The Aboriginal Memorial
The Ganalbingu are swamp people or Magpie Goose people. The name of their clan, Gurrumba Gurrumba, literally means a flock of geese. At the end of the monsoon season in April each year, magpie geese in their thousands rest in the shallow waters of the Arafura Swamp. The plethora of natural species are celebrated here: fish, waterlilies, their leaves and bulbs, edible tubers, water birds, long-necked tortoises, frogs and spiders.Artist George Malibirr documents the secular and ritual significance of these ancestral species and natural forces. Karritjarr the Water Python, and Lungurrma, the Yirritja north east wind (depicted in repeated chevron patterns) that sweeps across the land, bring the first rains of the monsoon. The Flying Fox is depicted both graphically and in abstract form — the flower-like design represents the droppings of this totemic animal.
The path through the Memorial imitates the course of the Glyde River estuary which flows through the Arafura Swamp to the sea. The hollow log coffins are situated broadly according to where the artists' clans live along the river and its tributaries. This map indicates Ganalbingu land and position in the memorial poles.
Flying Fox and Totemic Dog
Djanyarr the Totemic Dog is a major ancestral figure of the Ganalbingu. He came in the form of a man who was searching for a place to live and found Warrnyu the Flying Foxes, who once lived like men, in the cave at a place called Kurrki Warrnyu Yirri Ngilaya Djaringal. The Dog went down the cliff and pushed the rock and the water came out at Gurrkawakarrmurr. 'The Dog frightened all the Flying Foxes away as soon as possible. When he went into the hole he left his dilly bag in the tree and went out the other side of the sacred cave and left the spear and the woomera [spear thrower]. He sat there for a long time.
At Kurrki Warrnyu Yirri Ngilaya Djaringal, the Flying Fox made himself into a young man … that's what Aboriginal people do today. They make ceremonies and dancing to make the young boys into men.
The initiation ceremonies happen today because the Flying Fox people performed them a long time ago before the Yolngu [Aboriginal] people. The flower-like design in the paintings is the sacred pattern for the Flying Fox.
The Dog was speaking out of the rock and made three streams and the water which went inside the cave. Two of these streams are good drinking water. In the middle it's a sacred water. No-one drinks from the middle of the stream.
Leaving behind the cave, the Dog travelled west across the Arafura Swamp and came to Djalkulmurr where he met a female Dog. They both headed north onto the plains where they smelled something cooking — at Wessel Islands. That aroma they smelled was so enticing they decided to go there. The first Dog that went to Malwanatharra (Sandy Point) and went into the sea following its nose to wherever the smell was coming from. It is believed that this Dog still lives in the sea.' Gladys Getjpulu, daughter of artist George Milpurrurru.
Karr the Spider and Lungurrma the North East Wind
'A long time ago the Spider lived in a swamp place called Gulundambimirr [a little waterhole]. He then went to another place called Matika. He built a nest there. This is a small clump of jungle on a low hill in the middle of the swamp and the home of Karr the Spider and Lungurrma the North East Wind. The North East Wind is Yirritja and is the bringer of the ngurru (nose) of the wet season, the first rains. It is represented as a series of chevrons. From here the Spider went to a place called Gayarrangung, and he stayed in Ramingining swamp. The Spider built a biggest nest and stayed there forever.' Gladys Getjpulu, daughter of artist George Milpurrurru.
Magpie Geese and Pythons
The Arafura Swamp is home to large flocks of gumang or magpie geese. The name of George Milpurrurru's clan, the Gurrumba Gurrumba, literally means 'a flock of geese'. In a particular part of Ganalbingu land, between the ridges to the east of the swamp, is a freshwater billabong which Milpurrurru describes as having been made by the Goose Spirit. It is thought of as the form of a goose nest, in a circular pattern.
The geese, their eggs, and their nests are sacred to Ganalbingu people — the nest is sometimes thought of as a resting place for souls.
Karritjarr, the Ganalbingu name for the Black-Headed Python, is also known as Gunungu. The Python is the Dreaming of Milpurrurru's mother's mother. The Python stands on its tail and its tongue strikes lightning. Its spittle seeds the clouds with rain.
The first signs of the wet are the gusty winds and showers from the north east and south east. The north east wind is called Lungurrma. Karritjarr the Python causes the first rains of the wet season. This time of the year, the 'nose of the wet season', signifies the fertility and abundance to come.
The Python and the first showers of the monsoon are Yirritja moiety. Later rains, thought of as the 'real' rains of the wet, are Dhuwa moiety. They are connected with Wititj, the Dhuwa moiety Python, who devoured the Wagilag Sisters. However, the Yirritja symbols — Karritjarr the Python and the web of Karr the Spider — are the precursors of the wet.
From the exhibition and catalogue The Art of George Milpurrurru, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1993.