films document funeral ceremonies and circumcision rituals; the making of bark canoes; the shift of the Yolngu people to living in outstations like Djarrakpi; but also to working in mines and laundries or drinking in Nhulunbuy hotels. Insuring the continued availability of these films would be reason enough to have called the Mulka Project into existence.
But the aims of the Project are broader. Although such DVDs become a way of passing down culture to a younger generation, they are also a vehicle for more fully documenting what has already been captured. The elderly people in Yirrkala today would have been among the younger generation captured on film in the 1970s and 1980s, and now they are being enlisted to identify people and clan relations in the earlier films, to translate dialogue that escaped subtitling on production.
At the same time, the Mulka Project is producing new films that document contemporary Yolngu culture in surprising ways. The most famous of these films right now is, of course, Gatapangwuy Dhawu [Buffalo Story], which formed the video portion of Nyapanyapa Yunupingu’s prize-winning “Incident at Mutpi” at this year’s Art Awards.
The most ambitious film to date is Two Brothers at Galarra, a re-enactment of a story from the middle of the twentieth century. In 1952, the anthropologist Richard Waterman recorded a song that told of one brother spearing another over a woman. That song, and a modern iteration of it, are the basis of Two Brothers at Galarra. A trailer for the film can be seen on the Mulka Project Channel on YouTube, where a total of seventeen short films are available as of today, with more being added on a regular basis.
Both of these films, and nine others, are available on a DVD, Nhama!: Short Films from Yirrkala Northeast Arnhem Land: volume 1, 2008 [Nhama = look].
Still another project the Mulka Centre has undertaken (and here I turn back towards the Galuku Gardens this year) has been the digital recording of an important archive of Yolngu art, also dating from the 1940s, that has largely been languishing unseen for half a century. This trove consists of 365 crayon drawings collected by Ronald and Catherine Berndt and stored in the Berndt Museum of Anthropology at the University of Western Australia.
The drawings were begun to provide documentation for a collection of 216 bark paintings made for the Berndts in 1946-47. Fearful that the paintings themselves might not survive the trip from eastern Arnhem Land to Darwin, Berndt provided the artists with crayons and sheets of brown paper measuring roughly 115 x 75 cms and asked them to make copies. The drawing project was a huge success and generated enormous enthusiasm, resulting in an additional 150 artworks. Not only are many names familiar to connoisseurs of bark painting represented in the collection (Narritjin, Mawalan, Mungurrawuy) but Yolngu legends like Wonggu, the elder with whom Donald Thomson negotiated after the Caledon Bay killings, find a place in this treasury. Berndt scrupulously documented the stories behind these paintings, and tiny penciled numerals dot the surfaces of the drawings, providing keys to extensive notes.
It took over 40 years for the Berndts to begin transferring these drawings to the University of Western Australia, and as a result that have been barely published and almost never seen. There were small exhibitions prior to 1960; since then the major opportunity to see these works occurred in 1995 when 18 of the crayon drawings were selected for inclusion in an exhibition organized by Gillian Hutcherson. The excellent catalog from that exhibition, Djalkiri Wanga: the land is my foundation: 50 years of Aboriginal art from Yirrkala, Northeast Arnhem Land (University of Western Australia, Berndt Museum of Anthropology, Occasional Paper No. 4, 1995) is becoming hard to find and expensive, but is widely available in Australia and North American libraries.
The Mulka Project recently completed the enormous task of digital photography for all 365 drawings, and have taken their files back to Yirrkala for study and processing. At Garma this year, Buku-Larrnggay Mulka reproduced 100 of these drawings, at full size, on boards. These reproductions were then mounted on trees along the escarpment at the Garma Festival. Reportedly, the effect was a stunner.
Will Stubbs has likened these crayon drawings to the earliest Papunya boards, and wonders about an alternative history of contemporary Indigenous art that might have unfolded had the originals been offered up for sale rather than secreted in a scholarly archive for nearly half a century. Based on the reproductions that I saw in Darwin–too few, indeed–and those in Djalkiri Wanga, I think Will is right to position these as startling, seminal documents in the history of Aboriginal art, even if their influence is only now beginning to be felt.
For thanks to the work of the Mulka Project, these 365 works are once again available to the Yolngu, and they are indeed astonishing works. In place of the fine shimmer of cross-hatched designs, bold colors dominate in bright bands. Red, yellow and blue predominate, with astonishing greens introduced in many of the early works. Iconography among them extends from traditional, geometric clan design to mythic mapmaking in an almost Western idiom. In this way, the crayon works presage the Saltwater collection, and they offer more possibilities for inspiration.
The prints shown in the Galuku Gallery during the Darwin Festival this year represent the first response to that challenge to invent. The artists of Buku-Larrnggay Mulka, from senior men like Gawirrin Gumana and women like Dhuwarrwarr Marika on down to the youngest printmakers, have taken up the colors of the Berndt drawings, have explored narratives and the mapped their country; in short, they have tried their hands at new styles of art that are surprising even by the standards of imagination that one has come to expect from the artists of Yirrkala.
In the photographs shown at left, a new print by Dhuwarrwarr Marika sports a sea of green. The digital reproduction on the right is of the Myth-map of Dhambaliya drawn in 1947 by her father Mawalan. The psychedelic riot of design in the center of the drawing depicts a number of Dhuwa stories associated with the island of Dhambaliya near Yirrkala. The vivid red frame shows the shores of the island itself and the mainland coast, lined with trees; the swirling middle tells sea-stories of a turtle hunt and fighting snakes. I find I can’t stop thinking about that alternate history of Aboriginal art that Will Stubbs suggested, and wondering what happens now that these works are in circulation once again.
The art of the Yolngu continues to astonish me. They exploit the present moment to discover, even more to resurrect the past, to bring old media into play with new media. And then, not content to simply refresh, they re-invent. From the narratives of decades past comes a new wave of cinema, and from the era of missions emerges new art to aver the vitality of a culture that many would like to see as in a state of inevitable collapse. Country is a ceaseless source of inspiration, art renewing land and land renewing art. Or as T. S. Eliot would have it (East Coker, 1940):
Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living.
… In my end is my beginning.