Last weekend we were back at Dartmouth College to hear Howard Morphy deliver the Montgomery Endowment Lecture as part of the fellowship that has him and his wife, Frances, in residence at the College this semester. He chose as his topic “The Djang’kawu Sisters at Yalangbara: Material Expressions of Ancestral Agency,” and took as his starting point a 1963 bark painting by Wandjuk Marika, Sacred Story (Arrival of the Djang’kawu), that is included in the Hood Museum of Art’s Crossing Cultures exhibition. For an hour Morphy kept a diverse audience rapt as he offered a “thick description” not only of the painting, but of the ceremonies and ritual objects associated with the journey of the Djang’kawu from the eastern isle of Barralku to the shores of Arnhem Land.
The Djang’kawu, for those not familiar with the story, were ancestral beings, two sisters and a brother, who were the progenitors of the peoples of eastern Arnhem Land. The story tells of their journey across the sea to the white-sand dunes of Yalangbara, where they disembarked, created waterholes with their digging sticks, planted those sticks in the sand, whereupon they were transformed into trees, and ultimately where the sisters gave birth to the clans under conical woven mats, and then taught them language and ritual. The Djang’kawu observed the goannas scrambling across the sand dunes in the white light of morning, saw bustards approach the waterholes, and watched birds alight in the branches of the trees. They followed the sun westward, looking back at the end of the day to see the sand dunes bathed in the fiery glow of sunset.
Morphy augmented the imagery of the painting with slides depicting various ritual objects such as dilly bags and ceremonial poles adorned with feathered string, and with crayon drawings created in 1947 by artists like Mawalan Marika (Wandjuk’s father) and collected by Ronald Berndt. (Many of these artworks and objects were part of the exhibition and catalog from the National Museum of Australia’s Yalangbara: art of the Djang’kawu, organized by Wandjuk’s sister Banduk and Margie West in 2008.) The presentation was further enhanced by excerpts from Ian Dunlop’s In Memory of Mawalan (1983), which was filmed in 1971 as part of the Yirrkala Film Project and from In Gentle Hands (2008), filmed by Morphy himself with the collaboration of Pip Deveson, who was Dunlop’s editor.
Morphy’s talk was a wonderful exercise in elucidating the Yolngu sense of correspondences that informs thought and practice in their world. He demonstrated how the imagery of the painting was an expression of observed features of the natural world, and how that imagery found expression in ritual movement, in song, in body painting and how, in each of these cases, these correspondences enrich Yolngu understanding and promote the cohesion of culture. They are tools for internal use by Yolngu; they are equally the important means by which Yolngu strive to make their worldview comprehensible to outsiders, to the balanda governments and missionaries who have come to occupy eastern Arnhem Land along with them.
There is no way that I can do justice to the complexities Morphy elucidated in the short space of this post, but perhaps I can impart some of the flavor of them by borrowing the device of looking at some of the details of Wandjuk’s painting.
There are a few obvious representational elements in the painting: the goannas in the top half, the bustards at the lower left, the digging-stick-cum-tree in the bottom center, and the image of the sun with its emanating rays to the right. There is also a great deal of patterning in the painting: the perpendicular lines of sacred designs, miny’tji, that form much of the background, for example, and the zigzag line that bisects the upper half of the painting. The latter is a schematized representation of the tracks of the goannas in the white sand dunes of Yalangbara, and although they are not discernible in this reproduction, at each bend of the zigzag tiny white hashmarks depict the clawprints of the goannas.
The perpendicular patternings of cross-hatching in the miny’tji in themselves represent the sand dunes. The changes in color–red, white, and black–suggest the changing colors of the dunes as the sunlight passes over them in the course of the day. The brilliance and shimmer of the patterns capture something of the brilliance of the sun on the dunes, but also suggest the potency of ancestral power, its own brilliance (bir’yun) that Morphy has elaborated on elsewhere, including in his article “From Dull to Brilliant: The Aesthetics of Spiritual Power Among the Yolngu” (Man, n.s. 24 (1), 1989) and his monograph Ancestral Connections: art and an Aboriginal system of knowledge (Chicago, 1991).
The digging stick calls forth a host of associations. It recalls the oars by which the Djang’kawu paddled their canoe across the sea to Yalangbara. Its agency brought forth the water on the dunes, water being the essential component of life and the most powerful symbol in the Yolngu imaginary. It is the tree, with its branches, that grew up around the waterholes and attracted birds to the dunes. The branches resemble the feathered strings that adorn sacred objects and the bodies of ceremonial participants and whose colors recall the light of the sun on the dunes. The rounded cap of the digging stick recalls the shape of the conical mats under which the Djang’kawu Sisters gave birth to the first Yolngu. And the digging stick (the word in Yonlgu-matha is mawalan) is a symbol of authority and law for the Rirratjingu clan to which Wandjuk and his father Mawalan belonged; the stick in the illustration here was made by Wandjuk and presented in 1977 to the Australian government’s Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in a ceremony marking the passing of the Land Rights Act (NT) 1976. Thus this symbol of the original occupation of the land by the Djang’kawu and their descendants resonates with the string of artistic achievements, including the Yirrkala Church Panels in 1962 and the Bark Petition sent to Parliament the following year, through which Yolngu demonstrated, ultimately successfully, their rights in land that emanate from the shores of Yalangbara. (The mawalan, currently on tour as part of the Yalangbara exhibition, normally resides now in Parliament House.)
The image of the sun evokes the journey of the Djang’kawu to Yalangbara and subsequently across the Yolngu homelands of eastern Arnhem Land. The red disk also evokes the waterholes created by the Djang’kawu, the radiating lines perhaps suggesting the paths of animals who come to drink there. It also can represent the conical birth-mats that the Sisters used. Finally, in the very bottom-right corner, all representational images are eliminated, and only the sacred miny’tji remains. In this we can see another characteristic of Yolngu art and thought: the oscillation between representation and abstraction, between revealing and concealing. Other metaphorical structures in Yolngu society, such as the relationship between saltwater and fresh, reflect this tension, this structuring of experience into complementary and necessary opposites.
Throughout his talk, Morphy used the imagery of Wandjuk’s painting as an anchor point from which he launched sorties into other “material expressions of ancestral agency,” including the objects illustrated above. The clip he showed from In Memory of Mawalan included footage of Wandjuk leading men in a circle around a group of women who were initially crouching on the sand, hidden under blankets. As the men mimicked the prising motions of the Djang’kawu with their digging sticks, the women emerged from beneath the blankets; the movements of the dancers echoed not only the creation of waterholes at Yalangbara but also the first people emerging from under the birthing mats. In the selection from In Gentle Hands, we saw young boys having clan designs painted on their chests in an early stage of the circumcision ritual. Once the paintings were complete, as they lay still on the ground, older male relatives seized the boys’ shoulders and rotated them back and forth, causing their torsos to move in a manner evocative of the walking movements of the Djang’kawu themselves.
And while the purposes of the rituals captured in these films might easily be classified as traditional–funerary and initiatory–Morphy also showed us how the elements of these songs and dances are adapted to more contemporary uses. He shared extensive photographic documentation of the ceremony held in Darwin to launch the catalog for Yalangbara: art of the Djang’kawu (which somewhat unusually preceded the opening of the exhibition itself). In these photographs men adorned with orange feathered-string ornaments, painted with symbols representing the bustards seen by the Djang’kawu at Yalangbara and gesturing with their hands in mimcry of the motion of the bustards’ beaks danced in honor of the ancestral beings on the verandah of the old Darwin courthouse.
In the end, Morphy’s talk was, for me, alchemical and magical. I knew Wandjuk’s painting; I’ve watched Ian Dunlop’s films; I was lucky enough to see the Yalangbara exhibition in its closing days at the National Museum of Australia last year (it’s now at the Western Australia Museum in Perth, through November 4). But Morphy took all those elements and wove a tight skein from them that in its very richness captured, reflected, and embodied the complexity of Yolngu vision. It was as much a demonstration as an explication of interconnectedness. I suspect that many who left the lecture hall and returned to the exhibition upstairs viewed not only the Wandjuk painting but all the many works on display in Crossing Cultures with a new appreciation for the significance of contemporary Australian Aboriginal art and for the depth of meaning encoded in those brilliant artworks.