fig. 1

The Aboriginal community of Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land has produced some of the most masterful Australian painters of the mid- to late-twentieth century. Their barks are adorned with the unique designs of the region, comprising woven ochre cross-hatching and intricate geometric patterns interspersed with striking figurative motifs. The juxtaposition of pattern and icon structures the graphic lexicon of the classic Yolŋu aesthetic, producing paintings that may be read in a variety of ways. Like the representational traditions of history painting, layers of symbolism, allegory and moral instruction are captured within climactic moments drawn from the epic events of the ancestral past, producing religious masterpieces that have all but eclipsed their secular counterparts.1 While painting from the region is characterised by barks displaying sacred ancestral designs, Naminapu Maymuru White, Gulumbu Yunupiŋu, Wukun Wanambi, Wolpa Wanambi and Boliny Wanambi also paint in immediately recognisable secular styles based on intricately repeated icons: expanses of stars, schools of fish and swarms of bees and mosquitoes. These Yolŋu ‘history paintings’ convey the drama and power of the ancestral world and depict themes such as the fearsome Shark (Mäna) thrashing the water in anger, or the mighty Thunder Man (Bol’ŋu) poised in the act of casting thunder and lightning from the heavens. These paintings are described by Yolŋu as an ancestral legacy that details the indissoluble bonds between people and their heritage, bridging spiritual and material worlds.

Early advocates of Yolŋu painting admired both the artistry and the unique representational system that encodes these religious narratives. While many Yolŋu were instrumental in bringing bark painting from this region to public attention, few have been recognised as individual agents within this history. Mawalan Marika, Muŋgurrawuy Yunupiŋu and Narritjin Maymuru are perhaps the most highly celebrated of these painters. Less well-known is Djutjadjutja Munuŋgurr (c.1935–1999) (fig. 1), a ceremonial leader of Djapu-speaking Yolŋu who, in his final years, augmented his role as a statesman with a renewed enthusiasm for bark painting.

Djutjadjutja was born in the years surrounding the establishment of the Yirrkala mission in 1934–35 and married Noŋgirrŋa Marawili, with whom he raised six children. He painted only sporadically while living between Yirrkala and the Garrthalala homeland, although his work was exhibited as early as 1976. Together with Daymbalipu Munuŋgurr and Mäu Munuŋgurr, Djutjadjutja re-established Wandawuy as a Djapu homeland in the mid 1970s, where the artist later resided. He inherited the primary responsibilities for this estate, his ceremonial standing a product of his lineage as a senior son of the great leader, Woŋgu, and by virtue of the ceremonial knowledge learnt from his elders.2 Woŋgu was an astute politician and a commanding leader whose resistance to the incursions of Japanese merchants and Euro-Australians into Yolŋu territories is well documented in historical literature. Woŋgu steered his people through the turbulent political era of the 1930s and 1940s in which the Federal Government attempted to present a semblance of control over Aboriginal affairs to an increasingly concerned public. It was through this history that Woŋgu came to be a primary informant for the anthropologist Donald Thomson, as well as one of the earliest bark painters from the region whose work is represented in national collections (see T. Egan, Justice All Their Own: The Caledon Bay and Woodah Island Killings 1932–1933, Melbourne, 1996; D. Thomson, Donald Thomson in Arnhem Land [1983], Melbourne, 2003; M. Dewar, The ‘Black War’ in Arnhem Land: Missionaries and the Yolngu 1908–1940, Darwin, 1992). In a historic repatriation in 1999 Djutjadjutja accepted the mäk, or message sticks, that Thomson delivered between Woŋgu and his three sons who were imprisoned in Darwin at the height of the political tension in the region.

Djutjadjutja drew his primary spiritual affiliation with Mäna, the Shark ancestor, who bestowed the Wandawuy homeland to the Djapu group and defined them as Shark People. The consecrated emblems by which Djapu painters represent their relationship to Mäna and to Wandawuy comprise the foremost artistic motifs of this group, and they form the basis of the iconographic analysis I pursue in this essay. My study draws on Djutjadjutja’s explanations of Djapu paintings in the historic Miny’tji Buku Larrŋgay Collection – twenty-five bark paintings from north-east Arnhem Land acquired by the NGV in 1994–95. Named after the art centre in Yirrkala, the collection is significant to both the history of the NGV’s Indigenous art acquisitions and to developments in Yolŋu painting in the 1990s. As it also provides the historical context to Djutjadjutja’s mature work, I provide an introduction to the genesis of the collection before examining three Djapu paintings associated with the Wandawuy homeland and with Mäna, the ancestral Shark.

The Miny’tji Buku Larrŋgay Collection

The origins of the collection lie in three works painted by Djutjadjutja Munuŋgurr (fig. 2), Gawirrin Gumana (fig. 3) and Dundiwuy Wanambi that were purchased by the Gallery and exhibited in its 1994 survey of contemporary Indigenous art, Power of the Land. While the Gallery acquired examples of rare, early works from Yirrkala, such as Djeriny’s Bol’ŋu, the Thunder Man, c.1952 (fig. 5), the Yirrkala region remained under-represented in the NGV collection. To redress this weakness and on the strength of the three initial paintings, Judith Ryan, Senior Curator of Indigenous Art, negotiated an unprecedented acquisition: a contemporary series that would span a breadth of Yolŋu artistic subjects and constitute a survey of painting from the area. The resulting paintings were submitted to the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award in 1994, where Dundiwuy Wanambi’s Wuyal was selected as the prizewinning work in the bark painting division. It was subsequently acquired by the Museum & Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, bringing the final number in the suite to twenty-five. The NGV displayed these paintings in Miny’tji Buku Larrŋgay: Paintings from the East that opened the Gallery’s third Indigenous exhibition space at its St Kilda Road location in 1995. Gawirrin Gumana declared the exhibition space ŋärra, sacred ground, a state that reflected the power of the paintings’ ancestral designs.

Ryan’s strategic development of the Indigenous art collection was supported by James Mollison, then NGV director, whose astute appreciation of the significance of Indigenous art assisted in securing major acquisitions for the Gallery. The collection included paintings by Yolŋu statesmen Mowarra Ganambarr, Dula Ŋurruwuthun and Larrtjanŋa Ganambarr. These leaders mentored a subsequent generation of artists and community leaders, a number of whom are also represented in the collection. These works inspired something of a renaissance in fine art production in Yirrkala, motivating a number of senior Yolŋu to paint for Buku Larrŋgay Mulka. Djutjadjutja Munuŋgurr’s turn to fine art grew directly from this period when he embraced bark painting with a renewed enthusiasm and contributed major works to a number of significant exhibitions and collections.

Djutjadjutja produced his first mature work in 1994 with the encouragement of Andrew Blake, art coordinator of Buku Larrŋgay Mulka. Blake was adopted into the artist’s family soon after his arrival in Yirrkala in late 1993 and, as one of Djutjadjutja’s ‘sons’, he was quickly seconded to cut bark in the 1993–94 wet season. The first bark sheet he collected under the direction of the Djapu elder was well in excess of two metres. Rather than follow the convention of dividing the sheet into smaller pieces, Blake insisted it be painted whole. Djutjadjutja accepted the challenge and began painting the bark on an unroofed cement slab at the rear of the art centre. The size of the bark, combined with Djutjadjutja’s relatively unpractised hand, caused the artist significant frustration. Unable to complete the painting to his satisfaction, he sought the assistance of his wife Noŋgirrŋa Marawili,3 Andrew Blake, interview with the author, Yirrkala, 20 August 2007. Djutjadjutja Munuŋgurr and Noŋgirrŋa Marawili painted na with the assistance of their daughters, Marrnyula and Rerrkirrwaŋa Munuŋgurr. The participation of family members, sometimes unattributed, is both a form of artistic tutelage and a demonstration of the rights held by kin to depict the ceremonial knowledge taught by a master painter. who also produced a very important work of her own (fig. 4).

The finished work, na, 1994 (fig. 2), was to become the first painting produced for one of the NGV’s most significant acquisitions of Indigenous art, and a work which, due to its commanding size and to the artist’s ceremonial standing, prompted other artists to insist on working on a similar scale. On seeing the bark, Gambali Ŋurruwuthun, Munyuku dkirrikay (ritual specialist) and Dundiwuy Wanambi, a prominent Marrakulu elder, were intent on producing paintings that matched its size.4 Blake, interview. Blake supplied the barks, and these senior men also produced paintings for the collection, beginning what was later colloquially termed the era of ‘big barks’.

The size of the barks permitted an ambitious selection of composite subjects and a more detailed composition than can easily be executed on smaller bark pieces. While large paintings were produced prior to the mid 1990s, the Miny’tji Buku Larrŋgay Collection is distinguished by the number of artworks exceeding two, and even three, metres – now almost a requisite scale for museum-quality paintings.5 It has been suggested by Ed Ruhe that the use of large barks was initially encouraged by Tony Tuckson, who travelled to Yirrkala and other remote communities in 1959 seeking works for the Art Gallery of New South Wales (see R. Greene & L. Greene, ‘Interview with Ed Ruhe’, Aux Arcs, Spring, vol. 1, no. 50, 1972, p. 57). The significance of the collection was not lost on Mollison who recognised that its acquisition was essential:

This is the single most important group of Aboriginal works to be executed after the ANG [now the National Gallery of Australia] commission of the Aboriginal Memorial hollow log coffins in 1988 and the work commissioned from Ramingining by the American John Kluge in 1990. These items are unprecedented in scale, artistic quality and the importance of the information being released by the clan leaders.6 NGV files, Submission for Acquisition, Miny’tji Buku Larrŋgay, June 1997.

 

The production of the Miny’tji Buku Larrŋgay Collection and the publicity that followed proved to be a pivotal period for east Arnhem Land art. Major exhibitions (including the Native Title show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney) followed almost immediately, as did significant attention from private galleries. American collector John Kluge commissioned a series of works by senior painters from Yirrkala in 1996 and, in that year, a bark painted in 1959 by Mathaman Marika (c.1916–1970), acclaimed Rirratjiŋu painter and a plaintiff in the historic Gove land rights case (Milirrpum vs Nabalco 1968–1971), set what was then a record price for Aboriginal art at secondary auction. In 1997 Yaŋgarriny Wunuŋmurra won the leading prize in the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award for the painting ngan, while Djutjadjutja Munuŋgurr received the award in the traditional media division for his bark Bol’ŋu, 1997, a subject he had also painted for the Miny’tji Buku Larrŋgay Collection.

The Thunder Man

Bol’ŋu, the Thunder Man, is depicted in a classic pose in Djutjadjutja’s Djapu rom (Men’s business), 1994 (fig. 6), raising his ceremonial spear in the dynamic stance of a hunter or warrior preparing to unleash the energy of his weapon. This spear is a highly sacred religious icon invested with the power of the ancestral man:

Djambawal [an alternative name for Bol’ŋu] is the controller of the seasons. He directs the weather by pointing his spear, Larrpan, to the estates of related clan groups who each sing the sacred verses of the Thunder Man … Djambawal causes lightning and storms as well as shooting meteors seen in the night sky – Larrpan his spear affirms the connections in the heavens.7 D. Mundine, ‘Saltwater’, in Saltwater: Yirrkala Bark Paintings of Sea Country, Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre, Yirrkala, 1999, p. 22.

The Thunder Man’s spear brings together an alliance of Yolŋu groups – the Rirratjiŋu, Djambarrpuyŋu, Dätiwuy, Djapu and Gälpu. These groups amass their strength like the accumulating clouds of the wet season that bring the monsoonal storms Yolŋu attribute to Bol’ŋu. One of the aesthetic qualities associated with paintings of the Thunder Man emerges from this climatology: the smell of the bush in flush as plants surge with growth in anticipation of the coming rains, the crackle of electrical energy in humid air, immense downpours and resonant thunder. These associations also impart the awe of and reverence for the sublime: a fearsome beauty that is revealed in nature when the human is brought before the power of the divine.

Djutjadjutja has depicted the Thunder Man posed in epic acts of creation. However, it is in the elaborate cross-hatching and repeated geometric patterns that the power of the sacred is realised as artists transform a blank surface into an object that exudes ancestral power. Anthropologist Howard Morphy explains that the perceptible aspects of ancestral power are the shimmering and sparkling qualities produced by intricately layered paint.8 See H. Morphy, ‘From dull to brilliant: The aesthetics of spiritual power among the Yolngu’, in Anthropology, Art and Aesthetics, J. Coote & A. Shelton (eds), Oxford, 1992, pp. 181–208. Sacred designs consecrate the objects on which they are applied, whether bark paintings or ceremonial items. Yolŋu men are ‘empowered’, as Yolŋu say, by designs painted on their chests during certain ceremonial inductions, enacting an ancestral state by having their bodies painted. These designs, madayin miny’tji, are understood to be the shadow of designs that originated on the bodies of ancestors and thus to contain their spirit.9 See Morphy. Hence Djutjadjutja has depicted Bol’ŋu with the Djapu cross-hatching of the sacred waters of Wandawuy, a design he selected for the lower half of Men’s business.

In this vignette Djutjadjutja presents objects of ceremonial significance: a spear thrower and a fishing spear tipped with the poisonous barbs of a stingray. The deadly weapon is associated with the powerful Shark ancestor who left the sacred spear, Warrŋgul, under a pandanus palm, Wupularri, when it rested there. This palm species bears the serrated teeth of the Shark in the countless razor-sharp spines on its tough fronds. The painting’s central motif is a men’s ceremony ground that shares its name with this spear. The association between the ground and the weapon are indicated by Djutjadjutja’s rendition of the ritual area, which leads at one end to a series of lines that are suggestive of the long barbs of a fishing spear. The accompanying Djapu design indicates the sacred waters of Wandawuy.

Djutjadjutja’s paintings are informed by his consummate ceremonial knowledge, and in Men’s business he introduces a subtle, self-referential twist by implying a physical resemblance between himself and the ancestral Thunder Man, evident in his depiction of Bol’ŋu’s beard which resembles his own. The artist pronounces his ceremonial stature by indicating that his knowledge of ancestral law is revealed in a morphological similarity with the ancestral being, in the luminosity of white hair, for example, indicative of ceremonial wisdom.

The ceremonial items depicted in the lower section of Men’s business are derived from the actions of na, the ancestral Shark, who was the subject of other works in Miny’tji Buku Larrŋgay: Paintings from the East. Rerrkirrwaŋa Munuŋgurr is an artist known for the meticulous precision of her cross-hatching, demonstrated in a third Djapu painting and one which elaborates the ceremonial themes relating to the Shark. na ga ŋati (Shark and meat ants), 1994 (fig. 7), like Djutjadjutja’s and Noŋgirrŋa’s na, depicts two of the foremost Djapu emblems – the shark and its liver – a deceptively simple motif which holds profound significance in Yolŋu philosophy. Whereas her parents presented a large liver motif flanking the figure of a shark, Rerrkirrwaŋa painted the liver motif inside the figure of the fish. These paintings illustrate alternative compositions used by Djapu artists to depict the paired shark and liver icons, demonstrating the subtleties of repetition and difference in Yolŋu iconography and the shifts in emphasis that result.

The liver of the Shark

The red-flowering kurrajong (Brachychiton paradoxus), with its luminous buds strung vertically up a dark, woody stem, brings striking colour to north-east Arnhem Land’s dry season sclerophyll. The deciduous tree flowers only after it has shed its leaves and, in the idiom of the Yolŋu, the flowers of the dharraŋgulk herald that stingrays and sharks have a new liver (djukurr), their seasonal birthing is occurring and they are ready to be hunted.

Shark liver is a key motif painted by Djapu that represents the shark’s unborn young, emblematic of the relationship between a mother and child.10 Termed yothu-yindi, the relationship of child-mother, is an important ceremonial, political and economic structure within the Yolŋu kinship system in which a person refers to all sisters of his or her actual mother as ‘mother’ (Ŋandi). Accordingly, women refer to all of their sisters’ children as ‘child’ (waku). The yothu-yindi relationship encompasses these extended groups of classificatory mothers and children. In the intricate web of Yolŋu semiotics, the liver of the shark connotes the continuity of life across generations of mothers and children; according to those knowledgeable in Yolŋu religious matters, the spirits of Yolŋu may take the form of tiny fish, residing between human incarnations in sacred wells as they wait to be born. Djapu women dance with this emblem on their chests at the funerals of their classificatory children to assist the deceased’s spirit – the mother’s ‘liver’ – on its journey to its final resting place.11 I use the pronoun ‘it’ to reflect the lack of gender-specific pronouns in Yolŋu languages. Yolŋu describe Mäna in both a masculine and feminine terms. The simplicity of the shark and liver motifs in Djapu paintings is deceptive. At one level, this pairing is symbolic of the relationship between mother and child; however, the motif of the liver inside the shark – the unborn fish that grows to become a shark – invites us to ponder how apparently oppositional qualities – external and internal, fleeting and enduring, human and ancestral, secular and sacred – are inherent in each other.

While the Shark story reaches its climax – from the Djapu perspective – at their homeland and foundational estate of Wandawuy, na’s journey links a number of Yolŋu groups and their estates. The Djambarrpuyŋu, Dätiwuy, Djapu, Dhudi Djapu and Dhäpuyŋu groups each have interests in the shark subject. Yolŋu relay the story with reference to the regions belonging to these groups: na was speared by the ghostly ancestor Murayana (also called Ganbulapula) at the Djambarrpuyŋu estate of Gurala. Following the spearing, portions of the Shark’s body became associated with specific areas of these groups. When na fled to Wandawuy, the ancestor’s passage created the Gurrayala River, where it became entrapped in a trellised fish-trap. Angered, Mäna summoned ancestral strength and, with a mighty swing of its head, broke free of the trap, creating a bend in the course of the river. Thus Wandawuy is the place of the Shark’s head, and it is the ancestor’s strength and powerful energy that dancers re-enact during ceremonial shark dances.12 For an account of the significance of the Shark in Djapu mortuary ceremonies, see Morphy, Ancestral Connections: Art and an Aboriginal System of Knowledge, Chicago, 1991, pp. 125–6. na’s tail created a sacred freshwater spring that is a site of men’s ceremony, and the Shark, like the Thunder Man, was transformed into aspects of the vegetation that lines the Wulwulwuy billabong. It is forbidden to break or harvest wood from trees in this sacred area; to do so threatens repercussions of terrible rain and storms.

In one context the story of the Shark traces the journey of every Djapu life from birth to the sacred places beyond death, a story which holds ancestral revelations reflected in the cross-hatching that pertains to the Shark, as well as its songs and its dances. Even without a knowledge of this metaphysical journey, outsiders who participate in Yolŋu life can observe a web of relations as intricate as miny’tji (sacred designs) related to na. The serrated pandanus leaves that line the river created by the passage of the shark are encrusted with its teeth. When the winds blow a certain way across the surface of the river at Wandawuy, the geometric ripples bear a striking resemblance to the sacred designs of Djapu paintings. Like the trellis of sticks that produces a riverine fish-trap, these shapes are reminiscent of the cross-hatched designs that depict the ancestral state of the river at the Wandawuy homeland.

As Mollison recognised, the Miny’tji Buku Larrŋgay Collection provided not only a body of powerful paintings but also a series of explanations that indicate the depth of their significance.

Rerrkirrwaŋa Munuŋgurr’s bark, na ga Ŋati, was painted at the instruction of her father (with the assistance of her brother Ŋuywirrirri) following a dream she had of the image. The painting shows na approaching the sacred well that was created by the Shark’s thrashing tail. This area is na’s sacred domain, a place of deep knowledge made dangerous by the power of the ancestral being. The area indicated by the cross-hatched arches above the spring is a place where men prepare for private ceremonies guarded from the view of the uninitiated, and one associated with mortuary rites. This muddy area exudes the organic scent of death and decay. The smell (mikan) warns intruders of the dangerous power of the Shark that belongs there. It is an aroma reminiscent of raw shark liver, a delicacy amongst Yolŋu, who mix it with the cooked flesh of the fish. The three roundels at the top of the painting, connected to a red bar, are symbolic of land forms at Wandawuy. They also indicate the sacred area named rinyjalŋu, and they may represent the wukudi or gudukudu, rocky mortuary holes where meat ants, attracted by the odour of decay, precipitate the release of the Djapu spirit by clearing the bones of their flesh.

The cross-hatched designs hold the significance of the waters of Wandawuy, agitated by the ancestral movements of the Shark. The artist Rerrkirrwaŋa draws her name from the set of ceremonial invocations sung for Mäna. Her name is a sacred means of connection between the Djapu ancestral Shark and the contemporary Djapu group: Rerrkirrwaŋa (shark’s teeth) is a name invoked in ceremonial song honouring the shark teeth left on the pandanus palm and the stingray barbs of Mäna’s spear. Both are emblems of the powerful and dangerous energy of the Shark that Djapu families invoke as defining qualities.

The teeth of the Shark: Post-object art

If we are to afford Yolŋu art serious aesthetic study, we must also consider these works within the aesthetic framework from which their graphics are derived. These designs function as mnemonic and semiotic prompts that delve ever deeper within layers and details of meaning – they are texts that can be studied. However, they must be understood beyond a formalist iconography that decodes a series of visual symbols.

Yolŋu paintings might find congruence with a ‘post-object’ art practice, whose significance lies beyond the allure of the image. According to a Yolŋu hermeneutics, each new painting is an ancestral trace or shadow. Even those who return to these paintings with limited knowledge may look deeper into their compelling detail, connections and connotations. In a characteristic poetics drawn from ceremonial metaphor, some Yolŋu describe layers of meaning in painting that extend beyond human perception, reaching further than the last stars and deeper than the ocean floor.13 G. Yunupiŋu, interview with the author, Yirrkala, 15 September 2006. This layering of meaning is not simply a linguistic semiotic code but an ontological and philosophical journey through the qualities of ancestral presence and power inherent in these objects.

Like other contemporary art forms, Yolŋu bark paintings are produced with particular markets in mind; however, the aesthetic traditions from which these art objects developed are far removed from the modernist traditions that defined Euro-American art practices. While it would be incorrect to suggest that Yolŋu artists do not situate their work within genealogies of artists and images, the hermeneutic foundations from which these designs emerged are sourced not in the object-based or image-based traditions of Western aesthetics but in a ceremonial corpus of performative expressions that constitute the fundamental texts of Yolŋu epistemology. Given the importance of song, dance and environment to Yolŋu painting, the predominantly visual emphasis within art history may overlook the intertextual and ontological aspects that Yolŋu emphasise in painted designs. This aesthetic tradition is anchored, as Howard Morphy has observed, in the details of Yolŋu ceremony – its dancing, rhythms and emotional charge amid stringybark bush or saltwater coast. The designs of such paintings are firmly described within the language of the body and its senses: they are sung, danced, tasted and smelled.

As with many painters of his generation, Djutjadjutja is recognised not for his prolific output but for his consummate knowledge of ceremonial matters. In the Yolŋu tradition masterful painting is defined primarily by the ceremonial authority and knowledge invested in the designs by an artist, although the formal qualities that have preoccupied Western art traditions, such as composition, style and technique, are by no means unimportant to Yolŋu.14 See the excellent visual anthropology provided by Morphy, Ancestral Connections.

Works such as Djutjadjutja’s na are marked by a confident and uncomplicated composition typical of Djapu painters. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Djutjadjutja preferred to use only a few foundational motifs to convey the entirety of ceremonial narrative available to him during his mature years. This sparse composition marks the Djapu style, where an apparently simple painting holds profound significance. The Djapu technique is to offer few clues and, in this sense, Djapu bark paintings act as a mirror to a viewer’s knowledge: we read what we bring to these works; they act as a reflection of our own degree of learning.

Acknowledgements

I extend my thanks to Minyapa Munuŋgurr, ceremonial leader of the Djapu, and Yalpi Yunupiŋu, Djuŋgaya for this group, who shared their knowledge of Djapu law and who endorsed the publication of this essay. I am indebted to the Djapu community at Wandawuy for their generous hospitality and grateful for the generous assistance of Watjumi Munuŋgurr, Rerrkirrwaŋa Munuŋgurr, Andrew Blake and Randin Graves.

Note to the reader

The author has followed current orthographic conventions for the spelling of Yolŋu languages: the characters ‘Ŋ’ and ‘ŋ’ denote the sound ‘ng’; underlined letters, t, d, l, n, indicate a retroflex.

Elina Spilia is a reader, Art History, School of Culture and Communications, the University of Melbourne (in 2007)

Notes

1       While painting from the region is characterised by barks displaying sacred ancestral designs, Naminapu Maymuru White, Gulumbu Yunupiŋu, Wukun Wanambi, Wolpa Wanambi and Boliny Wanambi also paint in immediately recognisable secular styles based on intricately repeated icons: expanses of stars, schools of fish and swarms of bees and mosquitoes.

2       Woŋgu was an astute politician and a commanding leader whose resistance to the incursions of Japanese merchants and Euro-Australians into Yolŋu territories is well documented in historical literature. Woŋgu steered his people through the turbulent political era of the 1930s and 1940s in which the Federal Government attempted to present a semblance of control over Aboriginal affairs to an increasingly concerned public. It was through this history that Woŋgu came to be a primary informant for the anthropologist Donald Thomson, as well as one of the earliest bark painters from the region whose work is represented in national collections (see T. Egan, Justice All Their Own: The Caledon Bay and Woodah Island Killings 1932–1933, Melbourne, 1996; D. Thomson, Donald Thomson in Arnhem Land [1983], Melbourne, 2003; M. Dewar, The ‘Black War’ in Arnhem Land: Missionaries and the Yolngu 1908–1940, Darwin, 1992). In a historic repatriation in 1999 Djutjadjutja accepted the mäk, or message sticks, that Thomson delivered between Woŋgu and his three sons who were imprisoned in Darwin at the height of the political tension in the region.

3       Andrew Blake, interview with the author, Yirrkala, 20 August 2007. Djutjadjutja Munuŋgurr and Noŋgirrŋa Marawili painted na with the assistance of their daughters, Marrnyula and Rerrkirrwaŋa Munuŋgurr. The participation of family members, sometimes unattributed, is both a form of artistic tutelage and a demonstration of the rights held by kin to depict the ceremonial knowledge taught by a master painter.

4       Blake, interview.

5       It has been suggested by Ed Ruhe that the use of large barks was initially encouraged by Tony Tuckson, who travelled to Yirrkala and other remote communities in 1959 seeking works for the Art Gallery of New South Wales (see R. Greene & L. Greene, ‘Interview with Ed Ruhe’, Aux Arcs, Spring, vol. 1, no. 50, 1972, p. 57).

6       NGV files, Submission for Acquisition, Miny’tji Buku Larrŋgay, June 1997.

7       D. Mundine, ‘Saltwater’, in Saltwater: Yirrkala Bark Paintings of Sea Country, Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre, Yirrkala, 1999, p. 22.

8       See H. Morphy, ‘From dull to brilliant: The aesthetics of spiritual power among the Yolngu’, in Anthropology, Art and Aesthetics, J. Coote & A. Shelton (eds), Oxford, 1992,  pp. 181–208.

9       See Morphy.

10     Termed yothu-yindi, the relationship of child-mother, is an important ceremonial, political and economic structure within the Yolŋu kinship system in which a person refers to all sisters of his or her actual mother as ‘mother’ (Ŋandi). Accordingly, women refer to all of their sisters’ children as ‘child’ (waku). The yothu-yindi relationship encompasses these extended groups of classificatory mothers and children.

11     I use the pronoun ‘it’ to reflect the lack of gender-specific pronouns in Yolŋu languages. Yolŋu describe Mäna in both a masculine and feminine terms.

12     For an account of the significance of the Shark in Djapu mortuary ceremonies, see Morphy, Ancestral Connections: Art and an Aboriginal System of Knowledge, Chicago, 1991, pp. 125–6.

13     G. Yunupiŋu, interview with the author, Yirrkala, 15 September 2006.

14     See the excellent visual anthropology provided by Morphy, Ancestral Connections.