This is our story and this is our country
This is no ordinary place. This is my country. They [the people] are really from the country. They didn’t make it, but came from it. Our ancestors — big people, strong people – stuck to it … and then we grew up, and this is our story, and this is our country. (Malangi 1983)1
David Malangi’s world is indeed an extraordinary place – physically, spiritually and psychologically. To become familiar with its many facets, environments and ancestral connections is to come to know his art and to share his vision.
I first met Malangi in 1993. I had moved to Ramingining to be the Arts Administrator at Bula’bula Arts. During those early months I was gradually gaining familiarity with the various clan groups in the area, their associated ancestral narratives or Dreamings and particular clan-based imagery, the key artists and their individual styles. Among the painters working with the arts centre at that time Malangi’s style was like no other. The wide white line, the dense matt black, the distinctive rich red and chocolate brown pigment,2 the generous rärrk3 (cross-hatching) and the bold graphic depictions of iconic ancestral beings all made up the singular and unmistakable style of David Malangi, the bark painter.
My accumulating familiarity with the person, the clan and the sites enabled me to see beyond the figurative depictions of creatures to recognise the work of a master draftsman, a painter who had an expert command of composition and an absolutely distinctive visual language. I also came to know a man of engaging personality and great generosity of spirit.
David Malangi Daymirriŋu4 (1927–1999), one of the renowned painters of Arnhem Land, was a member of the Manharrŋu5 clan of the Dhuwa moiety. As is customary in Yolŋu social laws of the Arnhem Land region, and indeed in many parts of Indigenous Australia, Malangi had inherited rights and responsibilities to particular tracts of land, ancestral sites within them and ceremonies related to them. For the purposes of overview I have grouped these areas into three distinct sections.
Throughout his career Malangi painted aspects of the areas of land which were his responsibility, with periods of emphasis – bodies of work – devoted to one area or another. The key countries and themes depicted in his paintings include the patrilineally inherited Dhuwa moiety lands of Mulaŋa and Ŋurrunyuwa on the eastern bank of the Glyde River on the Arafura Sea; Dhämala and Dhäbila on the western side of the river; and the Yirritja moiety lands of his mother around Yathalamarra billabong further west and about 20km inland from the Arafura coast. These three areas in central Arnhem Landare near the mainland town of Ramingining and the island of Milingimbi just off shore, about 500km east of Darwin.
The coastal area of Ŋurrunyuwa on the eastern side of the Glyde River mouth comprises rocky cliffs of the most magnificent red-purple metallic composition known locally as ratjpa.6 The rocks share the shore with intimate palm fringed beaches until the land, as you look south, gives way to mud flats and mangrove lined tributaries and swamplands. The name Ŋurrunyuwa derives from the base word ŋurru which means the nose; tip; front; peninsula, cape or point.7
The whole area of Manharrŋu country on the eastern bank of the river is called Mulaŋa8 and takes in the smaller components of Ŋurrunyuwa on the coast, Gupulugurrm, a muddy plain, and Rapam, a distant jungle. These areas were named by the ancestor, Gurrmirriŋu.
Biographical records indicate that Malangi was born at Mulaŋa in 1927.11 At that time the family was living away from the recently established mission on nearby Milingimbi Island, 12 their alternate base. Malangi’s mother, a woman of the Balmbi clan from the west side of the Glyde, had left her country to live with the husband’s family on Manharrŋu land.13
Those eastern bank lands are now rarely visited by Manharrŋu descendants. During a research trip in August 2002 it took family members three attempts before they were successful in taking me across the river to walk around the ‘other side’, as the eastern bank is commonly called within the family.14 A little sand beach is there, where you can land a dinghy, while higher up on the embankment beneath a stand of trees there is evidence of dinner camps over many years:
The country to the south opens out onto the big Gupulugurrm plain, previously a battle ground for Yolŋu.16 Beyond that is the jungle area known as Rapam17 and far beyond that, breaking the horizon line, a single towering Gulwirri palm.18
The family started to walk me around with the aim of seeing the sites of significance, to give ‘proof’ of Manharrŋu ancestral history and the chief ancestor figure for the Manharrŋu, Gurrmirriŋu.19 The great Hunter Gurrmirriŋu is known as the ‘first man’ by Manharrŋu, a law-giver and a warrior,20 and as such established their present beliefs and actions.21 He wandered these lands harvesting fruit, seeds and berries, and hunting goanna, kangaroo, birds and fish.
The actions of Gurrmirriŋu involved the key sites in this area — some can be seen, some are hidden, some have been altered due to changes in land forms and sea levels over millennia since the Waŋarru (ancestral time). From Rapam Gurrmirriŋu threw his luŋgu25 (harpoon) to Ŋurrunyuwa. From Ŋurrunyuwa he threw his luŋgu into the sea and then finally to Mooroonga Island. The spirit of Gurrmirriŋu is on Mooroonga, though he is known by another name there.26 The two countries are thereby connected through this ancestor.27
After a very good day’s hunting Gurrmirriŋu was carrying home the fruits of his labour. Some stories tell how he was returning home to his wife.29 He sat down by a waterhole in the shade of a white berry tree, to rest and cook some of his catch before returning to camp; but lurking in the tree’s roots was an evil (tree) spirit.
Dharpa32 (the King Brown Snake) rose from the roots of the white berry tree to bite Gurrmirriŋu, killing him. The death of Gurrmirriŋu, the ‘first man’, gave Manharrŋu people the occasion to perform their first mortuary rites.
The mortuary rite of Gurrmirriŋu is the predominant feature of many of Malangi’s paintings associated with the Mulaŋa area. His depiction of this story on bark was reproduced on the reverse of the first Australian one dollar note — released in 1966 when Australia converted to decimal currency. Subsequently Malangi became known as the ‘dollar note painter’; at times he was called ‘Dollar Dave’.34 Due to the frequency with which he was asked to depict the now widely famous scene, Malangi and his family members — when talking about Mulaŋa country and its ancestral players — would refer to the ‘dollar note’ story, country and man, as often as the Gurrmirriŋu story, country and man.
The Gurrmirriŋu funeral scene or dollar note paintings focus on what I refer to as the ‘whole story’. Depictions of aspects of the story came later with the artist’s increasing confidence in developing compositional possibilities and an interest to push boundaries.
The early barks of the whole story from the early 1960s include a number of key elements that served to constitute a template which, by the late 1960s and into the ensuing decades, became increasingly formulaic. A vertical figure with rärrk painted torso, arms extended and bent at the elbows, and with legs outstretched is the body of the deceased Gurrmirriŋu lying in state while being ceremonially prepared for burial. He is surrounded by song men performing Manharrŋu song cycles to ensure the ancestral spirit’s safe arrival at its final resting place. In turn, the spirit of Gurrmirriŋu will look after the surviving Manharrŋu.35 The song men hold clapsticks and didjeridu to accompany the singing and are shown sitting with their legs tucked underneath their bodies, sometimes expressed by Malangi as half figures with no legs. These ceremonial participants are differentiated from the deceased Gurrmirriŋu by their posture and by their plain black bodies devoid of body paint. The strong white lines used to delineate their figures also detail parts of their anatomy; while the angled lines within the frame of the body I see as indicating the three-dimensional figure. This compartmentalising has references to sand sculpture and mapping and spacial awareness on different scales.36
Surrounding this immediate group of figures, and in any available negative spaces, are the animals of the story. They represent both Gurrmirriŋu’s harvest and the mourning process. The L-shaped motif, the leg of a wallaby (ŋarrku),37 signals Gurrmirriŋu’s catch as well as the mortuary feast. Killing and eating wallaby can refer to the death of a person, and sections of dissected wallaby carcass can be a reference to the exhumation of human bones before reburial.38 The elongated ‘tear drop’ shapes in-filled with dots are also representative of (wallaby) meat.39
The white berry tree, Wurrumbuku,40 is the other key identifying feature of this narrative. In an early unusual depiction of the whole story, Mortuary feast of Gurrmirringu, the Great Ancestral Hunter 1963, one tree is placed towards the centre of the composition� – a structure borne of an early interest (which would persist) of dividing the bark essentially in half vertically to create a formal structure. By 1964 dual berry trees frame the dollar note barks. This formal flanking of the funeral scene became the format consistently used by Malangi when depicting the whole story.
In early barks, a random in-filling of dots in negative spaces, which suggests the presence of the white berries in the landscape, later became an ordered pictorial device. The depiction of berries very closely follows the actual appearance of this fruit – a single branch supporting rows of berries in a parallel alignment.
By the late 1960s then Malangi had formalised and strengthened his depiction of the full Gurrmirriŋu mortuary scene, with features which include the solid central location of the ancestor figure and flanking trees adorned with white berries in ordered rows, often interspersed with the placement of leaves.
Authority to paint the Mulaŋa area of the Hunter Gurrmirriŋu was primarily Malangi’s. His older brother, George Burijŋa-1, had authority over Rapam, the jungle area where Gurrmirriŋu hunted, but I have only found one example of him painting for the public domain. Possibly his major authority was over ceremony.41 Charlie Boyun, the youngest brother and a painter, had a focus of responsibility for Djan’kawu country on the west bank of the river and consequently is less likely to have painted Mulaŋa.42 In fact there weren’t other Manharrŋu painters (for the public domain) for much of Malangi’s painting career, let alone painters depicting this story.43 Malangi was devising original compositions of this subject matter.
A letter written to the American collector Ed Ruhe, by a colleague, enthusiastically describes Malangi’s work from this period.
Throughout the 1970s and 80s, while being asked repeatedly to depict the whole dollar note story, Malangi began to develop also what I call ‘aspect’ paintings, focusing on elements of the story in the absence of the central narrative elements – like vignettes, scenes in a play or details of the bigger picture. He began to produce paintings of the white berry tree with surrounding animals (commonly goanna and snake at the base of the image and birds at the top), as if setting the scene before the arrival of the Hunter and his subsequent death and funeral. Having moved from the sides of the bark, a single tree trunk generally occupies the centre of the composition. Black sinuous limbs extend from about half way up the trunk to reach the perimeters of the bark. With the picture plane thus effectively divided, the negative spaces become sub-sections of the whole – glimpses of the whole story.
Malangi was also exploring areas of the composition in paint and the juxtaposition of pigment — rows of white berries against alternating yellow and black leaves or, more abstract still, berries placed and juggled to fill either the entire top half, three quarters or the whole picture plane.
Here was Malangi the painter in full flight. Here was a Yolŋu painter, steeped in tradition, yet pushing the boundaries while still adhering to an ‘allowed’ frame of reference.45 In what are essentially studies of flora Malangi exercised his creative abilities in painting and composition and, in doing so, reached the ‘sublime’.
Malangi was a leader in branching out and painting aspects of a full story in this way. I have come across few other central Arnhem Land painters who have done so within their own (allowed) repertoire with such tenacity. Perhaps too, as the Gurrmirriŋu story was considered public, rom (or garma),46 unlike the prescribed material requiring authority and the observance of restricted levels of information – the ‘clan owned set forms’ – the subject of the mortuary scene, with its less strict observance of regulation, allowed Malangi more freedom.47
To me the white berry tree paintings are amongst the most beautiful and enchanting of Malangi’s works. The paintings have a ‘singing’ quality, akin to the shimmer, known as bir’yun48 – particularly of rärrk – in paintings by fellow Yolŋu artists aspiring to attain a closeness to and expression of a spiritual source.49 The compositions are exceptional, captivating and complex. One can withdraw within the shapes and the textures and sense the application of paint. In these paintings I believe Malangi crosses the boundaries of Yolŋu and Balanda art as a true draftsman in the company of painters everywhere.
The final key theme as ‘aspect’ of the bigger picture appeared in Malangi’s senior painting years when he began producing the luku or foot paintings.
On smallish (tuck underarm size) vertical barks a field of red-brown ochre provides the base for a vertical depiction of a foot – sometimes two feet. The dense black in-filled foot has a solid white outline clearly articulating its component parts – toes, toenails and joints. The view is of the sole of the foot, or a footprint, as if looking at the foot from the subterranean depths of the ancestral domain.
The theme of the foot featured prominently for some time as the latest in a body of work designed to extend and explore established repertoires. Every couple of days Malangi would walk into Bula’bula Arts with one or two foot barks under his arm. This time coincided with the visit of Philippe Peltier, curator of the Musée national des Arts d’Afrique et d’Oceanie, Paris, and a foot bark was secured for their collection which was subsequently included in the Galerie des 5 continents exhibition and catalogue in 1995.50
The foot is the foot of Gurrmirriŋu. The word luku, meaning foot, footprints, tracks or traces, or guides, by extension refers to the ancestors who led the way for the following generations.51 Luku also means the root of a tree; 52 the idea of being implanted below the surface of the earth connects the living Yolŋu to the subterranean ancestral domain. Thus Gurrmirriŋu’s foot denotes the ancestral source for this country on the eastern bank of the Glyde River.53
On the day the family and I succeeded in getting to the ‘other side’, after moving south most of the group returned to the beach landing while Birrinbirrin, David Rumbarumba54and I continued north to Ŋurrunyuwa, to the coast, to complete the walking around and to search for ‘proof’ of Gurrmirriŋu’s presence.55 It was here that Gurrmirriŋu left large footprints, like imprints or depressions in the red rock. Despite our best efforts, we were unable to locate the foot-imprinted rock.
It had been some ten years since family members visited this site.
That visit was in 1991 – when Michael Riley made a film for ABC television’s Blackout series which traced Malangi through his country on both sides of the Glyde. Part of the film was shot on the ‘other side’. Following that experience Malangi began producing foot paintings in earnest, having never before produced such imagery.58 He appeared re-inspired or with a new and sharpened perception.
The act of painting Gurrmirriŋu’s foot was to chronicle a place, an event, a presence. It was also an act of distilling the subject to its purest form. Malangi had dispensed with the whole story, the overall and perhaps more generic description and, in doing so, was himself reaching closer and closer to a higher plane and to the essence of a spiritual and ancestral source. This is how I read these icon paintings made during the last active painting years of Malangi’s life.
Glyde River country
In the early 1980s Malangi created a new mode of representation of established subject matter in a series of paintings which, in their composition, mapped and bridged his Glyde River country.59 The common feature and central structure of these maps of country is a vertical shaft of matt black pigment sweeping up from the bottom edge to the top of the bark, dividing it into two parallel columns representing, notionally, Manharrŋu country flanking the Glyde River.
The pictorial structure already established in the white berry tree paintings now becomes the river and its tributaries in plan view. This construction enabled Malangi to divide the bark into further sections – details, chapters, episodes – where neither a reliance on chronological order nor literal map making was a consideration. The details, the aspects of the story of this area, of these countries, were positioned according to balance. Sometimes he swapped the geographical position of the river banks, sometimes imagery relating to one or the other river bank was combined.
These paintings encompass iconography of the entire river mouth area. Relating to Gurrmirriŋu and his story on the eastern side of the river are depictions of a sand bank at the river’s mouth where Gurrmirriŋu sat, Garaŋala reef with the luŋgu that he threw, the food of Gurrmirriŋu – girrgili (vine), räkay (water reed), rui (yams) and räga (berries) – little rivers of the area, and bilma (clapsticks).60 Images relating to the Djan’kawu ancestors, significant to the western side, are the waterhole Milminydjarrk, dhona (sacred digging sticks), fish and shellfish.61
The river is all Dhämala. To cross the Glyde to the western bank is to encounter an entirely distinct environment, ancestral history and subsequent visual expression.
Dhämala and Dhäbila — Djan’kawu country
Dhämala63 and Dhäbila64 are two tracts of Dhuwa moiety land west of the Glyde River. Dhämala lines the bank of the river south of the mouth before changing to Yirritja land of the neighboring Mildjiŋi clan. The entire area is a patchwork of Yirritja and Dhuwa territories. Dhäbila reaches some 12–16km further west along sandy and muddy stretches to the mangrove lined coastal fringe at the Arafura Sea. Both areas are host to a diverse natural habitat which includes active tributaries and estuaries as the river fans out around its mouth, fresh and brackish waterways, mangroves, shrubs, grasses, salt and freshwater fish and shellfish. Coastal sand dunes and mangroves give way inland to vast muddy plains, punctuated and fringed with a variety of vegetation including paperbark groves and stands of palms.
At times Dhämala and Dhäbila have been blurred into one, or confused with each other by Balanda in their descriptions of paintings. A Dhämala story is sometimes recorded as a Dhäbila story, as it is possible to drive with ease between the two areas in pursuit of the significant sites that link them – their ‘boundaries’ unclear to the untutored eye.65
Over several years I have become familiar with these lands on the western bank through my close association with the family66 and the area’s relative proximity to Ramingining. Repeat visits to the same sites over a number of years while working in the area, and subsequent visits to Arnhem Land enabled my knowledge to build, detail by detail. On my first weekend in the community in 1993, I was invited to join the family hunting at Dhämala and Dhäbila. In 1999 when I journeyed north to attend the old man’s funeral, I again visited Dhämala with family members who travelled to the river’s edge to collect the headstone that had been brought over from Ŋurrunyuwa. Numerous trips made to these lands during the main research trip for this exhibition in August 2002 added to my understanding. The two areas form a broken elongated arm of country related by virtue of its creation by and presence of the Djan’kawu Ancestors.67
The Djan’kawu Sisters link Dhuwa clans across eastern and central Arnhem Land. They came from the Island of Burralku east of the mainland, arriving on the shores of north-east Arnhem Land at Yalaŋbara in Rirratjiŋu clan country. They travelled west with the sun, plunging their digging sticks into the ground and, in doing so, created and named waterholes, places, people, language, birds and animals, making them sacred.68
At Dhämala with the plunge of their digging sticks the Djan’kawu created the sacred Milminydjarrk called Mirrmirrŋurr, a tiny mangrove fringed waterhole around 50 metres from the river’s edge.
It was in this area that the Djan’kawu changed their language to Manharrŋu language and gave the Manharrŋu the colour black. Black is a prominent feature in the paintings of Malangi. The use of black also differentiates the painted design of the hollow log coffins of the Manharrŋu from those of other clans which feature a Djan’kawu design – Djan’kawu related clans to the east paint bands of red, white and yellow on the log, while the Manharrŋu also include black bands.69
At Dhämala the Djan’kawu hung their dilly bags in a tree nearby at Giwillirrgilibil to go in search of shellfish.71 The bags contained the sacred law, held by the women. While they were away the bags, with the law inside, were stolen by the men, and from that point the knowledge and law of ceremony was the domain of men.
From Dhämala the Djan’kawu continued their travels and creative acts westward. Plunging their digging sticks into the ground they made and named Buwany (the shooting star site) and the Gilimgarri waterhole on the plain, reaching the coast at Dhäbila. From here they moved with the sun to lands of other clans.
The Dhämala and Dhäbila Djan’kawu paintings represent a distinctive aspect of Malangi’s oeuvre, for with each ‘country’ he devised an entirely new way of representing it. Instead of seeking to tell the ‘whole story’ of the Djan’kawu in one picture plane or depict them in human form (as could be read in the Gurrmirriŋu works), he told their story through traces of their existence, the food they collected, the creatures they made sacred, the sites they created. Painting the Djan’kawu in these ways represented both an expression of the everyday and an exploration of Yolŋu religious knowledge. (plates 33, 34)
From the Djan’kawu landscape and lore comes Malangi’s most definitive and sacred design. The Mirrmirrŋurr Milminydjarrk (waterhole) is depicted as a central roundel from which bands radiate vertically, horizontally and diagonally to the edges and corners of the picture plane where smaller roundels, or sometimes squares are placed.
The radiating motif is the signature of the Djan’kawu, the identifier, and with slight variations is painted by artists depicting the story of the Djan‘kawu as related to their clan country. It signals a number of associations including the rays of the sun with which they travelled, the tracing of the journey or tracks between waterholes and sites created by them with the plunge of their digging sticks, and the design of the woven ŋanmarra,73 the conical mat used to give birth to the Dhuwa people, and this is synonymous with the womb and the procreative powers of the women.74
Like other Dhuwa moiety painters of the Djan’kawu narrative, Malangi’s paintings are based on this broad Djan’kawu template but are site specific. Milminydjarrk is central on the bark. Mirrmirrŋurr is the specific name of this actual waterhole, while Milminydjarrk is the generic name given to a freshwater spring.75 Surrounding it at Dhämala, and on the bark, are smaller waterholes connected by a subterranean channel system of linked waterways. The yellow rärrk in the negative spaces represents water run-off across the vast mud plains with the seasonal rains and the ebb and flow of river tides.76 It also lends a visual reference to the cycles of nature and the woven fibres of the birthing mat which brings life.
When looking at reproductions of Malangi’s bark paintings of the Mirrmirrŋurr design, Yolŋu respond immediately with comments such as ‘that’s Malangi’s Dreaming, that’s his design’. What they are expressing it seems to me is that this design above any other is most closely connected to the clan religious law, the madayin.77 That is, this very waterhole and this very design is ‘high totem’ for Malangi, therefore most restricted and most sacred.78 The mesmeric quality of Malangi’s Milminydjarrk barks is also an expression of ancestral power.
Even though the Milminydjarrk site is public in the sense that women, children and visitors can go there, it is nonetheless the key to Malangi’s spiritual identity.79In Yolŋu cosmology the clan waterhole is the spiritual reservoir, where the souls of the unborn reside and where, upon death, the souls return ‘home’. The established design template for expressing Milminydjarrk — the circle with radiating lines in a rectangular frame — bears a direct relationship to the ceremonial aspect of the Manharrŋu in the form of a body design for initiates painted in ceremony and the basis for a sand sculpture used in smoking or cleansing rituals as part of the process of the mortuary rite.
This is a ceremonial design and therefore sacrosanct. The knowledge is transferred from those with clan authority to young painters to use for ceremony as well as for the public domain, but with the requirement that the design remains the same. Early barks by Malangi’s brother Charlie Boyun80 reveal a similar strict adherence to the law of representation.81 Malangi’s paintings of Milminydjarrk in public collections are dated in the late 1960s,82� yet he would continue to paint Milminydjarrk, incorporating it as an aspect in river map paintings throughout the 1980s and 90s.
Djan’kawu icon paintings
Malangi exercised much more freedom with the Djan’kawu subjects other than Milminydjarrk, in what I call ‘icon’ paintings. This repertoire or series is distinctive for the placement of one or two figures vertically and centrally on the bark executed in bold white pigment and rärrk on a dense black ground. Often the figure is ‘anchored’ to the bottom edge of the bark; sometimes it appears to float.
The subjects comprise representations of the Djan’kawu. To find a nonda, a long-bum mussel, in the mud is to find food collected by the Djan’kawu, eaten by them, created by them. More than this, the mussel is the Djan’kawu, an essence of the Djan’kawu, a spirit of the Djan’kawu, the power of these ancestors imbued in the mussel. To paint the nonda (or other Djan’kawu subjects like goanna or sun) is to paint the Djan’kawu in a manifestation other than human form.83 Malangi painted such manifestations of the Djan’kawu through the species they encountered, ate and created on their travels in several series of barks whose subjects include freshwater and mangrove goannas, shellfish, catfish, salt and freshwater fish and bush food. In early paintings a number of species crowd the picture plane and are painted in a very descriptive manner, whereas in later more resolved worksthe imagery is distilled to a bold, single iconic figure on a black ground.
�Among the first barks of the descriptive type is a series Malangi made for Australian Perspecta 1983: a biennial survey of contemporary Australian art, for which Djon Mundine’s encouragement to develop a body of work84 may have been the pivotal moment when Malangi allowed himself to explore his own creativity – and to develop and elevate his work beyond the formal 'by the book' rendition. Some ten years later he was at the height of painting his single ‘icon’ paintings.
Malangi’s execution of these manifestations of the Djan’kawu represent a mid to late career continual experimentation with format. By the time he was painting the minimal figures of the early 1990s he was in his late sixties, a senior custodian of his own land as well as his mother’s. His development as a painter and as a ritual leader were commensurate, and these iconic depictions may be read as a meditation on religious knowledge.
In Yolŋu ceremonial teaching, through a series of ‘age-grading’ rituals, increasingly restricted knowledge is revealed. An integral part of this process is the learning of the connectedness to the ancestral domain through restricted ceremony — song, oratory and painting – both the painting of sacred objects known as raŋga,85 as representations of the Waŋarr or Miligidji86 (ancestral beings and ancestral time) made for restricted rituals and the painting on bodies. These actions effectively allow participants to gradually experience a oneness with the Waŋarr.87
Malangi’s concentration on single subjects transferred to an interest in representing these aspects sculpturally. In the late 1980s and early 90s he produced a body of work where a detail or aspect of the Djan’kawu chronicle is given three-dimensional form. These subjects include particularly a series of sculptures related to Dhämala and Dhäbila – birds and goannas – representations of the everyday creatures related to this country as well as homage to their totemic significance.
Most paintings contain inside and outside elements. For those not conversant with restricted Yolŋu law, Malangi’s barks of single figures on black grounds are very satisfactory and resolved minimal paintings and can be enjoyed as such. The depiction of the creatures in this distilled way also signals a sacred dimension and suggests a realm beyond the everyday. Thus as the nonda is one essence of the Djan’kawu, represented on bark, it also becomes an icon of the Djan’kawu in the spiritual sense. The distilling of the subject suggests an intellectual and spiritual exercise associated with attaining cultural authority and religious knowledge.
Malangi’s accomplished ritual standing became increasingly evident in the Djan’kawu works of the late 1980s and early 90s. At the same time he was producing his masterful Yathalamarra paintings – dedications to his mother’s Yirritja moiety Balmbi clan land – distinctive for their expansive horizontal picture planes and the extensive use of black.
Yathalamarra is a horseshoe shaped billabong surrounded by trees and grasses and inhabited by abundant freshwater life such as waterlilies, darters, lotus birds and catfish. Malangi spent the last thirty years of his life there on a more or less permanent basis.88 As manager, djuŋgayi,89 he was caretaker of the land and its associated ceremonies. From here he continued to paint his Dhuwa moiety Dreamings of the Glyde River while increasingly developing a repertoire of paintings – an entire visual language – to represent the rich ancestral lands of the Balmbi, focusing on Yathalamarra and its surroundings.
In and around the Yathalamarra billabong itself are the key sites Gutitjbimirri, Wulawarri and Djalumbudjapin.90 Nearby is the smaller waterhole and ceremonial site Bilimarr, and to the south and north is country associated with the ancestor, Murayana.91 The social and ancestral history of Yathalamarra is discussed in Margie West’s essay.92 Here then, I simply introduce the exquisite Yathalamarra landscapes in bark.
My familiarisation with this area occurred over a much longer period of time than the example given for Mulaŋa. During my time working with Bula’bula Arts, I would often visit Malangi’s house at Yathalamarra. Most visits took place sitting on the verandah of the house at ‘bottom camp’ near the southern end of the billabong, the area of country known as Gutitjbimirri.93 Occasionally I was able to venture further and see other parts of the billabong.94 On return visits to Ramingining, after leaving the community, I would always visit Malangi at Yathalamarra. This growing familiarity with the family and their country paved the way for experiencing Balmbi land in a much more comprehensive way. During the 2002 research trip, the women and children supervised the expeditions to a number of Balmbi sites.95 This process is like peeling back the layers of an onion, gradually, not hurriedly, gaining a comprehension of the complexity of the ancestral landscape.
Like other bodies of work begun when Malangi was younger, and with less ceremonial authority and painting experience, his early depictions of Yathalamarra of the 1960s adhere to a personal template of sorts that he used to paint the ‘whole’ dollar note story. In a vertical format the central figure (of Gurrmirriŋu) is replaced by a central roundel (waterhole) surrounded by trees and animals related to the site. What followed by the 1980s were barks, still vertical in their axis, but instead of presenting one overall picture plane, the bark was divided into a series of columns into which Malangi placed individual elements of the story. At the Yathalamarra waterhole 1988 includes a central roundel – representing the spiritual reservoir – placed within a horizontal panel. Like the Djan'kawu icon paintings, single aspects of the larger story are placed on a black ground into vertical parallel columns arranged across the vertically oriented bark96 – the ancestral players for Yathalamarra.
The ultimately accomplished works came with Malangi’s orientation of the bark from vertical to horizontal. Within this ‘landscape’ he painted a series of pictures documenting the Yathalamarra waterhole, still using the columnar structure which enabled him to depict an inventory of aspects of the ancestral narrative visually partitioned across the picture plane.
While some of these expansive barks gave a comprehensive chronicle of the billabong, others focused on its particular parts and the ancestral events specific to that site. Yathalamarra Story c.1990 encompasses all of Yathalamarra in the established columnar arrangement and features the central waterhole of the ancestral women, Biyay’u and Bundul. Yathalamarra Story 1989 is another definitive work which focuses on the area of the billabong where these ancestral waterlily women reside. Their pool, placed centrally on the bark is surrounded by girrwul (water weed), with the column of rärrk representing Yirritja Balmbi land. The added presence of Bipimirriny97 the lotus bird and the ancestral women with their digging sticks in representational form, and at the top of the painting, their breasts, places central significance on the creation of the area by the acts of these women who live in the billabong’s southern part.
Looking at such paintings can provide the experience of standing within the panorama of Yathalamarra and surveying features of the landscape from a central viewpoint. In real life to stand on the central peninsula of land where the outstation houses are located is to see the darter tree and the ancestral womens’ pool to your left, the catfish site at the apex of the billabong and the hollow log site to your right. Transferred onto bark Malangi expressed this landscape as a complex chronicle of interconnected sites by arranging the features in adjacent relationships, as if ‘unwrapping’ the landscape. The result is that while all the features are present, their placement is not literal. As a general rule the focal site of the spiritual reservoir within the billabong where the ancestral women reside is placed centrally in the picture (as was the central reservoir for Dhämala, Milminydjarrk, in the Dhuwa barks).
I suggest the significance of the ‘viewpoint’ and thus the central placement of the spiritual reservoir is more than to chronicle the physical arrangement of the land, but is a dedication to the central significance spiritually of the site. Through a map of the scene then, through formal relationships, it is possible to evoke unspoken relationships.
The central roundel, based on a sand sculpture design, references ceremony which is further expressed by the order of pictorial elements, their repetition across the picture plain echoing the rhythmic execution of song cycles, dances and incantations designed to bring the participant closer to a connection with the spiritual domain.
The further distinguishing feature in the Yathalamarra works is the emphatic use of black. More than just Malangi’s predilection for this pigment, its use suggests the extensive waters of Yathalamarra, as did the use of black in the iconic Djan’kawu works, referencing the environment of associated water creatures. In Yolŋu cosmology water has many layered references not least of which is water as the vehicle for the journey of the soul. Again, the waterhole is where the souls of the unborn reside and where the deceased return.
Mortuary ceremonies include song cycles and actions (dances) about water, as the transition from one realm to the next takes place.98 And significant sites were formed by the actions of an ancestor creating a waterhole, a source of survival for the clan, a spiritual source.99
These vast columnar paintings emerged at around the time when Malangi was also strongly producing aspect paintings as part of the Djan’kawu series.100 The precursor to the horizontal barks and the sectioning of the picture plane was surely Malangi’s mural experience – when in 1987 he created a mural in horizontal format depicting the creation story of Yathalamarra.101 The use of individual elements within the Yathalamarra works influenced the Djan’kawu ‘icon’ paintings. One approach fed into the other while each remained distinct.
In the Yathalamarra works, as a senior man, Malangi developed a language authoritative, innovative and unique.
A born painter
The funeral held at Yathalamarra outstation was an acknowledgment that Malangi moved in two worlds – the Yolŋu and the Balanda. A public ceremony held on Saturday 3 July 1999 was attended by many Yolŋu and Balanda – family, friends, curators, academics, dealers and politicians – who all came to pay tribute. The media described the occasion as the equivalent of a ‘state funeral’ which included a guard of honour by Yolŋu members of the armed forces.
I was fortunate to stay on in the small community to witness the events in the week that followed as, nightly, members of Yolŋu clans carried out singing and ceremony to farewell the dearly loved family member. On intermittent evenings there was Christian fellowship also acknowledging the meeting of the Yolŋu tradition with the Balanda.
The headstone was collected from Ŋurrunyuwa and brought across the river in a dinghy to Dhämala to be prepared. The specially chosen metallic rock, when sanded back, revealed ratjpa — the sparkling red-purple ochre used to paint up for ceremony and also used by the artist in his paintings. A plaque set in the rock carries Malangi’s medals of a lifetime of achievement – the one dollar note medal, the Emeritus pin from the Australia Council, and the Doctor of Laws medallion – again the Yolŋu and Balanda worlds coming together.102 More than this though, the placement of the ratjpa rock from Ŋurrunyuwa to rest in Yathalamarra country brought together the spirit of father and mother.103
Howard Morphy has noted that as Yolŋu gain ritual knowledge they are able to attain deeper law, higher law and not only discern their own law but take on the role of djuŋgayi or custodial manager of their mother’s country.104
It seems to me that it was this union, this acceptance into the spiritual realm, into the realm of god that Malangi strived for all his adult life through his art. I see his artistic output as a clear expression of an accumulative lifetime of greater and greater religious knowledge, wisdom, knowing. Every Yolŋu participates in a similar journey to a greater or lesser degree. The young man begins life with innocence and inexperience and enters into a series of lessons, through ceremony, through painting where knowledge and law is revealed. The attainment of a connection to the spiritual realm occurs through teachings in restricted ceremony not least of which is through being painted up and establishing a connectedness with the ancestral domain through this experience.
The Gurrmirriŋu paintings are essentially those of a young man. By his life’s end Malangi was producing ever more profound dedications to his djuŋgayi country. In doing so he was striving to attain a higher state of consciousness, to bring the mundane and spiritual worlds closer together, to connect with god, with the Waŋarr – through painting.
I acknowledge the assistance of Malangi, members of Malangi’s family and Bula’bula Arts in compiling this essay.
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