After travelling through thousands of years of history, Australian indigenous art will soon tour major US institutions, writes Amos Aikman.
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.