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Mathaman: warrior, artist, songman


 On 13 January 1970 a telegram arrived from Yirrkala in Arnhem Land, an outpost on the western shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria. It stated simply ‘Mathaman passed away on Sunday afternoon’. A great man and artist had passed on and I had lost a friend. My memory went back to my first meeting with this grim-faced but gentle Aborigine in 1962. My instant impression of him was – here is a man of great integrity who would die for you if he liked you but would kill you if he did not. 

Mathaman’s people refer to themselves as the Yulgnor (The People) and there are no tribes as such in Arnhem Land. The social structure consists of two moieties: the Dhuwa and the Yirritja. The moieties are made up of a number of clans and the leader of each clan has a place on the council of elders. Wives have a say through their husbands. 

In this area on the shores of the Arafura Sea and the Gulf of Carpentaria the Yulgnor have lived for thousands of years, performing their great ceremonies based on the lives of their spirit ancestors, some of whom came ‘in the time before morning from behind the sunrise’. The sun was Walu, the wife of Djanggawul, and she sent out banners of light to show the Djanggawul the way to Djalangbara where the Djanggawul landed among the sand-dunes. These beings ‘made’ the country and the people for the clans of the Dhuwa moiety, and Nggapililinggu ‘made’ the country and the people for the Yirritja moiety; the lesser Barama came out of the sea distributing the totems for Yirritja clans. The Wawaluk sisters journeyed singing through the land, touching flora and fauna with their sacred yam sticks and claiming them as totems for the Dhuwa moiety. As they claimed the various totems they chanted the sacred or ‘inside’ name of the totem. These sacred names are closely guarded by the old men and never uttered in the presence of the uninitiated. 

From 1962 onwards I spent each winter in Arnhem Land, mostly in the company of Mathaman, and in 1965 I was accepted into the Gomaidj clan of the Yirritja moiety; thus he was my Waku (nephew) and I was Nggapipi (uncle) to him. He taught me much about his people. I will never forget the thrill of encountering the whispered ‘inside’ language used to discuss sacred matters. It occurred one afternoon in 1964 when he was explaining the symbolism depicted in a beautiful bark painting. I pointed to an object the spirit ancestor Laintjun was holding and, in response to my query, he whispered, Laintjun rangga (sacred artefact). This was indeed ‘pay dirt’ and the rest of the conversation was conducted in whispers. 

In 1965 Mathaman, while taking me to see the grave of Garrimali (fig. 1), who had been speared that year, told me: ‘More better you no say Garrimali, you call him “the dead man”. It doesn’t matter with you-me but other people not like’. Thus I was acquainted with the Yulgnor custom of never mentioning a deceased person’s name. A Macassan prau ceremony (fig. 2) had been performed for Garrimali. The sand had been arranged to form the outline of a prau and was complete with masts, rigging and flags. After studying the arrangement I asked Mathaman why this ceremony was so important and he said, ‘As the Macassans raised their sails and sailed away so Garrimali’s spirit has left us’. 

During this time he also told me stories of ‘the time before the missions’. He talked many times of the massacre of the Japanese pearlers at Caledon Bay, not far from Groote Eylandt, in 1932. In 1907 the federal government prohibited the Macassans from visiting any part of Australia, but permitted the Japanese pearlers to fish for pearl shell. From the Yulgnor point of view this was a bad choice. The Macassan contact had resulted in close friendships.* Mungurawuy’s father had visited Macassar and in his description of the voyage said he had travelled along the coast of a country where the mountains ‘smoked’ (the volcanoes of Indonesia). He was away for five years owing to the difficulty of finding a prau that would make landfall in North–East Arnhem Land. The Yulgnor did not get on well with the Japanese pearlers, who used to take Yulgnor girls out on their luggers, and when they got tired of them would push them overboard about 30 kilometres off shore. This was the cause of intense hostility to the Japanese. 

One sunny June afternoon we were sitting on the rocks at Yirrkala, on the shores of the Coral Sea, watching the waves and Mathaman said, pointing to the horizon, ‘That Japan man come from over that way. Properly bad man’. I asked him ‘How did it start?’ He said, ‘Mungurawuy’s father tell me “Japan throw trepang guts in my face”, and I said “Let us kill them at once”’. He told me that it was planned to split into two groups, one to move along the beach, the other party to move through the bush to a point opposite the Japanese camp. Because of the cramped conditions on the luggers the Japanese slept on the beach under canvas shelters whenever the opportunity arose. So the luggers were at anchor and the dinghies upside down on the beach. The plan was for the bush party to wait until they heard the dinghies being holed and then charge the camp from the bush. The exercise was carried out with great success. All the pearlers were killed, the luggers beached, looted and burned. 

Six months later the Darwin authorities were told of the killings, which made world headlines. Until these killings, Australians in general were quite unaware of the Yulgnor of Arnhem Land; only a handful of white men had at that time made contact with them. Among the few was Fred Gray, a trader based on Groote Eylandt, Horace Flower and the famous Bill Harney, who were all collecting pearl shell. 

A police party set out to catch the killers but it was hopeless. A policeman would wake up at dawn to find that a 3-metre spear had been thrust into the sand a few centimetres from his neck. After about six months of fruitless chase the police began to ill-treat the Yulgnor women, which resulted in Mathaman and his companions giving themselves up. I asked Mathaman about details of the fight and he said: ‘I kill two Japan with my spears and they fall in the water with my good spears. Then I fight them with my hands’. ‘How many were killed?’ ‘All.’ The killers were eventually taken to Darwin and sentenced to two years imprisonment for murder. I asked Mathaman what he thought of being in gaol at Fanny Bay. He said, ‘Fanny Bay all right, they give me trousers and shirt and plenty tucker. Government do me a good turn. I sit down in Fanny Bay for two years. For two years I dream about my country. Then I come back and I paint about my country’ (fig. 3). 

It was this massacre and the subsequent killing of white men the following year, 1933, that led to the establishing of the Methodist Mission in this area in 1934. 

During the war Japanese war planes were over Arnhem Land and machine-gunned the mission house at Milingimbi and a launch at Elcho Island. At Elcho the launch was sunk and a Mr Kentish was fished out of the sea by Japanese airmen in a float plane. He was taken to Rabaul and beheaded – the only civilian captured on the Australian mainland and executed by the Japanese. AIF and RAAF officers visited Yirrkala and showed the men silhouettes of various Japanese war planes and said to the old men, ‘If you see any of the planes, call out loudly Japan! Japan! If any of them are forced down, kill them’. Mathaman called out ‘What about Fanny Bay?’ 

It is important to realise that at the time of this first momentous and lasting contact with white men Mathaman and others of his generation were fully developed Nggara men living by Yulgnor law in the age-old traditional manner of the hunter-gatherers. They were men who had completed the five ceremonies extending over a number of years, and were fully literate in their own society, providing a living link with their ancient culture and ours. With the deaths of these old men the links are now broken. 

Mathaman saw great changes take place. His early life was lived as his ancestors had for many thousands of years. He saw the coming of the missions and in later years the coming of the mining company Nabalco, which has resulted in a culture clash that has completely altered the life-style and culture of his people and not for the best. When Nabalco arrived they put a bulldozer to work on Mt Saunders. For Mathaman’s people this was a sacred place. He set about organising a protest corroboree in anger at the damage done to the sacred place at Mt Saunders.

It is significant that the great Yulgnor artists were also fighting men and leaders of their people. Mawalan (fig. 4), Mathaman’s brother, a great artist who died in November 1967, was the head of the Rirradjinggu clan of the Dhuwa moiety. Mathaman inherited this position – the highest in Yulgnor society. 

It was Mawalan who, in explaining the Djanggawul mythology, told me about Djanggawul’s wife Walu who was also the sun. I pointed to an irregular circular shape in the centre of a bark painting telling the Djanggawul story and asked what it was. He replied ‘It is the sun’. ‘But the sun does not look like that.’ He then led me to a pool of water and tossed a stone in. The sun immediately became an irregular circular shape, and that was my first lesson in the many and varied facets of Aboriginal art and the layers of meaning in a single symbol. 

During my twenty-five years of close contact with the Yulgnor I became very impressed with the dignity and wisdom of the Nggara men. One day Mathaman told me he had been ‘sung’ (the ritual of pointing the bone) by the people of Elcho Island and Milingimbi and when I asked him why he did not die, he pointed to his head and said ‘Too strong up here’. He was also a Makaratta man. If a Yulgnor broke tribal law a Makaratta was held and the offender’s crime discussed before a meeting of Makaratta men who were charged with the responsibility of determining the punishment. This consisted of the offender standing out in the open and spears being thrown at him. The time factor would be decided by the Makaratta men according to the seriousness of the breach of tribal law. If the man survived the host of spears hurtling at him he would be surrounded by the spear-throwers who would warmly congratulate him on his survival. Sometimes of course the offender was killed. According to Mathaman the coming of the missions to Arnhem Land was a good thing. When I asked why he said, ‘Not so much fighting now, and they look after us when we are sick’. 

In May and June of 1969 I was again in Arnhem Land and, although Mathaman was a very sick man, he insisted that he should sing an important Wawaluk chant for me so I could record it on my tape recorder. I borrowed a car and on a very dark night, guided by Mathaman, we drove along bush tracks until we reached a spot where he asked me to stop. He got out of the car and called out and immediately about twenty Yulgnor materialised in the headlights. They were a group of Nggara men. A fire was lit and Mathaman led the chanting. He lectured the participants at length and I discovered the event was also a school of instruction. Thanks to Mathaman I was able to record a very significant segment of his culture. 

The Wawaluk saga is of great importance in the religion of these people. There is a portion of Wawaluk in the four ceremonies preceding the fifth and final one. That last ceremony, when a man is finally initiated into the Nggara circle, consists of a re-enactment of the complete saga. So powerful is the Wawaluk it even occurs in the Kunapipi ceremony. The Kunapipi chant:

Mamuna maralpindi pundjarlari kindijari 

Djarbudjurburburanggal wingigu 

Mikaraijaru gulnggarrumuruma 

can be broadly translated as: 

This is the Snake, the bullroarer of the Snake 

Hear the sound from its swinging, while the neophytes’ bodies 

Are being smeared with their blood for their decoration. 

This chant is sung while the bullroarers are swung. These bullroarers are about a metre long and are fastened to a stick with string made of human hair. The bullroarer represents the body of the snake, the hair string represents the fangs, and the noise made by the bullroarer is the voice of the snake. 

In 1963 Mathaman painted the Arafura Lagoon (fig. 5), which is really a stylised map of the Arafura Lagoon and creeks running into it, and an inventory of artefacts used in the Wawaluk ceremony. The descendants of the Wawaluk are beneath the waters of the lagoon. The black footprints represent the travels of the two sisters as they journeyed towards the sacred lagoon Mirramina. This bark painting was donated to the National Gallery of Victoria in 1967. 

In 1965 I asked Mathaman if he could paint another bark like the first one. He said he could but he had to sing about it first, meaning he would have to chant the Wawaluk song cycle (fig. 6). A few days later he told me he was ready to start, having prepared a suitable piece of bark in the meantime. I wondered how on earth he would create such a complicated design from memory. I sat with him sometimes as he worked. His concentration was unbelievable. He would complete a section and then chant for a few minutes and go on painting. It soon became apparent that his chanting was his guide to the intricate design and so the second bark painting, Arafura Lagoon 1965, was created. The two paintings are now side by side in the National Gallery of Victoria. As far as I know these two paintings were the only ones ever painted at Yirrkala on this theme. Mathaman painted several barks depicting the Wawaluk ceremony, complete with Yurlungurr the serpent, the Ubar drum and the triangular dancing ground. I collected three paintings on this theme by Mathaman and they were very different from the Arafura pair. The artist has passed on but his work remains a mute testimony to his cultural knowledge and artistic ability and a constant reminder of the passing of an ancient, mystical and non-materialistic culture. 

 

As to Mathaman’s ability as an artist, in 1965 Professor Ed Ruhe of Kansas University, who was in Australia on a Fulbright Scholarship, came to see me and I showed him Mathaman’s Arafura Lagoon 1963 (fig. 5). He later wrote an essay on Aboriginal bark paintings in which he said: ‘A painting of Mathaman’s I have seen deserves to rank with the most impressive Tribal Art the world has ever seen’. Robyn Sloggett, conservator at the Melbourne University Art Gallery, who conserved the Arafura Lagoon 1965 (fig. 7), said in her report on the painting:

I was impressed by the way the forms had been built up so that the underpainting worked with later additions to form a concrete whole, even though the artist was working not only across the support as it were, but also working three dimensionally up the layers. I think I said to you that this work was one of the most difficult in terms of technical finish that I have ever conserved and I would still hold to that. It is a work that reinforces the belief that the word ‘primitive’ is indeed a misnomer. I would consider this work to be a masterpiece and the artist a master. 

Paintings of the Wawaluk song cycle were more common in the Milingimbi area. The main artist there was Dawidi (fig. 8), a Liagallawumirri man of the Dhuwa moiety, who was the keeper of the Wawaluk cycle. A number of artists of both moieties had the right to paint certain related incidents of the myth. Djawa, a Gupupuynggu-speaking man, leader of the Fupapoiju people and the Yindi Jolpah (senior elder) of the Milingimbi area (fig. 9), used to paint an arrangement of mud crabs to depict a feast of mud crabs eaten by the Wawaluk sisters at Buckingham Bay. This painting (fig. 10) was always beautifully executed. 

The National Gallery of Victoria has recently acquired two bark paintings of the Wawaluk ceremony by Dawidi. The first of these (figs 11–12) is a literal representation of the story; the second painting (figs 13–14) tells the story in symbols. Figure 10 deals with the Wawaluk story, which is re-enacted in the Wawaluk ceremony, one of the most important ceremonies of the Liagallawumirri clan. 

The Wawaluk sisters left the southern interior of Arnhem Land to travel to the North–East. The elder sister took along her child in a paper-bark cradle. They carried with them their yam sticks. As they travelled they touched and named animal and plant life which became the totemic creatures and plants for the Wawaluk ceremony, and members of the Dhuwa moiety. The younger sister was pregnant and, after travelling many months, she gave birth to a son just prior to reaching Mirramina the sacred waterhole and home of Yurlungurr, the great Python of the Liagallawumirri mythology. The top of the bark shows the stars that they named, also the crescent moon and then the sun. When they came to the waterhole Mirramina (the semi-circle at the bottom of the bark) they decided to make camp for the night. The younger sister went to the waterhole for drinking-water. Her presence enraged Yurlungurr, who rose out of the depths and emerged from the pool alongside a paper-bark tree and saw where the sisters were camped. 

As night began to fall he came out of the waterhole and completely encircled their camp. He then quietly began to sing his ‘power’ song to call up the rain of the first wet season. A cloud (which is a circle of cross-hatching in the top left-hand corner) gathered over the camp. When the rain started the women began to sing their ‘power’ songs as they clapped their singing sticks together (bottom centre). But after much singing they realised their efforts were in vain as the rain continued unabated. They knew then that they were confronted by a very powerful spirit and sang all the power songs contained in the singing sticks. In desperation one of the sisters threw the singing stick into the sky in a last effort to stop the rain, but Yurlungurr turned the stick into the first flash of lightning. More rain continued to fall and eventually Yurlungurr swallowed the Wawaluk, but because he and the sisters belonged to the same moiety he vomited them out. He then swallowed them for the second time. Later he stood up in his waterhole with his head above the clouds to talk to the other great snakes. The Green Parrot Snake realised something was wrong and questioned Yurlungurr closely about what he had eaten. After constant questioning he admitted what he had done. The other snakes grew very angry because he had eaten those of his own moiety. Yurlungurr then fell to the ground in shame. Where he hit the ground he caused a large triangular shape. This is the ceremonial ground for all Wawaluk ceremonies today. 

There is new-found interest in the philosophy of Aboriginal religious thought and life, but looking at it through western philosophical spectacles is not helpful. All western philosophers since Socrates have believed that they could explain life by reducing it to a system of abstract, logically related ideas. What they see is only the general framework in which things are related, not the vitality that makes things move. To live is not to think but to act. The train of our ideas is a reflection of the events which we experience. Western philosophy is an ideas-bound philosophy that talks about human beings, their nature and artefacts without adequate empirical foundations. To consider human beings and their art apart from their social setting is to leave a gap in all philosophical generalisations concerning humanity and human knowledge. 

Tribal art, like all art, must be judged against the social fabric of the society that produced it. Unless one has had the experience of living in these tribal societies judgements are very difficult to make. The present Aboriginal artists were born on the missions and settlements. Many of the designs, linked with mythology, have completely disappeared owing to the deaths of the old men who knew the mythology and were qualified to paint the associated symbols. Other designs are greatly altered due to influences applied by various dealers. 

When I was with Mathaman in the winter of 1969 I realised that he was so ill it was improbable that I would ever see him again. He knew it too for he suddenly put his hand on my knee and said, ‘I think about you too much and you think about me too much’, meaning we were always in each other’s minds. I was very surprised, a few months after my return to Melbourne, to receive a magnificent painting of the Worrakoi, a special totemic fish that he only painted on the death of one of his clan, the Rirradjinggu. The telegram announcing his death followed four weeks later. With the painting came a letter from the mission superintendent saying that Mathaman had painted this bark and had called in the young men and instructed them in carrying out his mortuary rites and that next day had asked the superintendent to send the painting to me. 

Professor W. Ε. H. Stanner, who was present at Mathaman’s mortuary rites, said in his Charles Strong Memorial Trust Lecture: 

During the lead up to the Yirrkala Land Case I was present when the old man Mathaman who had dared to sue Her Majesty and the Nabalco Company, was preparing to die. The ‘right men’ painted on his chest, with ochre and blood, the design that pointed beyond itself to things sacred and mystical to his clan. The industrial and commercial world made by the Commonwealth and Nabalco was roaring all around but if ever a man died at peace with The Dreaming, in spite of the ruin overtaking his people, it was Mathaman. 

Note 

Geoff Maslen, writing in the Age, 13 March 1987, stated the following: 

Lak Lak Burrarwanga has just renewed her family connections with the Macassan sea gypsies. She believes they go back 1000 years. Despite the passage of generations, northern Aborigines retained a knowledge of these Asian links in their oral history. The great interest in genealogy among Aborigines springs from their intricate kinship system. Knowing the exact relationship between one member of a tribe and another is essential in observing Aboriginal laws. This knowledge of familial ties appears to be no less detailed among the Macassans. As part of a field study, she and other students began investigating how their own tribe’s genealogy would correspond with that of people in Ujung Pandang, the Indonesian name for the old city of Macassar.     

James A. Davidson*  

* James Davidson has had over thirty years of contact with the Aborigines of Arnhem Land and is a past secretary of the Aboriginal Advancement League of Victoria.