The National Museum of Australia has been achieving remarkable successes with one extraordinary exhibition of Indigenous art and history after another; and I say “art and history” deliberately, for these shows, Papunya Painting: Out of the Desert, Yiwarra Kuju: the Canning Stock Route, and now Yalangbara: art of the Djang’kawu are not simply presentations of masterpieces of Aboriginal painting and sculpture. Each, in its own way, focused on different parts of the country, has illuminated a story of Indigenous life on the great southern continent. Papunya Painting chronicled the rise of the great Indigenous art movement that has transformed perceptions of Aboriginal culture. Yiwarra Kuju explored the legacy of contact and the differing ways Australians of dissimilar backgrounds conceptualize their country. Yalangbara is nothing less than a creation story, but it is also the history of one of the most influential families in contemporary Australia society, the great Marika clan that launched a land rights revolution whose profound impact reshaped Indigenous-settler relations in the late twentieth century.
It is perhaps fitting that telling of so significant an investigation of aesthetic, cultural, and historical matters sprang from multiple sources and that its gestation has spanned two decades. Banduk Marika, one of the founders of Boomalli Artists, began thinking about this project shortly after the death of her brother, the great painter Wandjuk, in 1987. The Marika clan, who were the principal plaintiffs in the Gove Land Rights case two decades before that, are the traditional owners of the country known as Yalangbara (Port Bradshaw) on the eastern coast of Arnhem Land. It was there that the Djang’kawu, two sisters and a brother, first stepped ashore and began their journeys of creation, and for that reason Banduk Marika sought to have the coastline there listed on the National Estate Register. Although Yalangbara, as a sacred site, was already under the protection of the Northern Land Council and the Northern Territory Aboriginal Protection Authority, Marika wanted further assurance that this fountainhead of Yolngu existence would be preserved from the threat of an expansion of the mining at nearby Nhulunbuy that had already toppled the supposed sanctity of the Arnhem Land Reserve.
The art of the Yolngu has long stood as a declaration of rights in land. The Yirrkala Church Panels and the Bark Petition from 1962 and 1963 were created in response to the first intimations of the threat to Yolngu land; their imagery testified to traditional ownership. With the 1971 ruling that Aboriginal Law had no status in Commonwealth affairs of state, many clans retreated from the mission at Yirrkala to traditional homelands. They re-occupied their country to prevent it being annexed and supported themselves through the sale of artwork. The creation of that artwork was also the means of insuring the transmission of traditional knowledge. The urgency of doing so led to revolutions in artistic practice, including teaching of women to paint. This change enabled the artistic careers of Banduk Marika and others (including her sister Dhuwarrwarr, Gulumbu Yunupingu, and Naminapu Maymuru-White).
The research for the Australian Heritage Commission listing that Banduk undertook led to an examination of the holdings of Australian museums for the numerous works of art by members of the Marika family that are presented in Yalangbara. In a somewhat unusual move, the documentation and essays relating to this art were published by Charles Darwin University Press in 2008, well in advance of the opening of the exhibition at the NMA.
Like the catalogs for the earlier NMA shows, Yalangbara: art of the Djang’kawu is a triumph of scholarship. It provides a wealth of information about the art, the artists, the countryside, and the underlying, essential stories. The essays are by numerous hands, all of them masters at the interpretation of Yolngu culture for external audiences: Jennifer Isaacs, Geoffrey Bagshaw, Howard Morphy, John E. Stanton, and Margie West, along with contributions by Mawalan 1 and Banduk Marika.
Mawalan tells the story of the journey of the Djang’kawu from the island of Burralku westward to the shore at Yalangbara where the great work of creation began, and onwards over the peninsula, across Lalawuy Bay and through the further reaches of Dhuwa country. He narrates the sea-journey and describes the creatures they encountered on the way to the sacred shore. Upon landing on the blinding white sands of Yalangabara, glowing in the first rays of sunrise, the Djang’kawu saw goannas and bustards among the sand dunes: the marks of the goannas are preserved forever in the miny’tji (designs) of Rirratjingu clan paintings. The sacred digging sticks of the sisters created freshwater wells on the coast and were transformed into the casuarina trees that still stand on the beaches. The elder sister gave birth among the dunes to the first people. Crossing to Wapilina Island, the Djang’kawu encountered white people–Macassans–and sent them away. They saw a great black thundercloud in the sky to the west and followed it, continuing on their journey.
These bare outlines are retold again and again through commentaries on the scores of paintings that are reproduced in the catalog. In the retelling, countless details of the story emerge: the distinctions between the eastern and western coasts of the peninsula, the transformations of various objects (including the canoe that brought the Djang’kawu across the sea) into features of the landscape, the naming of birds and animals, the creation of wells, and the planting of ceremonial digging sticks that denote the ownership of the country. These multiple narrations offer a tantalizing glimpse of the richness and complexity not just of the creation stories themselves but of the connections of the Yolngu to their land.
The vast bulk of the artworks included in the exhibition are bark paintings whose creation spans nearly a century, from the earliest works in the 1930s to the present. There are small, simple works that tell a single incident and towering three-meter barks that encompass numerous episodes of the journey. The masterpieces on bark are but a part of the glories on display: there are elaborately carved and feather-bedecked sculptures like those shown above, mortuary poles emblazoned with clan designs, and prints, especially Banduk Marika’s elegant creations.
Beyond these customary and familiar expression of Yolngu artistry, an entire chapter is given over to the crayon drawings on brown paper produced at Yirrkala for Ronald and Catherine Berndt in 1947. The Berndts had assembled a collection of 219 paintings on bark, but fearful of damage that might occur during transport from Yirrkala, they convinced a number of artists to set down the stories in a palette of ochre-colored crayons, supplemented with vivid greens and blues. These drawings are now held at the Berndt Museum of Anthropology in Perth. In recent years, high-quality digital images of the drawings have been produced and transferred to the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre. There they have inspired a new generation of prints by contemporary Yolngu artists that were first displayed during the 2008 Darwin Festival.
Margie West’s chapter, “The sanctity of ordinary objects: material items of the Djang’kawu,” is a fine and rare examination of beautiful ceremonial items associated with the Djang’kawu, including headbands, armbands, decorated dilly bags, and conical mats. Of special interest, given the historical connection to land rights and claims, is Wandjuk Marika’s Yalangabara Digging Stick of the Djang’kawu, which has its permanent home in the Parliament’s House of Representatives. The catalog entry for this object reads in part
This digging stick represents the greater Yalangbara area. As a symbol of Rirratjingu law and authority, the mawalan is similar to the parliamentary rod. In recognition of this, the mawalan is displayed in Parliament House, Canberra, next to the Yirrkala Bark Petition which is regarded as a major symbol of Indigenous law.
The Gove Land Rights dispute, and by extension the Marika clan, ushered in a new era of relations between the Australian state and the Indigenous population. Justice Woodward’s 1971 decision in Milirrpum [Marika] v Nabalco may have crushed the Rirratjingu’s desire to retain their homeland whole and unsullied, but it also laid the foundation for the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act of 1976 that transformed modern legal practice with regard to Aboriginal people. It made possible the installation, however symbolic, of the mawalan in Parliament.
The catalog essays for Yalangbara: art of the Djang’kawu conclude with a brief summation of another important legal decision, Milpirrurru and Others v Indofurn that, in the 1994, established intellectual property rights in Indigenous designs. Known colloquially as the “Counterfeit Carpet Case,” the action was initiated by several Indigenous artists, including Banduk Marika, whose artwork had been copied and marketed in the form of woven rugs. The courts found for the artists and awarded $188,000 in damages for the unauthorized reproduction of their work.
The essays are followed by extensive biographical notes about members of the Marika clan whose activism and artworks are chronicled in the catalog. Another delightful appendix offers photographs of many of the locations near Yalangbara that feature in the Djang’kawu story. A glossary and an excellent short bibliography round out the contributions.
Yalangbara: art of the Djang’kawu will be at the National Museum of Australia through August 11, 2011. The excellent 208-page catalog is available directly from CDU press.
Update: Check out the Facebook page for the CDU Press. Apart from it being an easy way to keep up to date on their fine series of publications, including a new 25th anniversary retrospective of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, they posted a very sweet link to my review (here) of Yalangbara.