Organized by the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection

Finding A Path to Keep Stories Alive, in The Australian

An ambitious Indigenous exhibition is about to be shared

You could say it began five years ago, although the stories of Yolngu culture go so far back that it’s hard to find a beginning, and they certainly show no signs of an end. Waka Mununggurr was on a beach at Yilpara in Arnhem Land with several other leaders. All are custodians of generations of cultural knowledge. They were discussing how to share some of that via one of the most ambitious in years.

The show, called Madayin, covers eight decades of work from the remote region around Yirrkala, about 650km east of Darwin, and will tour the US soon. The term Madayin lies somewhere on the compass between law, beauty and moral virtue.

Suddenly, Mununggurr stood up and started to sing. He commanded that five of the oldest bark paintings in Australia, held in Melbourne University’s Donald Thomson collection, become part of the travelling show.

And so began the painstaking process of consultation, preparation and legal reform required to allow the works collected in the 1930s and 1940s to leave Australia temporarily and join the first international exhibition led entirely by Yolngu curators.

“I feel it’s really good, because it’s sharing the knowledge with the wider world so that Yolngu can be recognised, so you and us, Balanda and Yolngu can be recognised and make a reconciliation,” Mununggurr says.

“Bark needs people” is a Yolngu phrase that may not automatically resonate with Western ears. It means bark paintings occupy a place in the Yolngu cultural tapestry but cannot be understood on their own. They need ceremony and song to breathe.

In a shed at Tullamarine Airport this week, Mununggurr and three other Yolngu painted themselves and sang to the barks to make them safe to leave the country. Two Wirrpanda men joined Mununggurr and Djimbala Ngurruwuthun, who are both descendants of Wonggu Mununggurr, one of the artists.

“To see these works for the first time, and to see the patterns of my clan and the patterns I now paint is a strong reminder of continuity and unbroken identity,” says Bingurr Wirrpanda.

Bandarr Wirrpanda says that works are “older than me, but through seeing them, I can see me and my people.” “I can feel the strength of my clan and the patterns we paint, sing and dance,” he says. “I feel so proud.”

Henry Skerritt, curator of the University of Virginia’s Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection and one of those behind Madayin, says every step of the show’s design has been guided by Yolngu curators and collaborators.

“It is an amazing thing to walk into a major American museum like the Hood, and to immediately see a wall of Indigenous Australian language, to hear Indigenous song, and see the works arranged in a way that makes sense to their creators,” he says.

“This process has shown us an important lesson in listening: if you want to produce something really powerful, that gets down to the deep, extraordinary significance of the work, you need to hand control to those who know it best – and that is the Indigenous people themselves.”

Jamie Powell, Indigenous art curator at the Hood Museum in New Hampshire, where Madayin opens on September 3, says it will be “an exciting moment for US audiences to learn about an important part of global art history.”

Donald Thomson was an anthropologist who worked in Arnhem Land and was involved, with Wongguu Mununggurr and others, in defending Australia during World War II.

Melbourne University academic Marcia Langton says the Donald Thomson collection “represents a unique cultural resource… of national and international distinction.”

Painting Up to Launch Maḏayin

Yinimala Gumana and Wukun Waṉambi spent the day resting at the cottage on the hill outside Kluge-Ruhe. Wukun sat outside and observed the deer and squirrels in the field.

As the day led into the afternoon Yinimala insisted that it was time to prepare for the evenings event, the announcement that would mark the official launch a remarkable journey and a generous gift to be shared with the world: Maḏayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala.

Yinimala and Wukun sat outside with a mirror that was bordered in gold and crested with the American eagle at the top. I mixed the rich ochres they had brought across the sea from the lands of northern Australia and the Miwatj region of the Yolŋu people.

Yinimala sang softly in his language as the two prepared to paint ceremonial patterns onto each other’s faces in preparation for the evening’s event. First Yinimala, then Wukun. As the older man put the finishing touches on his designs, he picked up his yiḏaki (didjeridu) and began to play the deep sacred sounds of his people’s instrument. Once again, Yinimala began to sing, progressing through the songlines of his Dhalwaŋu clan, his voice growing in intensity and volume. The song consumed the night as the power of Yolŋu ancestral presence made itself know in the Monacan lands of Charlottesville.

As the last notes of Yinimala’s song rang out into the evening, we made our way up to the museum, where a crowd of supporters had gathered, ready to join us on the first steps of the journey of Maḏayin.

Photographing the Maḏayin Paintings

Image 1 (Left side) Minyapa Mununggurr, Mäna at Wandawuy, 1996, Natural pigments of barks, 83 3/8 x 32 3/8 x 1 3/4 in. (212 x 82 x 4.5 cm), Collection of John W. Kluge, 1996.0035.008 Image 2 (Right side) Menga Mununggurr, Mäna in Fish Trap, 1996, Natural pigments on bark, 95 3/4 x 27 7/8 x 1 3/8 in. (243 x 71 x 3.5 cm), Collection of John W. Kluge, 1996.0035.010

I think of every exhibition as a partnership –or at least, made up of partnerships. Partnerships with artists and knowledge holders, partnerships with my colleagues and our respective departments, partnerships with vendors, contractors and craftspeople. As Maḏayin began to unfold, the depth and breadth of those partnerships came into sharp focus – literally. A partnership with a photographer, in particular.

As the scope of the exhibition and catalog took shape, we knew it would be incredibly important to have stunning photographs of each painting on the checklist. As we considered the enormity of this task, I think we all had the same questions: How do you capture the majesty of bark painting in a way that translates on the screen and on the page? How do you take a media like painting, that people often think about in two dimensions, and help them see that bark paintings are undeniably three dimensional with all their subtle (and not so subtle) topography? Take those questions and multiply them by big paintings in small spaces – paintings so tall, in fact, that they cannot be exhibited on-site at the museum because the ceilings are too low.

Henry and I discussed how the images should look and feel, our pie-in-the-sky hopes for how the images would appear on phones, computer screens and in books. We thought about what we loved, and maybe didn’t love, about existing images of bark paintings. When we met with photographer Neil Greentree, we shared with him the blueprint of our desires and the realities of our space. I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t an infectious grin and an immediate confirmation that it could be done. All of it! In the confines of our gallery spaces!

In the months that followed our initial meeting, Neil and I negotiated our way through countless phone calls and a mountain of emails – and even the onset of a global pandemic. Working through numerous revisions, we formulated a game plan, firmed up the list of equipment and set about the task of making our photographic dreams a reality.

Using Neil’s specialized photography equipment, including a cinematic boom arm with custom 3D printed components, we photographed the paintings flat on the floor using a simple stage made of archival foam core. Despite the space constraints, Neil was able to set up his camera, all the lighting and reflectors, his computer system and the photography stage in one room.

Gambali Ngurruwutthun’s Munyuku Wänga, 1996 (1996.0025.027) on set to be photographed.

In the adjacent galleries, I worked with a small, skilled team of art handlers to move each painting from its storage location to a staging area where it was assessed by conservator E.D. Rambo. As Neil flexed his photography skills in one gallery and E.D. evaluated the condition of each painting in another gallery, Henry and I were able to take turns reviewing the images in real time on an iPad remotely connected to Neil’s capture software. Like a well-choreographed dance, the art handlers and I moved from gallery to gallery, storage space to storage space. We remeasured each painting to confirm its dimensions, returned paintings to their respective storage locations after imaging, and placed new works under the camera for photography – all without missing a beat.

Narritjin Maymuru’s Yingapungapu, before 1972 (1993.0004.857) waiting for conservation assessment.
Left: Djambawa Marawili’s Madarrpa Miny’tji (1996.0035.014) and Right: Gambali Ngurruwutthun’s Munyuku Wänga (1996.0025.027) waiting to be photographed.
Live feed of Djambawa Marawili’s Madarrpa Miny’tji (1996.0035.014) on the iPad remotely connected to Neil’s digital capture software.
Detail of Minyapa Mununggurr, Mäna at Wandawuy, 1996, Natural pigments of barks, 83 3/8 x 32 3/8 x 1 3/4 in. (211.77 x 82.23 x 4.45 cm), Collection of John W. Kluge, 1996.0035.008

There were moments during the project when I thought a painting may be too large to photograph here or our space isn’t big enough to accommodate both a painting and the stage. Each time, we found the solution; each time, we found a little more room – in one instance Neil’s camera was raised so high it had to rest against the ceiling to get the shot!

Miriam-Webster defines partner as one associated with another especially in action. Not surprisingly, partnership is defined as the state of being a partner. Mr. Greentree was our partner in this phase of Maḏayin and through that partnership I’d like to believe we achieved what we were after – capturing the majesty of bark painting for the page and the screen!

What’s in a name?

Finding the right name for an exhibition is always hard. It’s even harder in the case of an exhibition curated by a team of people across two continents! But, from the moment we started work on this exhibition we all knew it needed a name. A lot of ideas were thrown around, but it didn’t take very long for one to stick: MAḎAYIN.

Maḏayin is a big word. Generally speaking, it means “the sacred.” But it can also be used to describe something very beautiful or sublime. Yälpi Yunupiŋu described it like this:

What is maḏayin? Maḏayin is the sacred realm that has been told to us by the old people. Maḏayin is sacred. We cannot share those stories. But it is alright, I can tell you the surface of the story.

The decision to name the exhibition Maḏayin was a controversial one. Some of the Yolŋu curators feared that it would discourage women artists from wanting to be involved, fearing that it was concerned with men’s ceremonial knowledge. Others feared that some clan leaders would think the title was inappropriate, indicating the sharing of knowledge that should remain secret. At one point, Yinimala Gumana even argued that the title was too momentous for any exhibition to live up to. He thought it should limit itself to the realm of sacred art—maḏayin miny’tji. These questions were very much at the forefront of the early curatorial discussions, and were invariably the starting point for all our consultations with clan leaders.

Members of the curatorial team, Kade, Gunybi, Yinimala and Wukun discuss the exhibition title.

In these early days, I often felt like the title was a millstone around the project’s neck. I could sense the way that Wukun Waṉambi—who quickly emerged as the lead Yolŋu curator—would carefully preface the word whenever we were starting discussions with other Yolŋu. It was only on Djambawa Marawili’s second visit to Charlottesville in Sepetember 2017 that I realized why Djambawa and Wukun had persisted using this seemingly loaded term. According to Wukun:

Dhuyu and maḏayin are two words that we use for things that are secret and sacred. And we have chosen to leave those secret things secret. But we wanted to open another door for maḏayin, to translate its beauty, to say “this is a beautiful painting, this is a beautiful Country.” That is how we curators explained it to Yolŋu people and eventually they agreed to get involved, and agreed to put the name Maḏayin on our great project. And we will take it to Washington and Los Angeles to show our identity. Then can break this big word into small words, little pieces that people can understand. For the bark tells of our identity, our skinship and our destiny.

Listening to Wukun and Djambawa, it became clear that using this “big” word reflected the seriousness with which they viewed the project, and the seriousness with which they wanted other Yolŋu to view it. It was a clarion call that this exhibition would reflect the values that at the core of Yolŋu being. This did not mean sharing things that were dhuyu, but recognizing its power as the foundation of Yolŋu identity. On his last day in Charlottesville, Djambawa explained it this way:

There are two types of ceremonies: one that is public (garma) and one that is maḏayin (sacred). You can see some things that are sacred: headbands, some paintings and other things publicly, but no one can take them away from me because it is in my soul and my blood and I will die with them. Our patterns and designs have been laid on a certain country, when the ancestors passed through naming it: “You are Marawili, this is your country this is your identity.” Every individual clan has their own maḏayin, but there is also a maḏayin that brings all those clans together.

Djambawa Wins the National Art Award

2019 Telstra NATSIAA Winners with the judges, the Director of the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory and the Telstra Principal. Djambawa Marawili is in the top row, third from the left.

“You are not to tell another soul.”

“Not Margo, not Kade, not even your wife.”

“Ah, ok?”

“I’m serious. This is for your ears only. Can you keep a secret?”

“Um. I guess.”

“He won.”

“Who won.”

“Djambawa.”
“The bark painting prize?”

“No. The big one.”

It was August was 2019. I was in a hotel in Sydney, trying to shake off jetlag before heading to Darwin the next day. I felt a little like I had left my brain somewhere over the Pacific. I’d texted Will Stubbs, Coordinator of the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre to let him know I had arrived in the country. It was a pleasant surprise to get a call a few minutes later with such momentous news—Djambawa Marawili was the winner of the 2019 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. Will was sharing this top secret information, not just because I was a card carrying member of the Djambawa Marawili fan club, but because the painting that had won the award had been commissioned by Kluge-Ruhe for Maḏayin and was created in response to his multiple visits to the USA. Titled Journey to America, the work shows Bäru, the ancestral crocodile-man bringing fire into the waters at Yathikpa. The fire crescendos up the bark, crossing oceans to meet the Statue of Liberty. In the lower corner, the coat of arms of Australia is also shown. Speaking on the work, he said: “ Everyone can see that I have confidence I have to carry in my soul and in my blood, to reach out to another nation, to another world, with our sorrow, with our love peace and joy.”

You can watch Djambawa speak about the work here: