"My story goes like this. It tells of a fish called wawurritjpal, which we call marparrarr, somewhat like a large mullet. The fish was swimming along, swimming through the water, jumping as it went. Yes, he was search- ing for where his path lay. “Where is my pathway?” he said. “Why, it is this way,” he said to himself. “It is this one, this is my strength.” Then, he went on alone, toward all those different places, yes. The mullet traveled from river to river, creek to creek, ocean to ocean, looking for his destiny. That fish gave me power.
Soon the fish was traveling along with its own family. And he was happy to be with all his family. So, he returned once more to the rock called Bamurruŋu and circled round it. He circled round and said, “Yes, this is my place, this is our place.” And the whole family of fish submerged themselves there. The fish found its destiny and laid down its spirit. Just like that fish, when we die, our spirit goes down, diving into our Country, into our land."
– WUKUṈ WAṈAMBI
Wukuṉ Waṉambi's oeuvre, whether on bark, ḻarrakitj, prints, video or etched metal, represents a profound meditation on the nature of life and death, forged in the intersection of cultures. Wukuṉ liked to say that his paintings were an attempt to “break down” Yolŋu theology into simple parcels that uninformed ŋäpaki’ (non-Yolŋu) could understand. Viewing them, he would say, is like looking at the surface of the waters. There are depths that you cannot see: an entire ocean of knowledge hidden from ŋäpaki’ eyes.
One of Wukun’s favorite analogies when describing the actions of the mullet in his paintings, circling round looking for their destiny, was to compare them to what ŋäpaki’ do when they go onto the genealogy website Ancestry.com. This might seem strange to non-Indigenous readers, who see heritage and destiny as opposite ends of a trajectory from past to present to future. But in the swirling waters of Gurka’wuy, Wukuṉ points to a very different spiral of existence. As his spirit returns to these waters, it joins a family of mullets, circling round the great rock Bumurruŋu. These are not merely fish, they are Djuwany, the entire reservoir of spirits for the Marrakulu clan. “The spirit,’ he said, ‘travels through the water and returns to its source and then is born anew."
According to Marrakulu lore, these fish became the Marparrarr ancestral beings who were the original inhabitants of the lands around Gurka’wuy. The bubbles that rise to the surface from beneath the rock Bamurruŋu are seen as the life force of these ancestral beings, revealing their direct ancestral connection to the Marrakulu clan.
– Henry Skerritt
Natural pigments on eucalyptus bark
87 ¾ x 39 1/3
223 x 100
Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia. The 2017-19 Kluge-Ruhe Maḏayin Commission. Purchased with funds provided by the Finemore Family Foundation, 2020. 2020.0005.001
About The Artist(s)
Wukuṉ Waṉambi was an acclaimed artist, filmmaker and leader of the Marrakulu clan. His work is held in numerous important collections, including the British Museum and the National Gallery of Australia. Wukuṉ was one of the lead curators of the exhibition Maḏayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala.
Charles Darwin University
Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia
Kunstwerk Sammlung Klein
Manly Regional Gallery
Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory
Museum Fünf Kontinente, Munich
Museum of Contemporary Art Australia
National Gallery of Australia
Supreme Court of the Northern Territory