The fire is inextinguishable.
One story tells how Baru, the ancestral crocodile man, was camped in a bark hut with his wife, the blue-tongued lizard. She was cooking snails over the fire, but after an argument, she dropped the over-heated shells onto Baru’s back. He roared out in pain as the shells burned a diamond-shaped pattern into his back.
In another version of the domestic disturbance, Baru wouldn’t allow his wife to sleep in the hut with him, and in retaliation, she threw coals from the fire onto the hut, which collapsed on the sleeping Baru. Once again, the fire burned his back, scarring diamonds into it. In his agony, Baru dove into the sea, the fire still burning on his back. That fire still burns under the sea, beneath a sacred rock.
It was from this place that fire spread, later on, across Madarrpa lands, its path uniting the Yirritja moieties through whose country it swept.
The diamond patterns of the Gumatj fire designs unite the image of the crocodile’s back with the essence of fire: the red coals, the white ash, the black charcoal residue, the yellow sparks and flames that flicker through the air. Blood, bones, skin, and fat.
Fire destroys and fire cleanses. In the wake of a burn, new shoots of vegetation spring up. Like fire, life itself in inextinguishable. My friend Will Stubbs wrote this:
The Gumatj clan sacred design … is gurtha or fire. But not just any fire. This is a Fire of supernatural intensity. So powerful that it transforms the land it touched for all time. Its identity is etched into every atom of Gumatj land it spread to, or was carried to. More accurately, the identity of the land holds the memory of The Fire….
This design is sacred because it reveals a hidden secret.
After all the trees have grown back and the living witnesses have died there will be no outward sign of such a cataclysm. But long after that the land still remembers; its DNA permanently altered. The incomprehensible power of that fire is burnt into the land forever though all else is healed. It is important to remember.
Fire is also domesticity and the hearth, light, warmth, cooked food, security. The flaming tongues are a language of creativity and truth and the sparks are offspring and generative. But this design keeps alight the memory of that unimaginable fire to dwarf all other fires.
We know, too, that fire burns in the sky, in the stars of the Milky Way, in the camps of the souls of those who have died.
It has been little more than six months since Djotarra, the great painter of stars, died. Now her classificatory sister, our generation’s great painter of fire, of stories she inherited from her father Munggurrawuy, a woman of “fiery spirit and warm crackling laugh,” has succumbed.
She lived her entire life at Yirrkala. She was an athletic young woman, a netball champion. She was a nurse, trained at the Yirrkala Clinic. Many years after the clinic closed, the spot became the home of the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre, and it was there, in 1996, that she took up work as a printmaker. Five years ago, she took up brush and bark, and a year later, with her sister Nyapanyapa, took up residence in the courtyard of the art centre where they began to produce masterpieces in earnest. During the Garma Festival in 2009, the Centre hung a “Room of Fire” in the adjacent display space. A year later, her fire ignited the desert in a show at Raft Artspace. Her work has been included in the NATSIAA and in the Togart exhibitions in Darwin.
Now the fire has swept on. Ars longa, vita brevis. As Will said, “A fire is not made to produce ash, but to burn.