Nonggirrnga Marawili Lightning in the rock

Madarrpa artist Nonggirrnga Marawili is the daughter of the great pre-contact warrior and accomplished artist Mundukul, who did not live long enough to witness an era when Yolngu women were encouraged to paint. Instead Nonggirrnga grew up in a strict regime in which painting without authority could be a capital offence. During the 1980s Nonggirrnga learnt to paint on bark by assisting her late husband, Djutadjuta Mununggurr, a leader of the Djapu clan and a forthright painter. After Djutadjuta’s death, Nonggirrnga continued to paint the Djapu themes authorised by her husband and also focused on printmaking. In 2011 Nonggirrnga began to paint in the courtyard of Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre on a scale that allowed her to produce work of startling visual power, vitality of line and stark tonal contrasts. Owing to her restrictive upbringing, she initially had reservations about working with sacred Madarrpa forms but slowly gathered the confidence to represent the stories and designs of her father as well as those of Djutadjuta. Nonggirrnga gradually developed a dramatic painting style in which her intuitive and gestural drawing was heightened by sections of open space.

Lightning in the rock, 2015, represents Baratjula, the Madarrpa clan estate adjacent to Cape Shield where Mundukul, the Lightning Snake, lives far beneath the sea. These are cyclonic, crocodile-infested waters with huge tides and ripping currents that are emblematic of Nonggirrnga’s identity. Lightning Snakes of discrete clans rise up to tower over the land and converse between themselves over hundreds of kilometres between separate estuary systems and are said to ‘spit’ guykthun (lightning). This work also shows the sacred rock set in deep water between the electric ‘curse’ that the snake spits into the sky in the form of lightning and the spray of the sea that threatens to dislodge the immovable rock foundation of the Madarrpa people. Yurr’yunna is the Yolngu word used to describe the rough waves breaking over the subterranean rock and the sea spray flying into the sky. In this work the snakes’ sanctifying words are shown as lines of dots that meet the sea spray.

This recent work marks an aesthetic shift in Nonggirrnga’s rapidly developing oeuvre and a point of departure from many other known forms of Yolngu bark painting. The artist has stripped away much of the crosshatching applied with the marwat (human-hair brush) and pared back the imagery to depart from one of the established canons of Yolngu art, namely that the ‘background’ be covered with miny’tji (sacred clan designs) rather than left plain. Intriguingly, the negative space and bold simplicity of Nonggirnga’s work approaches in form and visual power Mundukul’s work for anthropologist Donald Thomson. In 1942 Mundukul invented a language by transferring miny’tji seen on a man’s chest to the red-ochre surface of stringybark, where these white-ochre body markings float on a plain background and project across space. Although Nonggirrnga disavows any sacred intent, her Madarrpa identity underlies her practice, and therefore the echo of miny’tji, heightened by its contrast with the dark sepia background, persists.

Judith Ryan, Senior Curator, Indigenous Art (in 2016)