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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
“I’m serious. This is for your ears only. Can you keep a secret?”
“Um. I guess.”
“Djambawa.” “The bark painting prize?”
“No. The big one.”
It was August was 2019. I was in a hotel in Sydney, trying to shake off jetlag before heading to Darwin the next day. I felt a little like I had left my brain somewhere over the Pacific. I’d texted Will Stubbs, Coordinator of the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre to let him know I had arrived in the country. It was a pleasant surprise to get a call a few minutes later with such momentous news—Djambawa Marawili was the winner of the 2019 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. Will was sharing this top secret information, not just because I was a card carrying member of the Djambawa Marawili fan club, but because the painting that had won the award had been commissioned by Kluge-Ruhe for Maḏayin and was created in response to his multiple visits to the USA. Titled Journey to America, the work shows Bäru, the ancestral crocodile-man bringing fire into the waters at Yathikpa. The fire crescendos up the bark, crossing oceans to meet the Statue of Liberty. In the lower corner, the coat of arms of Australia is also shown. Speaking on the work, he said: “ Everyone can see that I have confidence I have to carry in my soul and in my blood, to reach out to another nation, to another world, with our sorrow, with our love peace and joy.”
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.
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.
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.”
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:
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 classificatory sister Noŋgirrŋa (Noŋgirrŋa’s father Mundukuḻ is the older brother of Djambawa’s father Wakuthi). 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.
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!
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 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.
Today, Wukuṉ Waṉambi, Kade McDonald and I packed up two troop-carriers and headed towards Gäṉgan, a homeland community about 100 miles south-west of Yirrkala. Kade and I had been through Gäṉgaṉ a couple of months earlier to confirm with Yininala Gumana the selections of artworks from the Dhaḻwaŋu clan to be included in Maḏayin. On that trip, we had discussed with Yinimala returning to Gäṉgän in August so that he could dictate his essay, or “declaration,” for the catalogue.
Yinimala invited us to join him at Garrapara – the saltwater estate of the Dhaḻwaŋu clan where he was running an environmental knowledge camp for Yolŋu teens as part of his role with the Yirralka Rangers. The camp was finishing on the 14th, so Yinimala proposed that he could dictate his essay the following morning, sitting with the saltwater stretching behind him. We were joined for the trip by Wukuṉ’s brother, the artist Yalanba Waṉambi, Dr. Maia Nuku, Curator of Oceania at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, her son TeAonehe and publishers Jason and Luca Lavigne of the website Mamamia.
Arriving at Gäṉgaṉ, Wukuṉ told us to wait in the car, while he headed into one of the house with a packet of cigarettes and a couple of fifty dollar bills. A few minutes later, he was back, minus the cigarettes and cash, and we turned around and headed for Garrapara.
For the first part of the drive, we retraced our steps along the Central Arnhem Road, until Yalanba directed us to turn onto the most meagre of bush tracks. It was slightly harrowing driving into the wilderness in the dark, but Yalanba seemed to know the every twist and turn of the bush track. After about thirty minutes, I managed to get one wheel stuck in a ditch, at which point Wukuṉ decided he would drive. Wukuṉ has never liked my driving. With Wukuṉ at the wheel, we went a lot faster through the scrub, finally arriving at a large clearing. We were greeted by Yinimala, who was waiting for us with a pile of small, individual tents. He told us to follow him, and he led us to the beach where we would camp. He instructed us to park our 4WD’s on the ocean side, providing both a wind and crocodile barrier, and we quickly set to making camp.
It is always great to see Yinimala–and he seemed genuinely pleased to see us too. With the camp finished, he seemed relaxed, and we sat for several hours by the fire drinking milky tea and catching up. It was late when he left our camp, but he told us he would be back early the next morning to make his declaration for the catalogue.
After breakfast the next morning, Yinimala returned. Wukuṉ had been scouting positions to film Yinimala, and settled on a spot. Settling down in the sand, Yinimala proceeded to deliver an extremely animated piece of oratory in Yolŋu Matha. I could make out odd words, but could not understand the content of what he was saying. I could tell, however, that it was being delivered confidence and conviction. For nearly an hour, Yinimala spoke while gesturing to the waters, bays and peninsulas around him His voice never faltered, so clear was the message he was trying to convey. His voice crescendoed in the rhythmic, songlike-mode of Yolŋu oratory. Even though I could not understand him, I knew he was delivering something of great power and significance. At the end, there was silence. Wukuṉ turned to me, and in a low whisper breathed, “manymak.”(Good). Everyone was in a state of stunned silence, when Yinimala replied with a grin, “Probably too complicated, but we can edit it down.”
With the business of the morning complete, we packed up camp while Yalanba fished from the beach with a handline. Soon, he had caught a beautiful yambirrku’ (Choerodon cyanodus, blue parrot fish). His brother Yilpirr set up a fire in the shade and proceeded to cook the fish, while we were told to head to the main camp where a shelter had been set up in front of a clearing. We were told that an impromptu buŋgul was about to occur, a special treat to celebrate the end of the camp and our arrival. Led by Yinimala, a group of a dozen rangers marched towards the clearing singing manikay (ceremonial song).
After leading the group to the clearing, Yinimala sat with us under the shade, where he and a small group of older men directed the dancers through a cycle of songs, culminating in one relating to the Yiŋapuŋapu, in which the participants gathered together in a tight group to eat the yambirrku’, before lying on the ground and mimicking the movement of maggots feasting on the bones of the fish. Being at Garrapara; hearing Yinimala passionately orate the stories of this place; hearing them sung and watching them be danced on these sacred lands of the Dhaḻwaŋu clan as the sea gently roared in the background brought into perspective all the majesty and depth hidden in the zig-zag designs of so many legendary Dhalwaŋu painters. With the buŋgul complete, we said our goodbyes and headed on to Bäniyala.
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.