Nonggirrnga Marawili Thunderman raining down

Knowledgeable Madarrpa elder Nonggirrnga Marawili learnt to paint on bark by assisting her late husband, Djapu clan leader and major artist Djutadjuta Mununggurr. Prior to Djutadjuta’s death in 1999, Nonggirrnga worked by his side at Wandawuy, inland from Caledon Bay in eastern Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, the freshwater spiritual residence of Mäna, the ancestral shark, and Bol’ngu, the Thunderman. Subsequently she focused more on printmaking, but continued to consolidate her knowledge of both Madarrpa and Djapu cultural law. From 2011, Nonggirrnga has made a serious commitment to her painting practice, producing barks that accentuate the different miny’tji (sacred designs) that her father, mother and husband have entitled her to use. Nonggirrnga’s vigorous use of black, yellow and red ochre pigments, in addition to white, brings out the graphic linear thrust of the miny’tji through tonal contrasts. She paints intuitively, as a plant grows, free of straight lines. Significantly, Nongirrngga introduces figuration to dramatise important elements of Dhuwa or Yirritja narratives and to structure her compositions – enabling them to project across space.

Nonggirrnga’s Thunderman raining down, 2012, represents Bol’ngu, controller of the seasons, an important subject she witnessed her late husband painting in 1994. The work echoes Djutadjuta’s masterful Djapu rom (Men’s business), 1994, in its startling figuration and in the dominant rhythm of the Djapu miny’tji that signifies the sacred waters of Wandawuy and the Thunderman’s awesome presence. Through this vigorous geometric grid Nonggirrnga transforms the blank surface of the bark painting into an object that exudes ancestral power.

Bol’ngu travelled south from the Wessel Islands through Country of various Dhuwa moiety clans who sing about Bol’ngu’s travels in initiation ceremonies. He was both man and wolma, the heavy cloud that brings the first rains of the wet season. Bol’ngu travelled in the clouds, and rain fell when he urinated. The waterspout, which sucks seawater into the clouds in bulunu (early dry-season south-easterly winds), is a manifestation of Bol’ngu and bears his name.

Bol’ngu is said to have seasonal influence on the weather. As he travelled, the Dhuwa clouds and the rain followed him. Rivers, creeks and springs with freshwater for the dry season formed at sites he visited, and he said to himself, ‘May it always be this way’. As he passed by, Bol’ngu named rivers, springs, trees and ant beds, which still carry the names he gave them.

Associated with Bol’ngu are his ‘arrpan (spear), visible as a shooting star; his ba’atj (club), which he throws to make thunder; a curved stick that symbolises clouds; buwakul (yam), his food; and the paperbark tree, which grows in swampy ground. The lines Bol’ngu bears above his head are not only representative of his spear but also of clouds from the territory of the following clans: Rirratjingu, Galpu, Datiwuy, Ngaymil, Djapu, Djambarrpuyngu, Bararrngu and Dhudi Djapu. These clans share manikay (songs) regarding Bol’ngu. In each clan’s Country, Bol’ngu gave rom (men’s business) to the Yolngu people.

Judith Ryan, Senior Curator, Indigenous Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2014)