Organized by the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection

Yolŋu in Los Angeles

Visiting Los Angeles with Djambawa Marawili, Wäka Mununnggur and Kade McDonald was an adventure. Our first stop was the Fowler Museum at UCLA where we were greeted by their extraordinary director, Marla Berns, and Terry Geis, Director of Education and Interpretation. The Fowler staff was completely on board with Maḏayin, having learned about its significance from an earlier visit with Wukun Waṉambi and Yinimala Gumana. There is even a strong University of Virginia connection there because former Provost Gene Block has served as UCLA’s Chancellor since 2007. After our meeting, we all agreed that the Fowler where we wanted to show Maḏayin in Los Angeles.

Of course, no trip to Los Angeles is complete without visiting the stars on Hollywood Boulevard, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and the favorite Yolngu eatery – Pampas Grill Churrascaria at the Farmer’s Market

The most memorable part of the trip, however, was our visit with Kathryn Deyell, Australia Council’s North American liaison who had been instrumental in supporting Djambawa and Wäka’s trip. She invited us to take a sunset cruise on her sailboat at Marina del Rey. Our motley crew of Australians included filmmaker Catriona McKenzie, her son Callum and their friend pilot Eleanor Ruby Moon, and Kathryn’s husband, composer Cameron Deyell, and son Tana.

As Djambawa steered the boat past the breakwater, he and Wäka recalled their adventures sailing a dugout canoe from Baniyala to Groote Eylandt. These memories brought both of them such joy, evident in Djambawa’s radiant smile. Seeing the effect this voyage had on Djambawa, I felt tremendous joy too, and such gratitude to be along for the ride.

Snowball’s Famous Frybread Tacos

While visiting Washington DC in September 2017, Djambawa Marawili and Wäka Mununggur met with Kevin Gover, then Director of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), and toured the museum. Kluge-Ruhe Advisory Council member Terry Snowball and Machel Monenerkit (both members of NMAI staff) hosted a dinner that evening, as they have done on several occasions when Yolŋu and other Indigenous folks are visiting the USA. Terry’s scrumptious frybread tacos are legendary among Kluge-Ruhe alumni!

Kiowa elder Ralph Zotighand his children, Dennis and Sharon, were also at Terry’s that evening. They sang Kiowa songs for Djambawa and Wäka, who responded with Yolŋu songs. Djambawa and Wäka later commented about how deeply meaningful this cultural exchange was for them.

In collaborating with the Hood Museum of Art on Maḏayin, we have been fortunate to work with Jami Powell (Osage), Curator of Indigenous Art, as a key contributor on the curatorial team. Jami knows just how important these opportunities for exchange are and has made sure that the Yolŋu delegation visiting the Hood Museum of Art for the opening of Maḏayin and local First Nations people and Dartmouth students will have many opportunities to connect through this exhibition.

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.