| Marrnyula Munuŋgurr with Henry Skerritt and Kade McDonald
The following interview was recorded with Henry Skerritt and Kade McDonald in Darwin, April 26, 2023. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Nhamirri bukmak. How are you everybody? First, I am going to introduce myself. I am an artist, and I will tell you where I come from and about my family: my mother, father and sister are all artists. Yo! But first I will tell you about myself and about when I was young and started to do my art, on small barks. And then my father saw it and gave me another bark. That was how I learned, and how my father taught me about painting. That is what I am going to talk about. Yo! But first, I am going to introduce myself. Ma.
My name is Marrnyula Munuŋgurr and my homeland is Wäṉḏawuy. I was living at Wäṉḏawuy when I first became an artist. Wäṉḏawuy is in an outstation, it is inland, freshwater and it belongs to the Djapu’. Mäṉa(the Shark) is our totem. It traveled from Djambarrpuyŋu Country, all the way to Djapu’ Country at Wäṉḏawuy. Sometimes I tell the story of Mäṉa, but sometimes there is too much in my head.
Yes, I learned at Wäṉḏawuy from my father [Djutjatjutja Munuŋgurr]. He showed me how to cut the bark, how to straighten it out, and then how to use sandpaper to smooth it up for painting. I was watching my father, wondering what to do next. He gave me a paint brush to paint on a small bark. “What can I do Dad?” I was asking my father. And he said, “Any picture you want, you can draw on the bark.” So, I said, “I’ll do a painting about hunting, about how Yolŋu go catch fish, or hunt turtle; about how we get the spear for fishing, and cook the fish on the fire, sitting under the tree, like a picnic nhäwi.”
And then I asked, “What’s the next drawing, nhäwi?” My father got a pen and paper and said, “You can draw our designs, Djapu’ designs,” and he drew them on a piece of paper for me. Then he handed me marwaṯ and gapaṉ to do the outline, yes, hairbrush and white clay. I took the brush and started doing my painting on bark. Then, my father gave me a big bark. He said, “Try and paint on this big one.” And so, we worked together. My father sat close to me and told me what to do, and showed me how to draw the shark and the liver on the shark. All the time, he was telling me stories about the paintings and designs.
So, I kept painting. At the same time, I taught the children at school, telling them about our designs, Djapu’ designs. And when I finished a painting, I would take it to Buku-Larrŋgay Art Centre to sell it. Buku-Larrŋgay is our art centre. We bring our art to Buku so they can send it to all the galleries. I worked at Buku-Larrŋgay with Steve Fox for a long time, and then with Andrew Blake. While I was working at the art centre, Andrew Blake went out and cut all these big barks and brought them back for all the artists. All the artists came to Buku-Larrŋgay to paint, sitting inside the museum working on big barks. And me, and my sister Rerrkiwaŋa, and my mother Noŋgirrŋa, we all worked together, helping my father with his paintings.
That was when we painted that bathala ṉuwayak [big bark]. On the top is my Dad’s painting, Bol’ŋu, the Thunderman. Bol’ŋu is the Thunderman, yo. In the middle is the shark liver, the Yothu Djukurr. Like, we adopted you, so you are the Yothu Djukurr, the liver of the shark. Yothu Yindi [mother and child].Yindi is the shark, Yothu is the liver of the shark, djukurr. That is djukurr in the middle. That is all Djapu’ miny’tji – one straight line, from the old paintings to the new ones. It is the same miny’tji you can see in that painting by the old man, my grandfather [Woŋgu Munuŋgurr]. You can see, the story is still the same. One straight line from that old man to his sons and grandchildren. Like rain coming down.
Bol’ŋu brings the rain. His spear is the cloud. When you see him holding his spear, it is the clouds. And you can see people dancing that cloud, holding the spear above their head. It is the cloud dance for Bol’ŋu who brings the rain. Yes, Bol’ŋu brings the rain, filling the river with gapu (water), freshwater. The miny’tji comes from the rain and the water. It is important to know where the paintings belong, where they come from. Paintings tell a story and they belong to that place. The miny’tj comes from that place, Wäṉḏawuy. We are Djapu’ people working on Djapu’ miny’tji. So, when people come to Wäṉḏawuy, they cannot steal our designs, because it is for our land. That miny’tji belongs to that place. Ŋanapurru. It is ours!It is our design, ŋanapurru miny’tji. Those designs belong to us, the Djapu’ clan.
Wäṉḏawuy is my homeland, but I was living at Yirrkala for a long while, working on my art. And then I started working in the Print Space, maybe in 1996. I worked there with Basil Hall, he came to help me set up the print machine and studio. I was working with Basil Hall and we had a workshop with all the old ladies. They’re gone now, all those old lady artists. Then I went to train as a printmaker, and Diane Blake helped me. We were both working together at the Print Space, working with the old ladies. Young people started coming in, they wanted to work on prints too. The old ladies loved doing printing and so did the young people. It was a good way for young people to learn about their designs. It’s still the same, you see, like painting on bark. It’s the same story, outside nhäwi, but it’s a good way to show it to kids, how to do our art, so that later they can learn to be painters.
I had been working at the art centre for a long time, helping my father and mother with their bark paintings, and also doing my own. And I began to see lots of leftover bark pieces, just lying on the ground. They were all the leftover bits, you know, when you cut the bark where it is cracked. I looked at those pieces and wondered, “How can I do my art? I don’t want to leave those pieces on the side.” So I started picking up those little pieces and working on them. I was cutting those leftover strips, making small barks and working on them while I was doing printing at Buku-Larrŋgay.
And then, one day, I asked Kade McDonald if it was alright to paint my hairbrush outline on these small ones and put them all together, like a puzzle. That was my idea. And he said, “Ma! It’s your idea, sister, you can do whatever you like.” So, the first one I did was for an exhibition in Melbourne. As I was putting it up on the wall, I was thinking, “What can I do?” And then I realized, I could do Ganybu(the fishtrap). That was my first exhibition of small barks. Then, when I came back from Melbourne, I kept thinking, “What can I do next?” I thought about the shark, and about yothu djukurr. And so, I made that out of small barks. That one went to Outstation Gallery in Darwin. The third one I did was Wukiḏi. And then you asked me to work on a really big one for America, that’s gapu, the freshwater miny’tji.
I’m still working on small barks, but now I am also painting the small ones on big barks, like the Telstra one. Because that’s my idea and it’s my designs, and I am doing my own designs on those barks. It’s a different way, but you can see what I am doing: the same miny’tji, Djapu’ miny’tji. It’s a different way of showing it, but it is still the same story. Freshwater miny’tji. I need to do it differently because there are lots of women working now, all my sisters. You see, they all want to be artists. Many mob in my family are doing Djapu’ miny’tji. Like Yimula [Munuŋgurr], she’s doing Djapu’ miny’tji. You can see her paintings at Buku-Larrŋgay. But I am painting in a different way now. The same miny’tji, but just in different ways. It’s just my style. Because they’re doing it their way, I’m doing a different style. I still want to do that other style, but I don’t know, I’m always thinking. And it’s hard to work now because I am staying in Darwin. But as I said, if you put all those Djapu’ paintings side by side, you will see it is the same story. The story doesn’t change, from the old man, my grandfather, to my father and then myself.
My father and mother, we all worked together, giving each other our knowledge. Gurruṯu is how we are all connected. So, for instance, my ŋäṉḏi (mother) is Yirritja, and she knows her Maḏarrpa miny’tji. My mother’s country is at Yilpara. That is my ŋäṉḏipulu. Maḏarrpa is our one mother clan. So Noŋgirrŋa is doing her miny’tji, my ŋäṉḏipulu. But for a long time, she was helping my dad with his Dhuwa miny’tji. After he died, she got her bark, and we asked her to do her own Yirritja designs. She doing these designs now, her own designs for Baratjula. That’s her design, her hand and her knowledge, and those designs are hers to do what she likes with.
Me and Rerrki, we are doing our own Dhuwa miny’tji. But sometimes, Rerrki does Yirritja miny’tj. She does both Djapu’ and Gumatj miny’tji, Dhuwa ga Yirritja. Sometimes Dhuwa, sometimes Yirritja, because she got permission from her husband Yälpi [Yunupiŋu] to paint his Yirritja designs. Yes, your malu asked her to do that Gumatj miny’tji. I can’t do Yirritja miny’tji, I just paint Djapu’ designs. But you can paint Yirritja designs if they ask you. Like, if they asked me to do Maḏarrpa miny’tji, because that is my mother’s clan, my ŋäṉḏipulu. I would ask a Maḏarrpa person, “Is it alright for me to do my mother’s painting?” And they would say, “Yes,” because I am a djungaya. For my father and my sister, Maḏarrpa is our mother clan. Gumatj is also our ŋäṉḏipulu. Madarrpa and Gumatj have the same manikay but different ḻikan. When you look at their miny’tji, they have different diamonds: the Gumatj have the small diamonds. But they are both ŋäṉḏipulu. Our märi’pulu [mother’s mother’s clan] is Gälpu and our wakupulu [child’s clan] is Dhaḻwaŋu. That is how Gurruṯu works, connecting us.
This is our culture, our Rom. It is the Law for Yolŋu people. Strong culture and strong Law for Yolŋu. We want to make art to show all the people, everywhere in the world, that we hold this knowledge. And so we can teach our children, that they can learn how to live in the right way. Yolŋu need to understand about their culture and Law. They need to know that it is important. Our miny’tji and our djakiri are our foundations, passed down from what our old people taught us. That is our knowledge, our culture, our art. And we can teach others, for the future. Yes. That’s our culture. Ma.
| Ishmael Marika in conversation with Henry Skerritt and Kade McDonald
In September 2022, Ishmael Marika traveled to the United States as part of a delegation of Yolŋu artists to attend the opening celebration for the exhibition Madayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College. Marika played a central role in the exhibition, as both a member of the curatorial team and by creating two major new video installations with Yirrkala’s multimedia unit The Mulka Project. The following conversation between Marika, Henry Skerritt and Kade McDonald was recorded via zoom following the delegation’s return to Yirrkala.
Henry Skerritt (HS): Maḏayin was seven years in the making: after such a long process of development, what was it like seeing to finally see exhibition?
Ishmael Marika (IM): I think the exhibition is great. I was really happy to see all the paintings together. It made me proud to see my grandmother [Ms. M. Wirrpanda’s] paintings and my father [Wanyubi Marika’s] painting and all the others. Seeing all those works, by the old people –they went before me– and seeing my video pieces there alongside them, it was like talking to the ancestors or talking to the spirits.
And I enjoyed talking to people in America and telling them about the Yolŋu people—that we still speak our own languages; that we have our own songlines; and that we do paintings to represent sea Country and inland Country and all that stuff. It was an opportunity to tell them that the painted designs do not exist by themselves – they are a map of the Country and the boundaries – telling you whose songlines and language groups each painting belongs to. The old people documented that in those barks – in the early days – and that practice continues through to today. People don’t know these stories! We don’t document them in a book, we document them on bark. We have been given these stories through the songlines, and we share them through the songlines and through bark painting. We show how the songlines move through the Country, and how we see the reality of the songlines, as they travel from each area, connecting all the places.
Kade McDonald (KM): Your videos are a really powerful component of the exhibition. Can you tell us a little about the ideas behind them? Barrkuŋu Ganydjarr | Strength from Afar (2022) is a four-channel video that is staggered throughout the exhibition. It features a single dancer [Gatjarrarra Marika] who moves between the four screens performing different ceremonial dances. What was the inspiration for this piece?
IM: In 2018, I went to the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection at the University of Virginia with and Mr. Waṉambi. We went to look at the paintings from the early days, from the 1950s and 60s, that were done by the old people. Mr. Waṉambi really wanted to have video in the exhibition, to bring the art to life. There are a lot of paintings in the exhibition, but people don’t know the meaning or background to these artworks. They might see it and think it is good art, but then they must go to the catalogue to find the full story. So, Mr. Waṉambi said, “OK, we need to work with video to explain about our clans, to show, this is the Dhaḻwaŋu clan’s paintings; this is their buŋgul (dance); this is their manikay (ceremonial song); and they all go together. We wanted to show that these things are all linked; that the art, the dance, and the songlines are all connected.
On our way to Virginia, we stopped in Los Angeles. Mr. Waṉambi and I saw a video installation [by the Icelandic artist Ragner Kjartansson]. It had multiple screens with different people playing drums and guitars and other instruments. Mr. Waṉambi said, “I want a video like that, but done our way.” He said, “I’m going to make a video for the Maḏayin exhibition and it’s going to have the buŋgul and manikay for the clans representing the paintings. So, each of the four screens represents a different clan, and it goes around in a cycle. And the dancers will wear the colors representing their clan members. So, for instance, in the Dhaḻwaŋu video, the dancer is wearing red.
Here in northeast Arnhem land everyone is either Yirritja or Dhuwa. Every place is either Yirritja or Dhuwa, as are the plants, the animals and the waters. In the video, there is a Yirritja half, represented by the Maḏarrpa and Dhaḻwaŋu clans, and a Dhuwa half, represented by the Ḏäṯiwuy and Djapu’ clans. The cycle goes from Ḏäṯiwuy to Dhaḻwaŋu to Djapu’ to Maḏarrpa, jumping between each clan, going round in a circle, to represent Yirritja and Dhuwa.
During that trip in 2018, Mr. Waṉambi got sick, and ended up in hospital, but we kept working and planning for the exhibition. I was glad I could be there to help him out. He was sick, which is why I stepped in.
HS: Could you tell us the significance of the title, Barrkuŋu Ganydjarr?
IM:Barrkuŋu Ganydjarr is the strength that comes from far away–the strength that travels. One of the songlines in the video is sung by Djambawa Marawili. He sings of Yarrwarri, the Queen Fish (Scomberoides commersonianus), which travels from far down south, from near Numbulwar, all the way to Blue Mud Bay. It takes great strength to travel this distance. And that is like the art that came from here in northeast Arnhem Land and traveled all the way to the other side of the world. The art has strength, and it traveled this great distance to show everybody in the world who we are. That is why I called the video Strength from Afar.
HS: You mentioned Mr. Waṉambi, who played such an important role in curating and developing the exhibition. It really felt like he was present at the opening celebrations at Dartmouth.
IM: Yes, Mr. Waṉambi, he was there with us in spirit. That was why I acknowledged him in the manikay at the opening dinner. I felt he was present: he was there with us, so I had to say thank you through the songlines. The song I sang is about a spirit man named Wawit from the Marrakulu clan [the same clan as Mr. Waṉambi]. The spirit man was hunting for oysters, going down to the beach and eating oysters on the rocks, while the Djapu’ water is crashing on the rocks. There is gathul—mangrove trees—and also the water, crashing into that sand. So, the song represents the Marrakulu clan and the spirit of the ancestors that traveled to collect oysters down the beach. Through that songline, I thanked Mr. Waṉambi for all the hard work that he put into organizing the exhibition.
Likewise, the song that Djambawa Marawili sang [at the opening ceremony] related to the deep waters of Muŋurru. Muŋurru, the saltwater of Blue Mud Bay mixes with the Marrakulu water named Guṯultja. So, we painted our faces with gapaṉ (white pipe clay), representing the Marrakulu clan, representing Mr. Waṉambi. Djambawa was singing Muŋurru, but we did not have Mr. Waṉambi to sing for Guṯultja, so that is why we put the white ochre on our face, to represent him. We were reaching out to that spirit to join with the other spirit of the water.
KM: That was a very powerful moment at the opening when you were welcomed with song by the Wabanaki leader Chris Newell with the exchange of songs and gifts.
IM: Yes, that was very good, seeing the Native people welcoming us and exchanging gifts. Because they are the landowners, we want to connect with them first—their spirits and souls and mind, because everyone is different and has different culture and Law and ancestors. We wanted to acknowledge the traditional landowners and their ancestors and Law, ceremony and designs. We wanted to connect through our art and our songlines. They were good people, looking after us, and the students, were good students. They will learn about Yolŋu people through the art and songlines in the exhibition. It will talk to their spirit. It’s all about connections– gurruṯu (the Yolŋu kinship system)– everybody is connected through the miny’tji (painted designs) – all the miny’tji – it doesn’t matter if it is Dhuwa or Yirritja, we are all connected through the gurruṯu system.
HS: When visitors enter the exhibition at the Hood Museum, they are greeted by another video installation titled Gapu Muŋurru ga Baḻamumu Mirikindi | Deep Waters of the Dhuwa and Yirritja Moieties, 2022. Could you tell us about this work?
IM: Yes, the big video at the entrance is about Dhuwa and Yirritja welcoming everyone to the exhibition. Beneath the waters are two songmen—Djambawa Marawili and Mawalan #2 Marika. They are singing a welcoming manikay – or rather, a strengthening manikay, a big name manikay. When you enter into men’s ceremony, if you go to the Yirritja side you will hear Yirritja people singing Gapu Muŋurru with the bilma (clapsticks). They use big, long clapsticks and will sing all night, sometimes through till the break of dawn. Listening to those songmen gives you strength; it gives you peace, harmony, kindness and happiness. And sometimes you will feel sorrow and think about special people in your life. So, the song can make you emotional, but it will also bring you strength, just as it strengthens the artworks—Dhuwa and Yirritja—so that everyone can enjoy seeing all the paintings. That is what that video means—it welcomes you and gives you strength before you enter the exhibition.
As I said before, everything is Yirritja and Dhuwa – we are separated by these two moieties, but everyone is connected through the gurruṯu system. Dhuwa can only marry Yirritja; and Yirritja can only marry Dhuwa. We marry the opposite. This also tells us our boundaries. I’m Dhuwa, but my mother is Yirritja, so I must pay respect to my mother and act as a custodian or caretaker for my mother’s clan, to speak on their behalf. But I am Dhuwa, so I can also jump in and talk about my father’s side, and take a role for them, for if my father is gone, I am the next leader of my father’s people. The same goes for my märi-pulu, my mother’s mother’s people – I must speak for their ceremony as well. The same goes for my sister clan or yapa-pulu, which is the Marrakulu clan. I have a role to direct or pay respect to them. Through these connections we have a journey that goes through the generations.
And we must communicate to each other—for instance, I must make other clan members aware that I am coming to their land or that I will be talking about a particular area. I will pass my message to those people, saying “OK, this is your boundary, but I will talk about my mother’s paintings or my mother’s mother’s painting.” It is all connected. And as the songlines travel, they remain connected, but the language changes. For example, for my clan, Rirratjiŋu, the songline travels west and changes from Dhuwal to Djambarrpuyŋu, but the story is the same. It keeps traveling from east to west, but the language is changing. Our systems and our languages are many. Americans don’t know who are Yirritja and who are Dhuwa, or that there are six or seven different dialects. People think we all speak one language – Yolŋu Matha – but Yolŋu Matha has many different languages – Dhuwala, Dhuwal, Dhay’yi, Dhaŋu and so on.
KM: What was the highlight of the trip for you?
IM: The highlight for me was talking to students and lecturing at the university, talking about different artworks to the students. And not just bark paintings: we talked about digital art pieces, working with video and audio and how Gunybi Ganambarr works with metals; and Djuwakan Marika talked about playing yiḏaki (didjeridu) and how that links with the songlines. Yiḏaki is like the click-track to the songlines, giving you the rhythm and strength. You have to follow the yiḏaki, and the songman and the yiḏaki man must communicate, when to take a breath and when to keep going. It was important, talking with the students and the public, not just about the artworks, but about the bilma, the yiḏaki, the manikay and even the sound of the water, the wind blowing through the land or the call of the birds.
The first song I sang [at the media preview for the exhibition] was the song of the brolga. It is a very significant bird. You hear the sound of the brolga in the distance, but you don’t see it. You can hear it, and it feels close to you, but it is in the far distance, circling, looking for food. It is seen on the sun, giving the birds life and bringing new life to the bird. That is what the brolga manikay means–it is about bringing new life into the earth and the land, by the sound of the brolga circling in the distance.
American audiences came to me saying “thank you,” because I was talking and explaining to them about the paintings and the video pieces I’d worked on. It was great to be able to explain about some of the paintings, such as my grandmother’s paintings [Retja I (2017) and Retja II 2018)]which are all about bush food. She grew up eating all that food, but it is not documented, and young people are not learning about it. They are growing up eating shop food and not going out and getting healthy bush foods. That is why she painted it, to document the stories of the food and plants and what they look like, where you find them, in the water or dry areas. She was close to me my grandmother, and I always asked questions about what she was working on. She would tell me stories during my lunch break, and so I kept those stories that she told me, and I shared them with the people who came to see her artworks. I told them the stories she told me.
KM: That strikes me as one of the most important things about the Maḏayin exhibition. At the opening, Djambawa made the point that the older paintings are just as relevant as the new ones, because they tell the same stories and speak to the same gurruṯu connections, and that culture, language, the songlines remain unbroken.
IM: Yes, they are still the same, the same stories. The men tell the stories through the songlines and the same goes for the women, through the milkarri or crying songs. They tell the same stories. If the men sing of the travel of fire from Maḏarrpa to Gumatj Country, the women will cry it through the milkarri, following the spirit as it moves across the land.
The following interview was conducted in June 2022 between Jami Powell, curator of Indigenous Art, Hood Museum of Art, and Henry Skerritt, assistant professor in the Department of Art at the University of Virginia and Curator at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Jami Powell (JP): Where did the idea for the Maḏayin exhibition come from?
Henry Skerritt (HS): The idea was devised in September 2015 by Djambawa Marawili, and I can pinpoint the time and date very precisely because he, Kade McDonald, and I were at the Three Notch’d Brewery in Charlottesville. Djambawa had been in Charlottesville for two or three days, and he’d had a chance to look over the Kluge-Ruhe collection. I think he was quite moved to see so many Yolŋu bark paintings there, and also to see all the photographic documentation of the 1996 John Kluge Yirrkala commission.
At Kluge-Ruhe, there are beautiful photos from 1996 of Djambawa and his father, Wakuthi Marawili, as Djambawa worked on his painting Maḏarrpa Miny’tji | Maḏarrpa Clan Designs (1996), which won the Bark Painting Award at the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards that year. That was a big win for Djambawa, but more importantly, it occurred at a pivotal moment in his life. Wakuthi was getting quite old, and Djambawa was rising to become the leader of the Maḏarrpa clan. Djambawa was impressed, moved, and very surprised to see so many Yolŋu paintings in Charlottesville. He said to us, “Oh, that’s good, but what we need is an exhibition that tells the whole story.” For him, it was very clear that that whole story began when Woŋgu Munuŋgurr painted the first bark for the anthropologist Donald Thomson in July of 1935, and that the story extended to the present.
But it was just as important to him that the exhibition include young, up-and-coming artists like Yinimala Gumana and Gunybi Ganambarr. What’s important to understand is that for Djambawa, the “whole story” wasn’t just looking backward at this history, but also looking forward and thinking about the future. In his essay in the exhibition catalogue, he writes a powerful message to the young generation of artists: “To the Yolŋu rising today, do not stop at the surface: you must make your identity a priority for all our elders. And that is why we Yolŋu must work together, because this is an opportunity to learn to curate and show our culture to the world.”
JP: Djambawa proposed a big project. How did you go about developing the project and begin working collaboratively?
HS: From the beginning, we knew that, if we were going to do this, it had to be led by Djambawa. So, we put it to him that he needed to be the lead curator, and it had to be a Yolŋu driven project. He thought about this and then deputized Wukuṉ Waṉambi and Yinimala Gumana to come to the United States to begin that process.
JP: Speaking of beginnings, you mentioned the emergence of bark painting as an artistic practice and how that was entangled with the work of anthropologist Donald Thomson. Can you talk about that history?
HS: That’s a slightly controversial question. In general, it’s clear that Yolŋu people and other Indigenous people across Australia have used bark in many different ways over time. It is a very versatile medium; you can make it into a bag, or a shelter, or a canoe. But I am not sure how common it would have been to paint sacred designs on bark—like you see in this exhibition— in the precolonial times. This, however, is a topic of debate, and I’ve heard Yolŋu make different arguments about this. More often, these designs would have been painted on the bodies of young men when they were being initiated. In the 1930s, these same designs began appearing on bark. The work Mundukuḻ ga Yirwarra Dhäwu | Ancestral Snake and Fish Trap Story (1942) by Mundukuḻ Marawaili is a good example of this. It is a literal transcription of body painting, to the extent that the artist has included bars at the top and bottom, which would be painted on the shoulders and thighs of initiates. So, it is clear that in the 1930s and 1940s, artists were taking body painting designs and transferring them to bark. But very quickly, things started to change as artists began to fill up the whole surface of the bark and bring in different figurative motifs.
JP: We’re fortunate enough to have one of the earliest barks in this show, right?
HS: Yes. In fact, we have the very first painting that Woŋgu Munuŋgurr did in 1935. That’s a special thing to have coming to the United States, leaving Australia for the first time.
JP: As you know, my training is in Native North American art, so this show has presented me with an opportunity to build my knowledge and understanding of Australian Indigenous art, but particularly about Yolŋu art and bark painting. What I’ve come to appreciate about bark painting and this exhibition is that it is really about translating Yolŋu ways of knowing about kinship, relationship to place, and the Law in a way that Westerners can understand. These paintings and designs serve a role within the community, but the emergence of painting on bark and the circulation of this artistic form has been an act of generosity; it has created a means for Yolŋu to share their knowledge and build relationships with non-Yolŋu.
HS: I think that’s right. As our co-curator Wukuṉ Waṉambi says in the catalogue, artists like Woŋgu and Mundukuḻ were painting to communicate their identity to Donald Thomson, to show him who they were and where they came from. Yolŋu have this long history of painting to represent themselves to the outside world, and to show the power and strength of their culture. It is something that Wuku is very clear about; he says that sharing his culture brings him strength. But it is also an enormously generous gift, bringing people into this very special worldview.
JP: This conversation leads me to think about the organization of the exhibition and how the spatial layout relates to Yolŋu ways of knowing and being in the world. Can you talk a bit about that?
HS: From the very beginning, the Yolŋu curators wanted the exhibition to be arranged according to the systems of kinship, which they call Gurruṯu. For Yolŋu, everything is divided into two complementary halves, Dhuwa and Yirritja. If you’re Dhuwa, you have to marry someone Yirritja, and vice versa. Within these two halves, there’s this complicated clan system, which was the next level of separation the artists wanted the exhibition to reflect. So, as you walk through Maḏayin, each room is dedicated to a different clan’s paintings, and each of these clans has a series of designs; we might think of them like a Scottish tartan. These designs, laid down in the earth by the ancestral beings, are imbued with layer upon layer of meanings. The designs are like deeds of title to ancestral places and also a way of saying, “I belong to this place, it was created by my ancestors, and I share its essence.”
JP: One of the things I always try to teach my students and convey through my curatorial practice is that many of the works in our care weren’t created solely as works of art. They have all these other meanings and purposes they serve within Indigenous communities. When these objects come into museums, their other meanings can fall away. The approach to this exhibition and its organization rejects that decontextualization.
One of my favorite works in the show is the diptych by Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda, Retja (Rainforest) I & II (2017), because it is such a great example of the kind of work that was created for the market but also serves these other purposes. In the painting, Mulkuṉ has painted all these medicinal and edible plants. It is a stunning work of art, but Mulkuṉ also maps out the plant species and lists their names and uses. Therefore, this work becomes an important means for transmitting cultural knowledge and understandings, both within the community and beyond it. It also enables a deeper understanding about our relationships, as humans, to nonhuman beings and the reciprocity embedded in those relations, and the diptych does so in a beautiful and meaningful way.
HS: In addition to showing the artists’ identity and connection to place, it was important for the Yolŋu curators to enable audiences to recognize different ways of being in the world.
JP: Is that what you hope audiences, and US audiences in particular, will get from this exhibition?
HS: Definitely. But as an art historian, I would also like visitors to recognize this as an extraordinary artistic tradition—one that has not been still over the last 80 years, but has reacted to its times while also staying true to its traditions and meanings. There’s something amazing about an art movement that can be 50,000 years old and still finding exciting and dynamic ways to repeat the same combinations of diamonds and grids and crosshatching.
I also think that when US audiences approach Indigenous Australian art, they often come to it asking “How can we help these poor, underprivileged people?” Many people do not realize, for example, that the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Center, where many of the works in Maḏayin originate, is not a tin shed; it is a multimillion-dollar company owned and directed by Aboriginal people. Djambawa and the Yolŋu curators see this exhibition as an opportunity for the world to learn from them and the gift of their knowledge. I think the exhibition also presents an opportunity to open up dialogues between Yolŋu and Indigenous nations in the United States and around the world, as well as for other Indigenous peoples to take inspiration from this project and to collaborate with Yolŋu. Maḏayin is their gift to the world, and it is powerful.
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.
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.
The differences between American and Australian cultures are evident across people, places, and events. Being one ofthe 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.
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.
Evergreens grow around the door of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Djambawa Marawili was leafing through papers when he found a picture of his father. The image accompanied a monumental bark painting that, in 1996, then about nine years earlier, had won him a National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award in Australia.
The mid-1990s were important for Marawili: not only was he gathering renown as an artist but he was also preparing to assume the leadership of his Madarrpa clan from his father, Wakuthi Marawili, who died in 2005.
In the two decades to 2015, when Marawili was in the US on an artist’s residency, he had revised his father’s generation’s beliefs about the way clan designs, known as miny’tji, could be used in Yolngu art. He did so as part of a sea rights battle that ultimately won Aboriginal groups control over 80 per cent of the Northern Territory’s coastline beginning with the landmark Blue Mud Bay decision in 2008.
“My father didn’t really explain himself to our people,” Marawili says. “He left a message through patterns and designs, through painting … (and) when I saw that picture, it awakened my mind to the need to stand up for our culture, to share the wisdom and knowledge of that old fella so it can be meaningful to everyone.”
With that realisation, a plan began forming to demonstrate the strength of Yolngu culture through what could be one of the most ambitious overseas shows in years.
The Kluge-Ruhe at the University of Virginia is the only museum in the US devoted to Aboriginal art. At the heart of its collection are barks gathered across several decades, first by literature professor Edward Ruhe and later by media mogul John Kluge, once America’s richest man. Working on a shoestring budget from the 60s onwards, Ruhe amassed pieces by artists such as Narritjin Maymuru, Mithinari Gurruwiwi, Birrikitji Gumana, Gawirrin Gumana and Wandjuk Marika, now acknowledged as masters of their time. In 1996, Kluge commissioned 28 monumental paintings from Buku-Larrnggay, the art centre in Yirrkala in northeast Arnhem Land where Marawili and others trade, capturing a snapshot of local artists’ work just as they were attaining international prominence. Those pieces have never been exhibited together because of their size.
Marawili saw his father’s picture while exploring Kluge-Ruhe’s archives with Henry Skerritt, a lanky Australian intellectual who was then doing a PhD and is now the museum’s curator. “I think it was both an amazing and also quite emotional, nostalgic thing for Djambawa, looking at those paintings,” Skerritt says. “He said to me, ‘You need to show that the tradition is continuing.’ ”
Marawili is a barrel-chested man who speaks in a commanding basso. “I saw some of our patterns and designs and realised it was just one part of our story reaching out to America,” he says. “Some of the patterns were really old … today, we have the same designs and patterns and stories, but we have new ways of putting them out into the public (domain), of using them to tell people that we have our own rights, our own language, our own way of living … we have our own society, our own world, our tribal roles and responsibilities that have been there for century after century, ancestor after ancestor, because we have our own country and we have been living on our country — we were the first people in Australia before the second family group came. I’m talking about whitefellas.”
From their interactions with Macassan, Dutch and possibly Chinese sailors, through early settlement and on to the Yirrkala Church Panels and Yirrkala Bark Petitions, the Barunga Statement, the Yolngu people have sought to project their identity with this force.
“When Djambawa told us what we had to do, we got hopping and we’re doing it,” says Margo Smith, the Kluge-Ruhe’s director. “We really want to understand these works of art the way Yolngu understand them.”
Madayin means law. According to a dictionary, the word can describe the beauty inherent in ritual objects, important ceremonies or people; as an adjective, it conveys connotations of reverence, secrecy and taboo.
Will Stubbs, Buku’s co-ordinator, says there is no English equivalent but the Greek concept arete (like moral virtue) is similar. “If you see a beautiful woman come out of her bedroom, dressed for her prom, and you are her grandfather, you might say ‘madayin’,” he say. “It’s the idea that moral virtue equals excellence, equates with the idea that moral virtue equals law … what you need to understand is that this is a different universe and that, as an outsider looking in, you are not objectively neutral.”
If all goes to plan, madayin also will be the title of a major new touring exhibition bringing Americans as far as possible on to the Yolngu’s spectral plane. Skerritt says there is “a lot more interest (in the US) in Aboriginal art than there is in non-Aboriginal Australian art”. While some smaller US galleries have begun probing the canon more deeply, so far larger institutions have preferred surveys consisting of a few pieces each of various styles. These museums and galleries, Skerritt and others believe, now have an appetite for something “more tailored”.
Stephen Gilchrist, a University of Sydney lecturer who curated Everywhen: The Eternal Present in indigenous Art from Australia at the Harvard Art Museum last year, says it is an exciting time to work in the US as more institutions open their doors. “In Australia, indigenous art is often seen as oppositional to Australian art,” he says. “Outside Australia, straight away it’s international art … that can be quite freeing.”
One difficulty with Australian audiences is that they often need to learn and unlearn to escape their prejudices, Gilchrist says. “Sometimes, it’s just easier with a blank slate. In Australia, a little bit of knowledge can be very dangerous,” he says. “You can actually get to a much deeper place, I think, with international audiences.”
Madayin’s aim is to offer American audiences their first in-depth look at Aboriginal art from a particular region via a series of shows at top-shelf metropolitan institutions. Earlier this year, Skerritt and others staged a month-long planning tour that stopped, among other places, in Washington, New York and Los Angeles. His intention is to combine the best of Kluge-Ruhe’s collection with works borrowed from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the two biggest public collections of barks in the US after the Kluge-Ruhe.
The Kluge-Ruhe has also commissioned Buku artists to produce 30 paintings. The result is expected to be an exhibition of about 100 works charting seven decades of bark painting in northeast Arnhem Land, including a significant amount of old and new unseen material. Madayin is set to launch in Australia with an exhibition of new works in 2019, then tour the US from 2020 to 2022.
“What I knew was that for this to be a meaningful project, it couldn’t be white guys doing the curation,” Skerritt says. “It’s not a story that belongs to us: it’s a story that belongs to the Yolngu people, so it’s for them to tell.”
The project team now consists of Skerritt, Smith, Stubbs, independent curator and consultant Kade McDonald, who used to work for Buku, and Australian National University professors Frances Morphy and Howard Morphy. Added to those are Yolngu leaders Yinimala Gumana and Wukun Wanambi, respectively representing the Yirritja and Dhuwa moieties, the principal balancing forces of Yolngu life. Together, they are acting as emissaries for northeast Arnhem Land’s 14 Yolngu clans. By other accounts, day one of the project was really when Wanambi and Gumana arrived in the US in April, and from then on it was clear they would be bosses.
Says Skerritt: “To me, that’s what makes this quite a unique show: we are creating the opportunity for something that is, at every level, guided by the community.”
Wanambi is a joker. He calls early; calls late. He leaves silent messages and others with imitation voices. Until recently, his Instagram account, which he acquired while overseas, was a scream of lurid and altered experiments. He is also a fierce steward of Yolngu lore. “We’ve got to get people to understand who we are, what we are and that we are indigenous people living in a way that our culture has passed on through the generations until today. Sometimes it made me angry (looking at old barks in the US) because the stories were stronger in those days. If you look today, they are partly gone; but we still remember that past, those people that have gone, and what they did.”
Gumana seems quieter, more considered. He spends much of his time at Gangan, an outstation community close to some areas with particular spiritual significance to certain Yolngu clans. “Art is our madayin, our foundation, our eternity,” he says. “It’s also our discipline … for example, when someone goes to the men’s business area, they have that discipline to paint their chests and their bodies. In Yolngu society, it’s important to have that discipline not to do things the wrong way, to be confident and learn, to get more knowledge and go deeper into that area where Yolngu people survive now today.”
Touring around the US, Wanambi and Gumana opened and closed every meeting with clapsticks and song.
“One of the things that really attracted me to the Yolngu people is the strength of their culture, the performative aspect of their culture,” Smith says. “The way they embody that strength and push it out into a room, people listening to Yinimala and Wukun singing were very affected. I guess it’s that strength that has enabled the Yolngu to keep themselves together … and move into the modern world.”
Skerritt recalls preliminary banter at high-level meetings, “then all of a sudden Wukun and Yinimala would go into manikay (singing) and then say, ‘Now the meeting begins’. Watching those guys sitting in a room with directors and curators from some of the biggest institutions in the country … able to carry across this enormous cultural gulf the power and significance of what they were doing felt extraordinary,” he says. McDonald jokes that some art-world types can “go on and on, but Wukun knew exactly when to smash those clapsticks together and bring the meeting to an end”.
Madayin is not the first project to involve indigenous curators, but Skerritt and McDonald argue their community-driven approach is novel. Tjungunutja, the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory’s long-awaited exhibition of early Papunya boards, nearly a decade in the making, relied heavily on advice from groups of central Australian elders.
“If you say you want to work with indigenous communities then you have to value people’s input,” MAGNT curator of Aboriginal art Luke Scholes says. At the Tjungunutja opening, MAGNT director Marcus Schutenko called that “a form of repatriation”. Madayin’s scale, collaboration across multiple clan groups and local agency make it “a first definitely for America, if not here”, McDonald says.
Northeast Arnhem Land has perhaps Australia’s longest records of continuous Aboriginal art production. The earliest surviving Yirrkala barks, collected in the 30s and 40s, depict miny’tji some experts believe Yolngu leaders painted for diplomatic reasons.
“When it became obvious the people receiving those works were regarding them not as creating diplomatic bonds but as material items to be hung on a wall or traded for money, the Yolngu self-censored and made a distinction between madayin and painting for the outside world,” Stubbs says.“
The censorship was that one or more elements of the law were reinterpreted figuratively on top of the design to protect the uninitiated.”
A generation of painters created barks whose power radiated subversively from their backgrounds. Then, as Marawili prepared to wage courtroom warfare to defend the coastline around his homeland from seabed mining, he argued for change.
“Djambawa was saying, ‘These guys are gone, and their rules were fine for them, but if we don’t make these designs and this law and use it to protect our land and culture then we can’t win,’” Stubbs says.
“That battle was eventually won by the progressives … a whole generation of artists has grown up thinking there’s nothing unusual about painting a design that’s just miny’tji. But when it first happened in 1995, it caused great controversy.”
Miny’tji are part of the kinship system known as gurrutu through which Yolngu people and groups relate to each other. Many Yolngu artworks reflect those relationships and others between individuals, land, stories and objects.
Marawili likens traditional clan designs to Latin scriptures; Stubbs says they can be read literally by anyone with appropriate knowledge. The perceived value of earlier artworks often lay in the acts of painting and giving themselves; many were not made to survive.
But as markets developed, artists responded to buyers, support staff, one another, and works became more personal and more permanent, materials and techniques more modern. Contemporary Yolngu art from northeast Arnhem Land thus defines a broad sweep embracing cultural continuity and social change. Today, ancient miny’tji appear on glass, metal and paper and in digital forms without diminishing their power, as well as on bark and skin. Some women have begun producing patterns that, according to Marawili, are wholly decorative, contain no law and depict only lived experiences. How to curate such a canon?
“It’s not easy,” says Wanambi. “I didn’t know what I was going to do until I got there. I said (to the non-Aboriginal members), ‘Let me run the show and you walk behind me,’ and that seemed to go OK … it’s not like balanda (non-Aboriginal people), ‘think, think, think’ all the time.“
Yolngu have the confidence to choose quicker and lay the picture down clearer.” Observers say he and Gumana also approached the process differently.
“They were looking at a curation from a very cultural perspective rather than from an academic or anthropological perspective,” McDonald says.
“Yolngu don’t have a tense in their work. The stories they tell are about things that have happened, are happening and will happen in the future.”
Wanambi and Gumana initially ordered the paintings relative to themselves, marking out gurrutu, but that proved difficult for non-Yolngu to understand. Then they changed to a more orthodox, lineal-temporal arrangement, which failed to satisfy on the grounds that it might falsely suggest the show was about change. Finally, they settled on a simple model reflecting the two moieties, using bark paintings to illustrate how continuous aspects of Yolngu culture have been rendered differently at different times. One bark showing a Gumatj clan warrior in Macassan dress highlighted differences of curatorial interest. Such pieces fascinate anthropologists, some of whom believe Yolngu seafarers ventured as far as Singapore before Australia was settled. But Wanambi and Gumana felt it disrupted the picture of beauteous law they saw clearly and were tracing. “The Macassan painting, it’s like a foreign story. It’s described within the Yolngu world when the Macassans arrived in our areas,” Gumana says. “I’m not sure yet how we are going to treat those Macassan pieces — the madayin story is all about our people.”
Wanambi says of the Macassan-inspired work, “it’s strong, but to me it shows no stories … it’s just like trade or something.” Shown a picture of the same painting, Marawili remarks with finality: “That is not the law.”
The plan is for Madayin to evolve through a series of local and cross-cultural exchanges in Arnhem Land, Charlottesville and beyond. Marawili is scheduled to speak at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, in September. Difficult works such as the Macassan painting will go through a cultural advisory process, with the final selection of barks to be made in conjunction with clan leaders. Some Yolngu fear the word madayin may be too sacred for a title, while others say overcoming such objections is essential to the integrity of the show.
Debates about placements, descriptions and other details loom. Buku’s Mulka Centre, a digital archiving project, will contribute multimedia and documentation. When the exhibition finally opens Yolngu leaders, in digital and physical form, will accompany the art to speak about themselves and their collective identity, leveraging a decades-long legacy of art practice and museum collecting to expose the outlines of a culture that resides in people.
“Because of their nature, the Yolngu are attuned to acting together,” Stubbs says. “That’s what comes from not being in an individual-based society: the sense that the world is a tapestry of different identities, and that each of these identities is as rich as any other, allows co-operating artists to act in unison to present a finished representation of the law.”
It was not always so. “I’m not criticising anyone else, but the art has come from this (Yolngu) world and been exported around the world, and only then have people started looking (at it) and doing research,” Gumana says. “Bark needs (Yolngu) people there to represent it because it’s a representation of the people and the places … bark is not just art.”
Yolngu need to see the country, to feel the country, Gumana continues, “so the country might recognise us and we might recognise the country as well. Bark painting is very rich in our life, very important to our people. It gives us strength and power to live on the earth in a particular way, to live and learn so we can give something back and look after the country as well.” But if so much is linked, is there any role for outside interpreters at all?
In 2011, when curator Hetti Perkins resigned from Sydney’s Art Gallery of NSW after 13 years, she said the “mainstreaming of Aboriginal art and culture has largely failed us”.
While reluctant to elaborate or say whether those same difficulties persist today, Perkins is sure indigenous art is not fundamentally different from any other — at least not academically.
One trigger for her 2011 comments was a perception she found within mainstream institutions that “things can’t be seen outside very specific cultural contexts”. She believes indigenous art can differ regarding its maker’s influences, social and historical circumstances and conceptual frameworks, but is otherwise similar to other forms. “Bark painting, that’s a contemporary form of artistic expression,” Perkins says. “Those artists aren’t just cultural photocopiers; they’re engaging with that tradition but making their own voice within it.”
“I don’t think you need to be Spanish to talk about Picasso or indigenous to talk about indigenous art,” Gilchrist says. “But it is important that indigenous people be involved in the curation and share control.”
Back in Arnhem Land, Stubbs spots a Yolngu boy painting a type of “traditionally inspired graffiti” using a 3-D computer program. In a society without text, the responsibility to put the culture you hold into other people’s heads is a life’s work, but the process is evolving. He believes the Yolngu have long been prepared to share their culture, but says Madayin has come about now only through a “maturation of the relationship” in which outsiders have become “less primitive in our assessments”.
Gumana says it was only on seeing the extent of US bark collections that he realised he could “do research for my people. That really felt good and surprised me.” Rather than face repatriation demands, institutions that engage with Aboriginal communities on a fair footing can participate in their cultural maintenance.
Down the coast at Baniyala in Blue Mud Bay, Marawili is preparing ceremonial paraphernalia for his son’s initiation when reached by phone.
“You’re interrupting me,” he says, before the conversation rambles. “You can look at our patterns and see patterns. But our patterns are also connected to stories, to the land, the waterholes, the sea and the songlines. There’s a message coming up through drawings and songs and armbands and dilly bags, and beyond that there are sand sculptures about the country. When you look at art, it’s just art. But if you want to do the research you (then) will see all these things are connected, back to the land.”
Gilchrist says most modern Aboriginal art is inseparable from influences that evolved after Australian settlement. Just as the existence of the Papunya boards shown in Tjugunutja records their creators’ tribal customs, incipient artistic talent and the effervescent, multicultural atmosphere of Papunya at that time, so no traditional piece made for outsiders, with modern techniques, can be entirely removed from the circumstances of its design and acquisition.“
I think people want an easy answer, and the answer is that it’s not either-or, it’s both,” Gilchrist says. “Art is deeply personal and it has emphasis within communities as well: it’s cultural, but it’s also biographical.” Some Yolngu liken cultural exchange to a billabong: they expose themselves to the water’s surface while secrets remain beneath. Art then is the fleeting reflections anyone can see, while its interpretation hints at fish, tree roots, lily bulbs and tangled weed. To non-Yolngu, that pool has no visible bottom. And so long as it remains rich, deep and fertile, it probably never will.