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.

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.

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.”

Flying High at Tarnanthi 2019

Kluge-Ruhe’s bark painting commissions for Madayin made their Australian debut in October 2019 during Tarnanthi, a city-wide festival of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts hosted by the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide. The exhibition Dhawut (Fly Away) presented 28 contemporary artworks by Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre’s most respected artists. Hung on black walls with dramatic lighting, these bark paintings stood out as the masterpieces they are. The exhibition title makes reference to the commissions leaving Australia for the USA at the conclusion of Tarnanthi.

Artworks by Buku-Larrŋgay artists featured prominently at the AGSA and elsewhere during Tarnanthi. Descending the gallery’s sweeping staircase, visitors encountered a monumental piece of metal etched with miny’tji by Guynbi Ganambarr and Noŋgirrŋa Marawili’s electric pink bark paintings. Another gallery featured a massive wall covered with 75 paintings on paper by Noŋgirrŋa, variations of black and white lines offset by memorial poles painted with the same bold patterns. The gallery adjacent to Dhawut contained an installation of Wukun Waṉambi’s memorial poles and a mesmerizing light show of his signature schools of fish “swimming” through the gallery, across the walls and around the poles. Visitors were literally submerged in his artwork. Yolngu opened the festival with a powerful display of cultural authority asserted through song and dance.

Tarnanthi attracted friends from across Australia and internationally. I was delighted to meet Steve Fox, former Art and Craft Advisor at Buku-Larrŋgay in the 1980s. He presented me with a very rare copy of Baniyala Artworks, a small catalog written by Djambawa Marawili and printed by the Yirrkala Community School Literature Production Centre. Like Madayin, the exhibition Baniyala Artworks was the brainchild of Djambawa, who believed Yolngu artists were creating some of the finest contemporary artworks of the day. It was one of the first major exhibitions from Buku-Larrŋgay to go to Sydney. It is no surprise, therefore, that Djambawa also conceived of Madayin, which will be the first major exhibition of Yolngu bark painting to tour the USA.

Tarnanthi demonstrated that Yolngu bark paintings are among the finest contemporary art being produced in Australia. It is an honor to share this magnificent art form with new audiences in the USA and worldwide through the Madayin exhibition, catalog and virtual resource.

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.

Yolŋu in Los Angeles

Visiting Los Angeles with Djambawa Marawili, Wäka Munuŋgurr 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 Wukuṉ 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 Zotigh and 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.

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.

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.