‘The white, that’s my bones. Red is blood. That there yellow is body fat. And black, that’s the colour of my skin.’ Narritjin talking about his painting. ‘Some people can explain what’s in the meaning of a painting, but sometimes we don’t … There is a story beyond that painting that is attached to us … But whatever there is, there in that painting, it represents who we are and what we are and gives us the strength and the power for that.’
Narritjin was a senior member of the Manggalili people of the Yirritja moiety, a ‘great intellectual, ceremonial leader, artist and strong advocate for educating non-Yolgnu people about Yolgnu art and culture’. (Yolgnu are the people of East Arnhem Land. Moeities are part of a kinship structure which operates widely in Aboriginal societies.)
His home country was Djarrakpi (Cape Shield) at the very eastern end of Arnhem Land, but he spent a lot of his life working with the Mission at Yirrkala 100km north. (The Christian churches divided up remote Australia for their missionary work. So the Catholics ‘took’ the Kimberley, the Lutherans the Centre, Anglicans the Cape and Gulf, and Methodists Arnhem Land. It’s interesting how much evidence of this there still is. For example there are still more Catholic schools than government schools in the Kimberley.)
Yirrkala Mission was set up in 1935 with very little apparent impact on traditional life styles. The Yolgnu had been trading with Macassans from what is now Sulawesi in Indonesia for many hundreds of years and were used to visitors. The source I am working from (an Aboriginal writer) says, ‘In no sense did [the Yolgnu] believe that they had given up any rights to their land or way of life’ [as a result of the coming of the missionaries]. Over the years I have been told several times by influential locals from Arnhem Land communities that this part of Australia has never been conquered. (The greatest threat to that status has come from mining companies.)
The religion which emerged from this partnership is still in evidence, at times highly individual and most certainly syncretic with bits from everywhere. This is often expressed through paintings. But this painting, only 55 years old, represents a vastly older tradition.
The tools: ochre on carefully prepared eucalyptus bark. There are thousands of such panels in existence, some very old and some, like the Bark Petition to the Australian Government (at right), very famous. A brush made of human hair is used for the distinctive fine cross-hatching (rrark) which marks artworks out both as being from this region and, depending on the pattern, belonging to a particular clan.
Other artists may seek and be granted use of a particular rrark. After a visit to Arnhem Land, contemporary southern artist Lin Onus made such a request for a series of his paintings. This is Koi at Sankei-En. Just to complicate things further, Sankei-En is a garden in Yokohama and koi the Japanese carp which fill the ponds of formal Japanese gardens.)
Creation Stories is a ‘public’ painting so its meaning can be at least partly described.
The background story. Wangarr is the period of creation, during which ancestral beings bestowed land and waters, ceremony, sacred objects and madayin miny’itji (sacred designs and motifs) upon the various clans of the Yirritja and Dhuwa moieties. The powerful Wangarr beings travelled across the landscape during this time, their activities creating the features of the landscape including rivers, rocks, mangroves, mud flats, sand dunes, trees and islands, leaving those elements of country imbued with names and character as well as spiritual essence and meaning. The ancestral beings ‘sang’ the names of everything they created or interacted with, making certain species sacred to the clan on whose land or in whose waters the naming took place.
It was during this period of creating that language, law, paintings and songs, dances, ceremony and certain stories, all derived from ancestral events, were given to the founding members of each clan. Together, the land and the waters and this sacred clan property form a clan member’s djalkiri, his or her foundation (also ‘foot’, ‘footprint’ or ‘tree roots’ in Yolgnu Matha, the local language).
In nomadic lives art is one means of maintaining and transporting these stories.
In the painting, Guwak, the koel cuckoo, is sitting on top of a cashew tree. In the top right hand corner is Marrgnu, the possum. These two figures along with emus are the main ancestral figures of the Manggalili. There are huge digging sticks to the right and left of Guwak. The wavy lines are tide marks and the line of dashes represent possum tracks. Along with diamond-shapes and chevrons, these are the clan’s madayin miny’itji, sacred motifs.
Possums are climbing up and down the tree and the digging stick leaving behind the string spun from their fur from which the shape of the Cape has been defined. The spider sits between the possums spinning a web, the fog that every morning shrouds the lagoon.
Guwak died from drowning in a tidal wave generated by two ancestral turtles (see the bottom corners of the whole painting), and appears dead in human form in the centre panel. On the right hand side are women, the two Nyapililngu, who came to the area naked and without skills but who learnt to spin possum string which among other things became the mountains. The one at left is collecting shellfish modestly dressed in a sheet of bark. In the next panel are two cicadas which cry out at Guwak‘s death. In the bottom left hand corner one of Nyapililngu waits for Guwak on the beach with the overturned boat, mourning by cutting open her forehead with a digging stick, now a traditional way of expressing grief. In the next panel is the snail which provided the shape for shelter. On the other side are a series of emus and Guwak in human form with fishing spears.
The bottom sections of the painting are about funerary rites, but these three panels in the middle refer to the process and meaning of death.
In the centre is the anvil shape of the smoke from the Nyapililngu‘s fire (another clan motif) suggesting the welter of conflicting emotion accompanying death. On the left is a sand crab picking the beach clean accompanied by reef herons engaged in the same task including feeding on the sand crabs — a cycle of cleansing and transformation as memory fades. On the right are tracks of turtles dragging themselves over the sand to lay eggs and of humans looking for turtle eggs in one of which is a foetus. Life will begin again.
The painting has far more messages and implications than a creation story. It has a geography for example. It can be read by those who can as defining Manggalili Country. The Nyapililngu on the left of the picture delineate the dunes which are one boundary. The tree in which Guwak sits has a place in a landscape defined by the string that the possums have been spinning. The figures at the right have their topographical correspondences.
It also contains moral and spiritual direction for behaviour understood and communicated by Elders and the Law-givers of the group.
All that and so much more.
The underlying elements of this cosmology have resonances throughout most of the country. The existence of what are widely referred to today as jukurrpa (originally a Central Australian and Western Desert word) — meaning the origins and powers embodied in places, objects, songs and stories, connecting people to country and to each other through shared networks of knowledge, what Europeans named ‘dreamings’ — was and is a widespread component of everyday belief.
Traditional art, including some created in contemporary urban settings, will always draw on, embody and realise these structures and stories. At the same time art produced in remote Australia is not always ‘traditional’ in this strong sense. Sometimes it is created simply for delight in form and colour, and sometimes just to pay the bills.
Creation Stories has enormous intellectual interest but there is also something aesthetically enticing about its controlled busyness. There is a lot to look at. The figures are silhouettes, sometimes decorated sometimes not. (This tradition also includes ‘X-ray’ creatures.) It is balanced vertically and horizontally, but without troubling to be symmetrical. It is the work of a master pattern-maker.
But with painting from Arnhemland, it is often just the wonderful rrark that gets me in.
And now to a great mystery … READ ON.