Organized by the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection

What’s in a name?

Yilpirr Waṉambi, Wäka Munuŋgurr and Djambawa Marawili perform ceremonial song to consecrate the curatorial decisions made at Bäniyala, May 2019. Photo by Henry Skerritt.

Finding the right name for an exhibition is always hard. It’s even harder in the case of an exhibition curated by a team of people across two continents! But, from the moment we started work on this exhibition we all knew it needed a name. A lot of ideas were thrown around, but it didn’t take very long for one to stick: MAḎAYIN.

Maḏayin is a big word. Generally speaking, it means “the sacred.” But it can also be used to describe something very beautiful or sublime. Yälpi Yunupiŋu described it like this:

What is maḏayin? Maḏayin is the sacred realm that has been told to us by the old people. Maḏayin is sacred. We cannot share those stories. But it is alright, I can tell you the surface of the story.

The decision to name the exhibition Maḏayin was a controversial one. Some of the Yolŋu curators feared that it would discourage women artists from wanting to be involved, fearing that it was concerned with men’s ceremonial knowledge. Others feared that some clan leaders would think the title was inappropriate, indicating the sharing of knowledge that should remain secret. At one point, Yinimala Gumana even argued that the title was too momentous for any exhibition to live up to. He thought it should limit itself to the realm of sacred art—maḏayin miny’tji. These questions were very much at the forefront of the early curatorial discussions, and were invariably the starting point for all our consultations with clan leaders.

Members of the curatorial team, Kade McDonald, Gunybi Ganambarr, Yinimala Gumana and Wukuṉ Waṉambi discuss the exhibition title. Photo by Ishmael Marika.

In these early days, I often felt like the title was a millstone around the project’s neck. I could sense the way that Wukuṉ Waṉambi—who quickly emerged as the lead Yolŋu curator—would carefully preface the word whenever we were starting discussions with other Yolŋu. It was only on Djambawa Marawili’s second visit to Charlottesville in September 2017 that I realized why Djambawa and Wukuṉ had persisted using this seemingly loaded term. According to Wukun:

Dhuyu and maḏayin are two words that we use for things that are secret and sacred. And we have chosen to leave those secret things secret. But we wanted to open another door for maḏayin, to translate its beauty, to say “this is a beautiful painting, this is a beautiful Country.” That is how we curators explained it to Yolŋu people and eventually they agreed to get involved, and agreed to put the name Maḏayin on our great project. And we will take it to Washington and Los Angeles to show our identity. Then can break this big word into small words, little pieces that people can understand. For the bark tells of our identity, our skinship and our destiny.

Listening to Wukuṉ and Djambawa, it became clear that using this “big” word reflected the seriousness with which they viewed the project, and the seriousness with which they wanted other Yolŋu to view it. It was a clarion call that this exhibition would reflect the values that at the core of Yolŋu being. This did not mean sharing things that were dhuyu, but recognizing its power as the foundation of Yolŋu identity. On his last day in Charlottesville, Djambawa explained it this way:

There are two types of ceremonies: one that is public (garma) and one that is maḏayin (sacred). You can see some things that are sacred: headbands, some paintings and other things publicly, but no one can take them away from me because it is in my soul and my blood and I will die with them. Our patterns and designs have been laid on a certain country, when the ancestors passed through naming it: “You are Marawili, this is your country this is your identity.” Every individual clan has their own maḏayin, but there is also a maḏayin that brings all those clans together.

A Trip to the American Museum of Natural History

When I went across to America, everything was different. Yes, especially in New York. It felt very strange to me, because it was all city, no bush. But then in the museums we saw many bark paintings, which brought my mind back to where my people come from.

Wukun Waṉambi

A bright, sunny day in New York City and everyone is feeling somewhat exhausted after the exhibition launch the previous evening, but work must go on! At 11am we meet Jacklyn Lacey, Curator of African and Pacific Ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and Maia Nuku, Curator of Oceanic Art at the Metropolitan Museum at the 77th Street entrance to AMNH. In her email, Jacklyn had described it as the “canoe” entrance and rightly so: suspended in the foyer is a 63-foot canoe of the Heiltsuk and Haida Nations. Hard not be awed by the sheer scale and beauty of the “Great Canoe.”

Henry Skerritt, Wukun Waṉambi and Margo Smith at AMNH.

Behind the scenes, AMNH is a labyrinth of 19th century hallways, every corner revealing weird and wonderful surprises. Finally we reach the area where Australian materials are held. We are here to look at a series of bark paintings from c.1958, collected at Yirrkala by Professors Ronald and Catherine Berndt on behalf of the AMNH. We are surprised to find that these barks have been flattened and glued onto backing boards. This has led to considerable cracking—and in some instances the glue has discolored the surface of the barks.

After having surveyed literally hundreds of paintings at Kluge-Ruhe and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Wukun has honed his classificatory short-hand. Holding court on spinning office chair, he was presented with each work, before quickly declaring paintings “real” or “tourist” paintings. For the exhibition, Wukun and Yinimala were looking for works that related to the maḏayin miny’tji (sacred clan designs), not necessarily works that expressed the artist’s individual vision:

Yinimala Gumana, Wukun Waṉambi and Kade McDonald at AMNH.

When we went to America and went to museums going drawer to drawer, some of the paintings are real, and some of the paintings are not real—they are just paintings done for tourists. Those designs don’t come from Yolngu manikay (songlines) or Yolngu miny’tji (clan designs). They won’t take your mind back to the water, to tell you how far you can go, or your destiny to follow. I know how to curate the real paintings into an exhibition. Real paintings are not a “once upon a time” story, just made up by the artist. I’m not criticizing other people as artists—but those paintings are just how they see. So when I saw those tourist paintings I didn’t want to include them in the exhibition because they don’t say anything to me. If a balanda (non-Indigenous person) was curating the exhibition, they might have kept them in, but for Yolŋu, it’s a different understanding.

Wukun Waṉambi

Nevertheless, there are many exquisite paintings—particularly from Rirratjingu artists. A number of paintings particularly interest Wukun and Yinimala, most notably a pair of works depicting the tail of a whale. (80.1/ 3765 and 80.1/ 3823). There is some discussion as to which clan this painting belongs to, the consensus being that it is a Warramiri design related to Nanydjaka (Cape Arnhem). Another was an beautifully fine Ngaymil clan painting (80.1/ 3815)—most likely by the artist Larrtjanga Ganambarr. As with previous museum visits, Wukun and Yinimala left inspired by the cultural legacy left by their forebears.

A Trip to Garrapara

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 is 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.