Organized by the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection

Wukun on Milkarri

Throughout the process of curating Maḏayin, the Yolŋu curators have constantly stressed that every painting has an accompanying manikay (song). These ceremonial song cycles are associated with men, but the women have their own distinctive songs known as milkarri. Here curator Wukun Waṉambi discusses milkarri and how the songlines connect Yolŋu people to Country.

All our song cycles—whether Dhuwa or Yirritja–start from the horizon in the deep sea. Men have manikay, the song cycles which name all the places in our country. Women don’t sing manikay but they cry milkari, which are keening songs. They’re very touching to hear. What I’m saying is that miyalk (women) understand the cycle of the manikay and can feel the spirit moving to his or her destiny, which is their country. We don’t see the spirit but the spirit’s home is stable: it is the spirit’s resting place where it finds peace and quiet. So, when we sing the country, we feel present in the country as we cycle through the songlines for each place.

First, we sing the songs of the deep sea, then we come up onto the shore to sing the song cycles of the inland areas. It is very important for Yolŋu to learn about women’s keening songs, it follows Yolŋu bones on their sacred journey home, telling the place in their own country where their body returns to. That women’s singing is important. We should be encouraging all the young women to learn those songs for ceremonies of the Dhuwa and Yirritja.

Many Monsoonal Rains of Yolŋu Bark Painting

Back in 2015, when Djambawa Marawili first said he wanted an exhibition that told “the whole story of Yolŋu bark painting” it immediately forced us to think about the question of time. What kind of timeline do you need to tell this “whole story”?

On the one hand, the answer to this question is easy. As co-curator Wukuṉ Waṉambi notes in the exhibition catalog, “All the stories start with Djan’kawu and Barama. That is where the story really begins.” From the onset, Waṉambi and the other Yolŋu curators of the exhibition knew they did not want the exhibition to be arranged chronologically. Wukuṉ noted, “Whether I see an old painting or a new one, it’s no different. The pathway is the same. The songline. The pattern. The story. The place. The wäŋa (homeland)— the place where it came from. It’s all the same.”

At the same time, Wukuṉ and Djambawa knew that that they wanted to show the history of bark painting and the legacy left by previous generations of artists. This was clearly part of the responsibility that Wukuṉ saw in his role as curator. Speaking of the knowledge held in the old paintings, he said: “It is what our old people have given us. And here we are, we came [to the United States] with the same load on our back and returned names to the paintings.” Part of researching the exhibition was showing this continuity. Wukun notes: “ I’ve learned a lot from it because it made me think about where these paintings are from and who they belong to, from the past until today, yes indeed. Through collaborating to find out about these paintings, from long ago up to the present, it is clear now, isn’t it, where these powerful paintings come from?”

Telling this “whole story” meant going back to July 1935, when the great Djapu’ leader Woŋgu Munuŋgurr painted his first work for anthropologist Donald Thomson. This might have given us a clear starting point and the date range from which the subtitle “Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala” was derived. But translating this subtitle into Yolŋu Matha was not quite as straightforward. After much deliberation, Dela Munuŋgurr and Bulmirri Yunupingu, who have been the lead translators on the project, suggested: Waltjaṉ ga Waltjaṉbuy Yolŋuwu Miny’tji Yirrkalawuy, which translates literally as “many monsoonal rains of Yolŋu bark painting from Yirrkala.” It was a perfect translation, capturing a seasonal rather than linear sense of time, embodying the sense that these paintings belong in an unfolding trajectory in which County is the constant. As Wukuṉ notes, “whatever you change [in your art], your mind remains in your wäŋa. There’s nothing there that can really change.”

Wukun in America

Wukun Waṉambi and Yinimala Gumana outside the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC

The differences between American and Australian cultures are evident across people, places, and events. Being one of the lead curators for Maḏayin has meant that Wukun Waṉambi has traveled to the US twice: first in April-May 2017 and again in October-November 2018. In this blog, Waṉambi reflects on the differences between Australia and the U.S:

Before I first came to America, I thought of America as a no-good country. But as I walked around, I saw a lot of different types of people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, African-American, Chinese: all sorts of people.

Wukun Waṉambi in Times Square

When I went across to America, everything was all different. It amazed me how different everything is, it’s not like Australia. For a start, it’s all city and no bush. If you hurt yourself in Australia, the government will pay your hospital bills, but in America it’s independent and you have to pay for yourself. That’s another thing that’s different. America excites me because it’s a different country with a different flag, different waŋa (houses), and different people. Some are tall, some are skinny, and some are fat. The National Museum of African American History and Culture really excited me because there were a lot of African and Native American people there, and the exhibits included famous musicians, sports people and celebrities who starred in films. I didn’t see any celebrities, but I did see Bruce Lee’s star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame, which was terrific.

But when I went into the museum, I saw our bark paintings and it just reminded me of back where my people come from.

Wukun Waṉambi and Yinimala Gumana speak at the opening of The Inside World at the Frost Museum of Art at Florida International University.

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.

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.