Organized by the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection

A Trip to the American Museum of Natural History

When I went across to America, everything was different. Yes, especially in New York. It felt very strange to me, because it was all city, no bush. But then in the museums we saw many bark paintings, which brought my mind back to where my people come from.

Wukun Waṉambi

A bright, sunny day in New York City and everyone is feeling somewhat exhausted after the exhibition launch the previous evening, but work must go on! At 11am we meet Jacklyn Lacey, Curator of African and Pacific Ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and Maia Nuku, Curator of Oceanic Art at the Metropolitan Museum at the 77th Street entrance to AMNH. In her email, Jacklyn had described it as the “canoe” entrance and rightly so: suspended in the foyer is a 63-foot canoe of the Heiltsuk and Haida Nations. Hard not be awed by the sheer scale and beauty of the “Great Canoe.”

Henry Skerritt, Wukun Waṉambi and Margo Smith at AMNH.

Behind the scenes, AMNH is a labyrinth of 19th century hallways, every corner revealing weird and wonderful surprises. Finally we reach the area where Australian materials are held. We are here to look at a series of bark paintings from c.1958, collected at Yirrkala by Professors Ronald and Catherine Berndt on behalf of the AMNH. We are surprised to find that these barks have been flattened and glued onto backing boards. This has led to considerable cracking—and in some instances the glue has discolored the surface of the barks.

After having surveyed literally hundreds of paintings at Kluge-Ruhe and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Wukun has honed his classificatory short-hand. Holding court on spinning office chair, he was presented with each work, before quickly declaring paintings “real” or “tourist” paintings. For the exhibition, Wukun and Yinimala were looking for works that related to the maḏayin miny’tji (sacred clan designs), not necessarily works that expressed the artist’s individual vision:

Yinimala Gumana, Wukun Waṉambi and Kade McDonald at AMNH.

When we went to America and went to museums going drawer to drawer, some of the paintings are real, and some of the paintings are not real—they are just paintings done for tourists. Those designs don’t come from Yolngu manikay (songlines) or Yolngu miny’tji (clan designs). They won’t take your mind back to the water, to tell you how far you can go, or your destiny to follow. I know how to curate the real paintings into an exhibition. Real paintings are not a “once upon a time” story, just made up by the artist. I’m not criticizing other people as artists—but those paintings are just how they see. So when I saw those tourist paintings I didn’t want to include them in the exhibition because they don’t say anything to me. If a balanda (non-Indigenous person) was curating the exhibition, they might have kept them in, but for Yolŋu, it’s a different understanding.

Wukun Waṉambi

Nevertheless, there are many exquisite paintings—particularly from Rirratjingu artists. A number of paintings particularly interest Wukun and Yinimala, most notably a pair of works depicting the tail of a whale. (80.1/ 3765 and 80.1/ 3823). There is some discussion as to which clan this painting belongs to, the consensus being that it is a Warramiri design related to Nanydjaka (Cape Arnhem). Another was an beautifully fine Ngaymil clan painting (80.1/ 3815)—most likely by the artist Larrtjanga Ganambarr. As with previous museum visits, Wukun and Yinimala left inspired by the cultural legacy left by their forebears.

Curating at Kluge-Ruhe

Djambawa Marawili AM returned to Kluge-Ruhe with clan leader Wäka Mununggur and project manager Kade McDonald in September 2017. This visit was a whirlwind of activity in which Djambawa and Wäka formalized the curatorial rationale and checklist for Maḏayin. In establishing the order of works to align with Yolŋu categories and knowledge systems, they mapped out commissions of new bark paintings to address gaps in the representation of Yolŋu knowledge. In addition, they corrected documentation errors about paintings in the Kluge-Ruhe collection. Djambawa and Wäka accomplished this in five days!

Wäka and Djambawa performing manikay for UVA Arts Council at Kluge-Ruhe, 2017. Photo: Coe Sweet.
Djambawa and Wäka arranging Maḏayin artworks according to Yolŋu classification system with Kade McDonald, 2017.

UVA Arts Council was in Charlottesville for their bi-annual meeting and we hosted a reception at Kluge-Ruhe in which Djambawa and Wäka performed manikay (song) next to Nawarapu’s sculptures. We couldn’t have asked for a more receptive audience of arts supporters and enthusiasts and can’t wait to share Maḏayin with them when it comes to The Fralin Museum of Art.

A Most Meaningful Ceremony

When Ambassador Kim Beazley contacted me in 2015 to plan my induction as an honorary Member of the Order of Australia, I realized that by waiting a few months, Djambawa Marawili AM could attend the ceremony. Djambawa was coming to Kluge-Ruhe to undertake an artist residency in November that year. Everything fell into place and we planned a trip to Washington DC as part of Djambawa’s residency. This enabled us to also see the Yolŋu collections at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and visit the National Museum of the American Indian.

Margo Smith, Kade McDonald and Djambawa Marawili examining Yolŋu paintings collected in 1948 at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, 2015.

It was during this residency that Djambawa came up with the idea for the Maḏayin exhibition. He said, “I came to America and found my maḏayin (in the museum collections at Kluge-Ruhe and NMNH) and I want to share it with the world.”

Djambawa Marawili, Barü, 2015, natural pigments on paper, 16 x 16 in., collection of Margo Smith.

The ceremony took place on November 2nd at Ambassador Beazley’s residence. Kluge-Ruhe staff, Advisory Council members, University of Virginia administrators including President Teresa Sullivan, and my family were all present. The investiture involved a formal presentation by the four branches of the Australian military and the Ambassador. But the highlight for me was the ceremony Djambawa conducted with bilma (clapsticks) and manikay (song). He later told me the song was intended to make me a strong leader and enable me to carry forward with the important work of Kluge-Ruhe.

Margo Smith AM and Djambawa Marawili AM during the investiture ceremony, November 2, 2015.

After we returned to Charlottesville, Djambawa presented me with a painting he had been working on secretly during evenings in the Kluge-Ruhe guest cottage. It is a 16 x 16 inch painting in natural ochres on paper depicting Barü, the ancestral crocodile, holding two clapsticks pointing upward. Djambawa’s distinctive Madarrpa clan design emanates from the bilma. When he presented the painting to me, Djambawa explained that Barü was him and the clan design represented his song. “This is me singing for you at your ceremony.” I was speechless. The ceremony is still one of the most memorable occasions of my life and Djambawa’s rendering of it is my most valued possession.

John Wilkerson, Lauren Maupin, Terry Snowball, UVA President Teresa Sullivan, Margo Smith, Ambassador Kim Beazley AC, Djambawa Marawili, Nicole Wade, Fenella Belle, Marc Sobel at investiture, November 2, 2015.

In producing Maḏayin in collaboration with Yolŋu artists and knowledge holders, we intend to realize Djambawa’s vision. This project, with its touring schedule and budget, is Kluge-Ruhe’s most ambitious undertaking to date. Although I have sometimes felt overwhelmed by the responsibility it entails, I have also felt empowered by Djambawa’s song. And we have been fortunate that doors have opened and friends have appeared as if on schedule to keep us moving forward.

A Personal Reflection on the Origins of Maḏayin

Yolŋu readers are respectfully advised that the following publication contains the images and names of people who are deceased.

Yolŋu djorra’ nhänharamirrinha yukurra makmakthunarayu romdhu waŋa dhiyalami djorr’ŋura wuŋiḻi malanha ga yäku yolŋu’yolŋu bäyŋumirri walala.

I had no idea quite how eventful October 2015 would be when I headed out from my home in Pittsburgh for my first visit to the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection. Five months earlier, I had been in Yirrkala undertaking research for my PhD thesis. This had been a particularly eventful trip. Over the past year, I had become good friends with Kade McDonald—the art-coordinator at Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Art Centre—and he had promised me that this trip we would go out bush on a special camping trip.

Noŋgirrŋa Marawili at Baratjala

My research was on one of the senior women at the art centre—Noŋgirrŋa Marawili—who was just emerging as one of the most powerful contemporary painters at the centre. Kade had a close relationship to Noŋgirrŋa. Having been “adopted” by Noŋgirrŋa’s daughter Marrnyula, he refers to Noŋgirrŋa his Ŋändi (mother). It made sense, then, that any camping trip would include this extended family. When we asked Noŋgirrŋa where she might want to go camping, she was resolute: Baratjala! In recent years, this remote bay on the Gulf of Carpentaria had been her persistent muse. She had grown up there with her father, the warrior Munḏukul and his many wives and children. Unfortunately, it was a place rarely visited in recent years. The Rangers told us it would be a difficult trip, warning that recent cyclones meant it might be impossible to access the site. We relayed this information to Noŋgirrŋa: who looked at us sternly. “No,’ she said with the full force of her matriarchal authority. “You boys are taking me to Baratjala.” The story of that trip is one for another time—I wrote about it in a different essay on Noŋgirrŋa, as did Annie Studd, the manager of the Yirrkala Print Studio, who aptly described it as “the best weekend I have had in ages. Maybe EVER.”

This weekend was in the forefront of mind when I drove down to Charlottesville for the opening of Djambawa Marawili’s exhibition where the water moves, where it rests curated by Kimberley Moulton. I had met Djambawa twice before—on an earlier trip to Yirrkala, I’d had the privilege of previewing the works that were heading to Charlottesville while Djambawa patiently tried to explain to me both the profound connection and difference between his works and those of his mukul bapa (father’s sister) Noŋgirrŋa. It is hard to explain what it is like to sit and listen to Djambawa. He speaks slowly, choosing his words with great care, his rich baritone perfectly suited to the profundity of his insights. In thirty minutes in the art centre with Djambawa, I think I learned more about Noŋgirrŋa’s art than I have in the past three years of research. Needless to say, I was extremely excited about the opportunity to recommence this conversation.

Djambawa Marawili and I at the opening reception of his exhibition where the water moves, where it rests at Kluge-Ruhe in 2015.

In Charlottesville, I quickly encountered the hospitality that Kluge-Ruhe is known for. Margo Smith and the staff were so welcoming and made me feel immediately part of the team. On the first day, I was taken to lunch with Djambawa and the team, who were incredibly generous with their time considering that they had an opening that evening! At the end of lunch, Djambawa asked if there were somewhere he could get new shoes—something more formal for his forthcoming visit with Ambassador Kim Beazley. Being at a loose end, I offered to take him shopping. Little did Djambawa know that my knowledge of the Charlottesville area was even less than his! But, off we went!

Exhibition opening of where the water rests, where it moves at Kluge-Ruhe in 2015.

Djambawa is a deep thinker: and the trip to America had clearly set him in a philosophical direction. In the car, he spoke at length about young artists, their emergence as leaders, as well as the shifting dynamics within contemporary women’s paintings. He spoke with particular respect for “those two old ladies” who worked at the art centre—referring to Noŋgirrŋa and Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda—who represented the last generation to experience life before the arrival of missionaries in North East Arnhem Land. But the dominant theme of his conversation was the need for young people to return to their homelands where they could learn the deep and sacred meanings of their country.

When we returned to the museum, Margo Smith had a special surprise waiting for us. It was a binder. A simple, white, three-ringed binder. When we opened it, we could hardly believe our eyes. Inside were pages and pages of photographs documenting the creation of the 1996 John W. Kluge Yirrkala commission. There were images of legends such as Gawirrin Gumana, Djutatjuta Munuŋgurr and Mowarra Ganambarr, but also of the next generation: those young guns who were now the clan leaders, such as Manydjarri Ganambarr, Dhukal Wirrpanda, and of course, Djambawa Marawili.

Djambawa and his father.

Djambawa was visibly moved by the images he found. He poured over them carefully, laughing at images of his peers in their younger days; reflecting on the wisdom he had learned from older men and how he had assisted other artists finishing their commissions. But there was one photo in particular that he lingered on. It showed Djambawa alongside his father Wakuthi. The older man looked tired, his face gaunt—the younger man radiant with youth. But both were clearly proud of the monumental painting they stood before. Nearly 11 feet tall, Djambawa’s painting Maḏarrpa Miny’tji is monumental in every sense of the word. In 1996 it would be awarded the bark painting prize in the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards. But clearly it held a deeper significance to Djambawa. Later, he described it this way:

They gave me that award, to thank me for these beautiful designs. It gave them pleasure to see this work that came from Yolŋu artists, but for me its significance is that these designs were put into our Country by the ancestors and then passed on down to us by our grandfathers and great-grandfathers, so that now we paint them.

Djambawa Marawili AM

In Charlottesville, he told us how his father had sat by his side during the painting of Maḏarrpa Miny’tji—how he had supervised him to ensure it was “proper” and directed him as laid down the designs. For many decades, Wakuthi had been the powerful leader of the Maḏarrpa clan, establishing their homelands at Bäniyala to keep their connection to Country and Law strong. Now he was passing the reins to his son Djambawa.