Some people are stories

There are stories that take seven days to tell. There are other stories that take you all of your life. Some stories take a long time – do we have the time anymore? (Diane Glancy, Cherokee Storyteller)1

One day early in the 1981 dry season a large body of people came over to Milingimbi from Ramingining on the mainland to take part in a Marndayalainitiation ceremony and I met two men, with their families, who would have a great impact on my life, possibly greater than anyone else bar my parents. The two men were the artists Paddy Dhäthaŋu �and David Malangi. Malangi had a thin ‘Errol Flynn’ moustache under a large fawn coloured hat, half way cowboy and half way military, and an energetic personality that shone through his face. Sitting on a neatly laid out blanket and organised with his tools of trade, despite all the activity around him he was earnestly working on a bark painting which he brought in the next day. A ’dollar note’ painting.2

The paintings are just like our sacred sites and Dreamings. In doing paintings we are acting out our ancestral traditions. That’s where they come from, our sacred Dreamings. I only paint my land because it’s mine. And Yirritja is my mother’s land. And my grandmother’s land. Each person – whether Dhuwa or Yirritja – have to look after their own land. (Malangi, 1991)3

David Malangi (1927–19 June 1999), Manharrŋu people

I don’t know where I was born – I was just a little baby then … Me?
I was born there – Mulaŋa.(Malangi, 1992)4

Malangi was born in the bush at a place called Mulaŋa on the eastern side of the mouth of the Glyde River. This is his spiritual homeland. His Manharrŋu people – the people of the manyarr (white mangrove trees) — are one of a number of small clan groups that inhabit the Arafura Swamp catchment area. A former community advisor at Ramingining, Richard Trudgeon has suggested that their present day small population is the result of the wars with cattlemen in the latter half of the 1800s and the early twentieth century.5 Malangi’s group belongs to both the eastern and western banks of the river. A coastline of mosquito infested mangrove swamps really only bearable in the dry season from June to November; it would seem a strange inheritance.

At Miyapurr, Martja, at Gurlipa, Thunder group country;
holder of sacred things, Black Cockatoo, Rrirrambual Cockatoo, Ganayamburrŋa;
Where are you going, holder of sacred things?
To Djirdirdigurruma, to Barlmirdidji, and Wanybarda,
places of the Mangrove people [Manharrŋu].6

In many ways your life is shaped by the relationship of circumstances — class, colour, gender, the times, the climate into which you are born and grow up. Possibly in other circumstances Malangi would have become merely some form of scientific profile or specimen, a Negroid or Australoid type, part of an anthropological debate. It was in 1925 that Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown was appointed to the first chair of anthropology at the University of Sydney. In the same year the first of several articles on Aboriginal art by Australian artist Margaret Preston, ‘The Indigenous art of Australia’, appeared in Art in Australia.7 Mission records of their wards note that Malangi was born in 1927.8
It was in the year of his birth that the symbol of Australian nationhood, Parliament House in Canberra was officially opened by the Duke of York, with Dame Nellie Melba singing the national anthem. So David Malangi is a true son of the Australian nation. The only Aboriginal presence recorded at the opening ceremony was the turning away of ‘King Billy’, erroneously called ‘the last of the Canberra people’.9 Inquiries into massacresof Aboriginal people were held in Western Australia in 1926 and in Alice Springs concerning the ‘Coniston massacre’ in 1928. Aborigines were banned from central Perth in 1927, a practice already applied in a number of other Australian urban centres.

During his childhood David spent time at the offshore Milingimbi mission and attended school there intermittently. As a result he could neither read nor write. This Methodist mission, set up in 1923, was to last some fifty years. The site in the Crocodile Islands took advantage of the permanent water supply at Milingimbi waterhole. In 1927 Yolŋu men at the mission, feeling affronted and humiliated by the actions of one of the mission staff, arranged to kill him with their spears one Sunday at the church service. Malangi’s future father-in-law Rirrŋanydjun and a number of other local men were involved. They didn’t succeed in killing the offender, but were later apprehended by police to receive and serve out their sentences in Darwin.

In 1929 the first major exhibition to feature Aboriginal art, Australian Aboriginal Art, was organised by the National Museum of Victoria; it included bark paintings collected in 1912 by the anthropologist and former director of the Museum, Baldwin Spencer. At Milingimbi that year a bad measles epidemic killed many young children of Malangi’s generation but he was unaffected.

As was the habit of most of the Aboriginal mission population, David and his parents visited Milingimbi for periods at a time and took part in its activities, but they spent equal if not more time on their own estates on the mainland opposite. By the mid 1930s the missionaries had set up gardens at the more permanent water sources on the mainland like Gatji lagoon and Yathalamarra waterhole.

In 1940, on a visit to the Ernabella Christian mission in central Australia, anthropologist CP Mountford enticed local Pitjantjatjara children and adults to ‘finger draw’ both figurative and ‘abstract’ compositions on sheets of board. In 1941 and 1942 the exhibition Art of Australia 1788–1941 was the first to present Aboriginal art internationally in the context of an art exhibition, touring to the United States of America and Canada – three drawings by nineteenth-century artist Tommy McCrae and eleven Northern Territory bark paintings (described as by artists ‘unknown’) were shown as representing the Indigenous forerunners to art in Australia in the European tradition. By this time Malangi had reached puberty and, around 1941, a Djuŋguwan initiation ceremony was held for him and a number of his generation at Yathalamarra waterhole (his mother’s land). A year later he was put through a Gunapipi ceremony, the next age-grading ritual.

During World War II initially Malangi lived with his family in the bush at Milingimbi, but he moved to the mainland after the mission and the new Royal Australian Air Force base on the island were bombed by Japanese planes.

So they collected their spears – shovel spears, stone knives, and cane spears – for we really didn’t understand; we thought it would be like when Yolŋu fight. But Balanda fight a different way. He fights from way up above. He drops bombs from ever so far up in the sky. They waited for the enemy with spears in their hands. Some people ran away … We took to the bush as the enemy were dropping bombs. So there were the Japanese and we were all in the thick bush. We spotted one of our planes, a little one fighting with a Japanese plane. So we left Milingimbi, all of us and went to Dhäbila, then to Gopini, Gilimgarri and Manigurrmili. There were Yolŋu at all of these places, but there were no Yolŋu at Milingimbi. Only Balanda – air force and army. As the enemy planes flew over they looked like grasshoppers with wings outspread, all joined together. They came on the Sunday, Monday and maybe the Tuesday also. (Billy Djoma c.1974 ).10

After the bombing of Darwin in 1942 large numbers of servicemen were moved north to meet an expected invasion. This resulted in employment for Aboriginal people as ancillary workers and as coast watchers. A guerrilla force of adult Yolŋu men was formed in the eastern Arnhem Land area by anthropologist Donald Thomson with the assistance of his informer Rraywala, a local Mildjiŋi man. Under Thomson’s command they were to harass the enemy should the invasion happen. Malangi isn’t recorded as part of this force.

The artist Tony Tuckson was stationed in Darwin as an air force pilot. Later he would be an important figure in Aboriginal art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in the 1950s and 60s — first with Tiwi Pukumani Poles from Bathurst Island and then with bark paintings from the Arnhem Land coast, he introduced Aboriginal art into a ‘fine art’ context for the first time. But that was still to come.

When life returned to normal after the war Malangi worked with the mission staff putting up fences to control livestock and tending to the gardens. It was the time of superintendents Arthur F. Ellemor (1941–50) then Edgar Wells (1949–59) who encouraged art creation at the mission. In 1948 the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land collected, recorded and documented bark paintings and sculptures from across Arnhem Land. Milingimbi wasn’t on the itinerary but a small party visited the island to repair their boat and so collected work there. In 1956 Mountford’s collections from this expedition were distributed to State art galleries and museums. Malangi, still a young man, was not painting on bark for the public at this time and hence doesn’t appear in their collections or records. In a 1957 census conducted by the Social Welfare Division of the Northern Territory he enters the records for the first time since his birth.11

Though spending time in Darwin on and off, it was in Milingimbi in the late 1950s that David met and married Elsie Ganbada(the first of his four wives), who’d also spent time in Darwin with her parents at Bagot Reserve. Milingimbi mission records have both Malangi and Ganbada receiving ‘cake and rations’ on Christmas day 1959 and an undescribed ‘gift’ at the 1961 Christmas celebrations.12 They lived near the present day Milingimbi church building behind the beach. At that time a milking paddock was there and Malangi worked in the dairy and gardens with fellow artist Jimmy Wululu under the supervision of a Fijian missionary.

I married David Malangi in Milingimbi. When my mother and father take me there to Milingimbi and I get married there in Milingimbi … Three [children]; Neville, Shirley, and May. Three, one man, two girls. And my mother died in Yathalamarra in my country when I living there; and my mother there, and my father died in Darwin, [at] Bagot and my mother die in my country. (Elsie Ganbada 1991).13

Malangi subsequently worked with livestock, breaking in and riding horses with one of the missionaries, Mr Buick (1959–63). Later in life he occasionally suffered from arthritic pains which he said were from his work with horses. More importantly he had begun to paint on bark for the interested outside world. He described his life as working at two jobs: with horses in the day and painting after work.

A more settled lifestyle at the mission and constant contact with Christian missionaries must have had an influence, though there is no evidence that Malangi was a regular church goer or a deeply committed Christian.

A long time ago I was painting different way, Christian way. I was painting Balanda, missionaries [pictures] on bark – Christian way. (Malangi, 1995)14

The Australian Census of 2001 indicates that 70 percent of people identifying as Aboriginal called themselves Christian. One must remember that there was still a prejudicial concept of Aboriginal beliefs as not being a religion, and there wasn’t an ‘Aboriginal religion’ box to tick.15 In an interview in the 1990s when Malangi stated that all the stories, spiritual power and related art imagery came from God, I asked if God was Yolŋu (black and from the Dreaming) or Balanda (white and Christian). Without hesitation he replied that God was for everyone. Like many Aboriginal artists he painted Christian stories, but the only remaining evidence is a Christmas card Nativity scene from the late 1960s,16 with Malangi’s name (post ‘dollar note’ fame17) adding integrity to the product.

Though there were serious moves to place Aboriginal art in museums in Australia, some institutions were more progressive than others, and internationally there appeared to be little interest. In 1957 the husband and wife anthropologists R. and C. Berndt curated An exhibition of Australian Aboriginal Art: Arnhem Land paintings on bark and carved human figures at the Western Australian Museum, Perth – the first exhibition to place identified artists by name and language groups and within regional stylistic traditions.18 The stage was set for what could be called the ‘golden years’ of bark painting – the 1960s and 70s.

While Malangi had begun to paint commercially around this time, of course he had already been painting since his teenage years, for ceremony.

He was teaching me, my father, [Dawidi-1] he knew – my father. Yo, I saw my father painted dead men, when I was a little boy, and I copied. Who were these Yolŋu that died? When they died their body we painting. These other Yolŋu, when they die, I used to do painting and singing, or who else [would do it]? Other people like my father or some of my elder people. If the dead person was their mother’s people, they used to paint the body with their mother’s design, the dead body.

Another thing my father was making: nula nula, [what we call] balatha [fighting clubs] we painted for nula nula. When mission time, we used to work at painting and sell it to Balanda missionary people; me and my father. Just for Ŋatha [food], perhaps girri [goods, tools, weapons] before little rrupiya … before money. First, a long time ago, at mission time no money, just for Ŋatha. (Malangi 1992)19

The 1960s was a time of profound change world wide, and it was a sympathetic time for Aboriginal people. 1963 was the year Malangi painted the mortuary feast of Gurrmirriŋu (which came to be known as the ‘dollar note’ painting20); it was also the year of the ‘bark petition’ and the Yirrkala church panels (1962–63).21 It was the year of Martin Luther King’s historical ‘I have a dream’ speech before hundreds of thousands of civil rights marchers in Washington DC. And at the passing of a Referendum in Australia in 1967 Indigenous people were finally allowed to vote in their own country.
After the death of his father (Dawidi-1) in the early 1960s, Malangi painted under the tuition of the Gupapuyŋu painter Dhawadanygulili, an active ceremonial leader who died in 1976. Missionary Alan Fidock recalled:

A very important ritual leader, Dhawadanygulili spent most of his time conducting ceremonies and teaching, especially painting. Consequently did little of his own painting. Started Malangi painting and probably assisted in ‘Mortuary feast …’ 1963 – did fine cross hatching. Worked with Dawidi-2. Elder brother to Djawa, Lipundja and two others.22

He [Dhawadanygulili] lived at Ŋarrawundhu in the bush in the smoke house; Gatawurr, no bala’ [house] in mission time – he painted dharrwa [many paintings] for selling and for Ŋärra’ [ceremony]. He’s old, he didn’t know for cattle or garden, he only know for painting and Buŋgul, ceremony. (Jimmy Wululu 1991)23

At Milingimbi, that a true story, Sam Yilkari he was teaching people to paint [the Wagilag Sisters story]. These people like Dhawadanygulili, Lipundja, Burijŋa-1; they were all making painting, carving, all sitting down together in one place. They were looking at each other[’s work]. Hey what your painting? OK, Buwata [plains turkey]. What are your painting? Goanna, OK …

My painting was different to my father because of I lived in mission times. Many of these old people didn’t paint much [commercially] but were mostly doing ceremonies. Some were happy; some didn’t paint but looked after ceremonies, looked after sacred things. My sons, paint like me, Dhurrikayu, Birrinbirrin they paint like me. (Malangi 1995)24

Fidock, who came to Milingimbi as a teacher in 1961 and was to remain for over ten years, had many other roles to play – one of which was as the art agent for local painters.25Through that decade he was central to the placement of Aboriginal art when several historically important collections such as those of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and of the Czech artist–collector Karel Kupka were being put together.

Malangi was diligent as an artist and, with the guidance of Fidock, his early work went to several collections including the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Edward (Ed) L Ruhe and the Louis Allen collections (USA), R. and C. Berndt (Perth, WA),26 Karel Kupka (Paris and Basel), and Melbourne based Jim Davidson (whom Malangi remembered well). The first of his works to enter a collection was Food pattern of trees [Rain and räga tree], acquired for the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1962.27 Museum Victoria also acquired a work in 1962 made c.1950. The painting comprises a central vertical shaft flanked by trees; a similarly constructed painting with snakes on either side of a central dividing panel was painted by Malangi and acquired by the Berndts in 1964.28 These early paintings, usually simple arrangements of elements with a balance achieved by dividing the composition vertically, were described as innovative yet in keeping with the convention of Aboriginal art.29

Kupka, who acquired more than 400 bark paintings, wood sculptures, and artefacts, is said to have fallen in love with Aboriginal art after seeing his first bark painting at the Sydney home of photographer Axel Poignant, who had just returned from a northern sojourn. Kupka visited Australia first in 1951, then Milingimbi in 1956, 1960 or 61, again in 1963, possibly in 1964, and 1971 to 1973.30 He published one of the first serious appraisals of Aboriginal art, Dawn of Art: Painting and sculpture of Australian Aborigines, which follows his travels across Arnhem Land, introducing artists, their homes, their work and the context. While an English version of the book was published in 1965, it was originally published in French in 196231 and thus unfortunately doesn’t mention Malangi.

Along the way Kupka sketched portraits of Yolŋu in coloured crayons� – red ochre browns and yellows and blacks. He remarked in 1966:

I have made several visits to Australia to study Aboriginal art. In 1963 I met Malangi through the teachers of the Milingimbi Methodist Mission, I was struck with the astonishing personal style of his work … Aboriginals often like to paint in groups. Malangi loves to work alone, quietly in a big sombrero hat. He is one of the great Australian Aboriginal artists.32

I was painting when Karel Kupka come to Milingimbi. He was asking who was painting. One Balanda from Paris … one from Melbourne, Jim Davidson. They both bought paintings. He [Kupka] show us his [own] pictures. They were like Yolŋu painting. He did a picture of me. Some he took away, others he give to Yolŋu. (Malangi 1995)33

One of Kupka’s acquisitions on his 1963 visit was a bark painting by Malangi, Cérémonie funéraire (Mortuary feast), which depicts the funeral rites of Gurrmirriŋu, the original creative being for the Manharrŋu people. In the form of a man who hunted on the eastern bank of the Glyde River mouth, Gurrmirriŋu collected sweet white berries which he distributed across the landscape around Malangi’s birthplace and the nearby islands.34

A long time ago this happened; the story, in the bush on the other side of the Glyde River in my country, Mulaŋa. This is from Mulaŋa, the Yolŋu, that mokuy [creative spirit]. He’s been there, he’s been there, he’s the Wäŋa-wataŋu [the first landowner]. (Malangi 1992)35

On Kupka’s way back through Sydney,36 a photo of the Malangi bark of the mortuary feast was shown to Mr AC McPherson, Secretary of the Reserve Bank of Australia. The decision had recently been made that Australia would change to decimal currency, from pounds shillings and pence (£.s.d.) to dollars and cents – which occurred in 1966. McPherson passed the photograph on to the decimal currency design committee, which included Russell Drysdale as its artistic advisor.37 The photograph was then presented to Gordon Andrews whose innovative designs were eventually incorporated into the layout of Australia’s decimal currency notes – with a depiction of Gurrmirriŋu’s mortuary feast on the reverse of the one dollar note.

Malangi was unaware of all this. He had moved back to his mother’s country at Yathalamarra on the mainland after the establishment of an outstation store at Ŋaŋalala on the Glyde River. The Reserve Bank ‘assumed the painting was the work of an anonymous, and probably long dead, artist’38 and they didn’t feel the need to notify anyone. This dismissive attitude was in step with White Australian sentiments of the time. Fully seven years after Aboriginal watercolourist Albert Namatjira’s death, the idea still prevailed that Aboriginal art was generic and no individual practitioners could be discerned.
Fidock was in Darwin for a mission meeting when he went to the bank to get a wad of notes of the new currency to take back to Milingimbi.39 So Malangi’s first sight of the artwork was in 1966. The fact that the artist had received no recognition had already been noted in previews of the new currency by Roland Pullen, published in the Adelaide Advertiser on 5 February 1966 and the South Pacific Post on 11 February 1966. The Reverend Marcel Spengler, Superintendent at Milingimbi, followed up with a long letter to the Director of Social Welfare in Darwin in which he commented:

I think that no fair minded Australian would agree that Malangi shouldn’t receive some personal recognition, and I am hoping that some approach will be made through your Branch to the Secretary of the Reserve Bank of Australia. I am inclined to think that either a royalty for each note minted be paid to Malangi, or that a substantial lump sum be forwarded to him.40

The Reserve Bank sought legal opinion and was advised that the artist had rights under Australian law and these should be respected.41 Subsequently a special medallion was struck and presented to Malangi by the then Governor of the Reserve Bank, Dr HC (Nugget) Coombs, together with a gift of a fishing tackle box and a fee of $1,000. The medallion is inscribed recto, PRESENTED TO / MALANGI / BY DR H.C. COOMBS / GOVERNOR / RESERVE BANK OF AUSTRALIA / 7th AUGUST 1967; and verso, TO COMMEMORATE / HIS CONTRIBUTION TO / THE DESIGN OF THE / AUSTRALIAN $1 NOTE.42 Malangi was very proud of the medallion and over the years he missed no opportunity to show it to every important visitor.43 With the money he received he was able to buy a boat and fishing net to fish off the mainland coast.44

All right. I was selling my paintings to one Balanda, from overseas [Karel Kupka] at Milingimbi. Down south, good, they been fixed it up, with work, you know. From there … all these Balanda people like big people; went buy for one-dollar note, from Wurrumbuku. And from him this one … this fellow here is the memory of him. This fellow here, before me, he’s my memory. I doing painting, all right. From there, I been got this medal, and all government people been pay me. But small, not bigger [money] … This belong to me, the one-dollar note. I was happy because Balanda now everywhere know my painting. ‘Ah! That’s David Malangi’. (Malangi 1995)45

The incident had two historical implications. First – even though the tragedy scarred career of artist Albert Namatjira had been belatedly recognised, and the names of artists included in exhibitions had been detailed since the Berndts had applied this practice in 1957 – Malangi’s case, finally, publicly, fixed the idea of the Aboriginal painter as an individually recognised art practitioner. Second, the fact that a Commonwealth government agency, the Reserve Bank of Australia, had paid royalty fees to an Aboriginal artist opened the whole copyright issue and respect for such artists Australia wide. Strangely, despite all this publicity, Malangi doesn’t appear in art reference books until the 1980s when he is listed in Max Germaine’s Artists and Galleries of Australia (1984).46

In 1978 an artists’ cooperative was formed on the mainland, Ramingining Arts and Crafts, and Malangi then living at Yathalamarra was one of the founding members. In 1979 he and fellow Ramingining artists George Milpurrurru and Johnny Bonguwuy, with artists from Yuendumu in the desert, became the first Aboriginal artists to be included in a Sydney Biennale, European Dialogue. They appeared in a photo montage on the front cover of the Biennale commentary publication and they had their own entries inside and in the catalogue. Articles by Professor Ulli Beier and Ramingining Art Advisor Peter Yates attempted to defend the right of Aboriginal artists to enter the art market without becoming degenerate.47This first Sydney Biennale to represent Aboriginal artists was also the first to have a fifty percent representation of women artists. What was also interesting in relation to the perception of Aboriginal art was that in a Biennale featuring much performance art, the first Aboriginal entries should be paintings on the wall. Several forums took place – at the Aboriginal Art Centre (The Gallery of Dreams) on the influence of European art on Aboriginal art; and a panel discussed Aboriginal art and film (Clive Evatt, Ulli Beier, Geoff Bardon, and Jenny Isaacs).

Early in 1982 Malangi travelled to Adelaide with his wife Elsie Ganbada and art dealer and long time friend, Dorothy Bennett. He was to be artist-in-residence at Flinders University as part of the Adelaide Arts Festival. Subsequently the University acquired some of his pieces for their collection.
In the early 1980s he completed several paintings of the Glyde River mouth (one of which is in the Andreas Avery collection, Sydney) as evidence for the agents acting for the community in a progressive ‘sea claim’ hearing on the Crocodile Islands and Castlereagh Bay area in central Arnhem Land. A number of artists of other groups whose ancestral narratives crossed this region also presented paintings of sea and landscapes to the hearing (Gammalaŋga and Gurryindi people). As a result, commercial fishing was restricted to one kilometre outside the low tide mark.48 The same year, for the second Australian Perspecta exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Malangi produced a series of bark paintings mapping out his land. The nine paintings, a conch shell and pandanus conical mat were a follow up to the sea claim hearing, more of a public statement. Later in the year the works were included in the Bienale de São Paulo in Brazil, and acquired by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1984.

This set of work also came out of my own interventionist curation in organising the Ramingining contribution to the Perspecta exhibition. It was my fascination with the ‘pars proto’ (one part signifying the whole) perspective of Malangi’s big painting of the Glyde River mouth�– an amalgamation of parts. The nine smaller barks then represented aspects of that country. A body of information about the series of paintings was taken down at the time, but not presented on the ‘white wall hang’ of the exhibition. Malangi explained the concept himself and is quoted in the Perspecta catalogue: ‘This is special place in Manharrŋu country... like a suburb of a city or an out-station from a main settlement. It is part of the main ... but different ... but still part of the whole.’49

In the middle of 1983 Malangi and wife Margaret Gindjimirri were artists-in-residence at the Tin Sheds, University of Sydney, as part of the Fine Arts course program organised by artist Peter Kennedy. On this trip Malangi met and became good friends with Australian abstract painter Michael Johnson. In 1984 he and two of his three wives Ganbada, Gindjimirri and Baypuŋala and daughter Valda Balmapalma completed a dugout canoe hewn from a large kapok tree in the ‘Yathalamarra jungle’ near their home. He had marked the tree earlier with an ‘M’ etched into the trunk to protect it. This was the first time for some years that such a work had been made in the central Arnhem Land area. The canoe is now in the Ramingining Collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney. A second vessel was finished in 1987 for a maritime display on Sydney Harbour.

By this time Malangi had developed the attitude of being ‘an artist’ as a career choice. He would now summon me to come for lunch at his Yathalamarra outstation and studio about ten kilometres from Ramingining where the family had constructed a series of traditional fork stick platforms and beds stacked with a seemingly endless but intelligently organised arrangement of suitcases. While I remember many other lunches with him in exotic places and in exotic company, these conversations remain the deepest memories. In particular I remember one lunch of beautiful soft broiled kangaroo as we sat on a fork stick platform surrounded by a sea of hungry waiting dogs below.

Among Malangi’s collection of suitcases were his tools of trade. From my earliest meetings with him I remember him carrying a school child’s suitcase; later a businessman’s black briefcase contained his ochre paints, brushes, an occasional grinding mixing stone, water based wood glue, sandpaper, usually a pocket knife, some cleaning rags and the odd stalk of native orchid to use as an adhesive binder. These went everywhere with us, often to the puzzlement of interested Customs agents. The ochres were of a special ‘royal’ richness — strong dark red and ‘mustard’ yellow. His lines were never the hair thinness sought after and written about elsewhere but solid thick lines. His colours in the cross hatching of white, yellow and red, follows the run of colours of body designs for performers in Djan’kawu ceremonies.

In January 1986 he accompanied his wives Elsie Ganbada and Judy Baypuŋala to a weaving convention, the International Basket Weavers Conference, in Melbourne. From there they journeyed on to Sydney where a series of his work was being hung in the new State Bank of New South Wales head office building. Bank Director Nick Whitlam commented on their acquisition.

Aboriginals are as Australian as anyone else and it is appropriate to collect their art. When we built our headquarters we decided to enhance the architecture with some art. As it’s not an art deco building but a contemporary one we decided to have contemporary art. Aboriginal art is both age old and contemporary – like our bank.50

In the middle of 1986, with wives Elsie Ganbada and Margaret Gindjimirri and a large Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander team, Malangi took part in the South Pacific Arts Festival in Tahiti at the Artists Village. On the way he made a ‘cameo’ appearance in the Blackfella, Whitefella video clip by the Warumpi Band from Papunya. In Tahiti they met the Aboriginal screen printer Lawrence Leslie who was later to work at Ramingining, starting up and running the Ramingining Print Workshop. And he met Wiradjuri filmmaker Michael Riley who was covering the South Pacific Arts Festival. Malangi and his wives enjoyed the Tahiti experience (the land, the art, the bars) and were well received by other Pacific artists. Counting money one day, when I tried to count in French it sounded like ‘un, du, truwa’; he interrupted with ‘yeah, fourwa, fivewa’.

Ramingining Arts held a group exhibition in Queensland at the Gold Coast City Art Gallery, Surfers Paradise in 1987. Working with Queensland Aboriginal artists Avril Quaill and Arone Raymond Meeks, and local Kombumerri representative Ysola Best, Malangi sketched and scaled up to mural size a composition of his mother’s land at Yathalamarra waterhole. In an art mirroring nature mirroring art conjunction, the composition of the painting – the central motif of a circle placed in the middle of a square – comes from the physical appearance of the actual waterhole and the sand sculpture of the same waterhole created for cleansing rituals and Ŋärra’ ceremonies, the highest form of spiritual affirmation and adoration. The mural features Yathalamarra’s waterlilies – waterlilies are also a special women’s spirit of the Gold Coast Aboriginal people.51

Through 1987–88 Malangi worked to complete his contribution to The Aboriginal Memorial – 200 hollow log bone coffins that would stand as an Aboriginal statement on the White Australian bicentennial celebrations. Initially the intention was that, once completed, the Memorial would be erected in the Gold Coast area to also commemorate the return of remains of the Kombumerri people, the region’s original inhabitants whose remains had been disturbed by developers. Malangi had made contact with these people while making his mural the year before and he wanted to perform a post burial ritual to coincide with their commemorative event, as well commenting on the Bicentenary. Unfortunately negotiations broke down and this couldn’t be achieved.
In 1988 The Aboriginal Memorial was installed at the Biennale of Sydney, From the Southern Cross: A view of world art c.1940–88. Malangi, his son Johnny Dhurrikayu, Paddy Dhäthaŋu �Lilipiyana (Ramingining) and Paddy Fordham Wainburranga (Barunga) sang to consecrate the space on the opening night after installing the work with a number of young artists including Fiona Foley. Biennale Director Nick Waterlow described the work in his catalogue essay as ‘the single most important statement in this Biennale’.52

The Memorial was seen as important to Aboriginal people too and the National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) named the contributing Ramingining artists as Aboriginal Artists of the Year. After the Biennale, the Memorial was erected to be permanently on display at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Malangi travelled to Brisbane to receive the NAIDOC award; then with Ganalbiŋu artists George Milpurrurru and Roy Burrnyila he went on to Canberra where he sang a second time for the Memorial’s opening. James Mollison, Director of the National Gallery, stated in his opening speech that it was ‘probably one of the greatest works of art ever to have been made in this country’.53

Later in 1988 Malangi and fellow painter Jimmy Wululu were included in the exhibition, Dreamings: The art of Aboriginal Australia, at the Asia Society Galleries in New York, then at several other venues across the United States of America. They were both invited to New York for the opening as well as the related forums with Yuendumu artists Dolly and June Granites and American art viewers, artists and critics. Michael Riley, who had completed a documentary on the construction of the show, travelled with the party.54 The show was a huge success and really brought Australian Indigenous art into the world spotlight for the first time, attracting the interest of art dealers such as the prestigious John Weber Gallery in New York.

This was his first extensive overseas trip and Malangi suffered from jet lag, but enjoyed the whole experience. A strikingly handsome man, he certainly stood out in crowds and had a confident bearing when dealing with the business of what one would imagine to be a strangely ‘alien’ situation for him as he travelled the world exhibiting his art. His particular body frame enabled him to be easily fitted off-the-rack with fine, usually dark pin stripe suits which, coupled with his hat, gave him a ‘vogueish’ look – like some character from the New York film Paris is Burning.

Sydney close up, it’s all right, but a long way to travel overseas. I went to Tahiti, New York. When I was young. I had a good time in Tahiti. The people were like Yolŋu. When I was in Tahiti and used my bamatuka [pipe] they knew what it was. They sat with me and filled it up with tobacco. There were many trees, but in New York, why were there no trees, only building, road, bitumen, mutika [motor car]. I remember the park [Central Park] but there were many, many trucks and Balanda and Yolŋu, no room. (Malangi 1995)55

The Bicentenary, which greatly increased tourist numbers into and around Australia, equally increased the demand for Aboriginal artefacts. Unfortunately many items made to meet the demand were (and still are) bad illegal copies made overseas, or designs used without reference to, or permission from the related Aboriginal artists. In 1989 Malangi was one of a number of Aboriginal artists, led by bark painter Johnny Bulun Bulun, who sued and won out of court damages from a T-shirt printer for the unauthorised use of their designs. This was a benchmark copyright case for artists generally. The company had to cease production, hand over the stock in question and pay $150,000 in compensation.56

In 1990 the Royal Australian Mint reproduced a Malangi painting on the cover of a specially released set of coins, this time under agreed arrangements and payment; and Malangi travelled to Canberra to be at the press conference and launch. The same year he worked with Paddy Dhäthaŋu �Lilipiyana, with whom he had opened The Aboriginal Memorial, his son Jimmy Banambur and Batjala artist Fiona Foley to paint an array of images for the new Darwin Post Office building. At the opening they carried out a smoking cleansing ceremony to clear the site of the spirits of previous Larakeyah people whose country it is, and that of a building worker who died on the site.

Mobil Oil Australia in conjunction with the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin, commissioned a set of works of various media on the theme of Malangi’s mother’s people, the Balmbi. Centred on the Yathalamarra waterhole where he lived, the assembly of pieces was completed by Malangi and his wives during 1989–90 and displayed at the Gallery in June 1991.57 For the visual arts program of the 1994 Adelaide Festival, Adelaide Installations, Malangi and fellow Ramingining painter Neville Nanytjawuy constructed a minimum relief sand sculpture in the design of a djuŋgaliwarr (conch shell) at Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute.

In 1996 the Australian National University conferred upon David Malangi an honorary Doctor of Laws, and in 1998 he received an Emeritus Award from the Australia Council.�

Malangi’s painting style is marked by large plots of bold blacks, reds, and yellows, usuallyfixed with a panel of rärrk (cross-hatching) at the base of the composition, representing the land itself. The hatching within the rärrk is like his signature; bands of white, red and yellow in what I call a ‘neapolitan’ fashion.58 His compositions and arrangements of elements are adventurous, sometimes monumental and challenging. An example of his individual style, one developed in the 1960s, is to frame one side of his composition with a räga tree drawn close up in the foreground. Mostly he worked alone but on occasions he worked with other artists to complete special projects. In his last decade, as an elder ‘traditional’ artist, he created new images for his religious stories and transferred some onto bark for the first time. For the ninydjiya (claypan) paintings of the late 1980s and 90s, which represent the cracked mud of his coastal land, he limited his palette to create a beautiful mosaic. More recently he painted the almost Buddha like Luku59 – Gurrmirriŋu’s footprint.

They [my paintings] are different [now, to those days] even though I might have paint them [the subjects] before. Other like the Luku [footprint] painting, this is my thinking, my idea now … It belong to me, David Malangi … I wasn’t asleep, I was sitting down thinking what will I paint, what can I paint. (Malangi 1995)60

In 1991 Michael Riley chose to make a documentary on the artist, titled Malangi (the last 35mm film to be shot by the Australian Broadcasting Commission before converting to video). The film was shot entirely in Malangi’s own language, Manharrŋu, and subtitled in English by John Weluk, one of his sons. In the film Malangi reflects: ‘When I get old who will take my place? … When they’re going to see my law they can take my place for songs and secret ceremonies. And the people they have to OK look after and the land.’61

Before when I went to New York I had black hair, now I have white hair. I am happy here now in Arnhem Land. I was on U.B. [unemployment benefits], now I am like a pensioner [old age]. But Balanda keep ordering my painting so I keep painting. (Malangi 1995)62

As one grows older, the complexity of life’s connections stands out in strong relief – who you are related to and who you have touched or influenced. Malangi never really retired but just kept on consistently producing art, perhaps following the belief that boredom will kill you quicker than any illness. Aboriginal elders of course feel a responsibility to continue.He lived at Yathalamarra with his wives and his large family, carrying on a vigorous ceremonial program and caring for his land. In the last years he attempted more intensely to encourage his sons and daughters to paint.

Before only dhirrumu [men] paint. Some women see their father paint and copied that painting. Daisy Maynbunharrawuy and Dorothy Djukulul – as the father got older they were doing the painting. Now my daughters, Daisy Galambarr, Valma Balmapalma, and my daughter May Yamangarra. Neville [my son] doesn’t really paint – only the dupun [hollow log]. They [my children] do [paint] the same as me. They were asking – hey what are we [going to be] painting. (Malangi 1995)63

Malangi is an important figure in Australian post war visual art, an experimenter and innovator to the end. He was interested in other people’s art, to see new things and to experience the ideas and conversation of other artists, and throughout his career he inspired many Aboriginal artists across the continent. A man with a great sense of humour, physical charm and generosity, it was a pleasure to be in his company.

I look after everyone. They’re all mine, the people and the land. I’m the one who is looking after them, the people and the land. (Malangi 1995)64

On a Saturday evening in July 1999, in the cold ‘shivering season’, Dr David Malangi Daymirriŋu, the famous bark painter, passed away after spending the evening with his family. That statement made in 1995 was indicative of the generous nature of the man who saw his role to care for his country, his family and his art. He saw his profession to be a painter.

Djon Mundine


1 Diane Glancy, in Thomas King, The Truth about Stories, Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2003, p.122.
2 For Malangi’s ‘dollar note’ painting of the mortuary feast of Gurrmirriŋu, see above pp.33–35.
3 Malangi in Malangi, Blackout series, Sydney: ABC Video Program, 1991, (broadcast December 1991), video, 30mins
4 David Malangi, interview with the Djon Mundine and Cecile Babiole, Ramingining, 1992 (transcript held by the author).
5 Richard Trudgeon, Why Warriors Lay Down and Die, Darwin: Aboriginal and Resource Development Services Inc., 2000.
6 ‘Red-tailed Black Cockatoo’ in Martin Duwell and RMW Dixon (eds), Little Eva at the Moonlight and other Aboriginal song poems, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1994, pp.166–169.
7 Margaret Preston, ‘The Indigenous art of Australia’ in Art in Australia, 3rd series, no.11, pp.32–45, 1925.
8 In c.1986 Howard Amery, a community advisor, with Gerry Ley, an adult educator, assisted, with the general census by collating information from various sources including the Register of Wards NT, mission records, health department, and birth deaths and marriages records to produce what is called the ‘Ramingining population records’. The gathered information fed into the Federal Census.
9 King Billy was from the Queanbeyan area but reputedly walked from Tumut in the Snowy Mountains for the occasion. Some evidence suggests he was not turned away but welcomed. Mary-Lou Nugent, personal communication with Susan Jenkins, 2004.
10 Billy Djoma, artist, (Jimmy Wululu’s deceased brother) in Miriny Djapaniy malanuy burama Milingimbi [The Japanese Bombed Milingimbi], Milingimbi Bi-lingual Centre, Milingimbi School, Milingimbi, 1974.
11 Northern Territory of Australia. Government Gazette. no.19B, 13 May 1957 … Register of wards, District: Milingimbi Mission, p.217.
12 ‘Records relating to Milingimbi township’, Northern Territory Archives Service, 40, box 7.
13 Elsie Ganbada at ‘old barge landing’, Dhäbila, quoted in Michael Riley film Malangi, 1991.
14 Malangi, interview with Mundine and Philippe Peltier, Ramingining, 1995 (transcript held by the author).
15 Other Yolŋu attempted to join parts of the Christian religion using Yolŋu iconography and pantheistic beliefs on Elcho Island in 1957 when they publicly placed in an outside altar type arrangement sacred restricted objects. See Ronald M. Berndt, An Adjustment Movement in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory of Australia, Paris: Mouton, 1962. Malangi was not involved in this event. The movement has transformed into a more subtle and comfortable relationship and the process continues.
16 Image of a bark painting reproduced on a card, ‘The Incarnation’, based on the structure of the ‘dollar note’ story, c.1968. Advertisement for the card in The Missionary Review, September–October, 1968, p.32.
17 See above pp.33-35.
18 In the same year a two-part exhibition titled Primitivism was held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London. The second part exhibited some 20 oil paintings by two chimpanzees who are named.
19 Malangi, interview with Mundine and Babiole, Ramingining, 1992 (transcript held by the author).
20 See above pp.33-35.
21 For detail on the Yirrkala church panels see Ann E. Wells, This their Dreaming: Legends of the panels of Aboriginal art in the Yirrkala Church, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1971. For the ‘bark petition’ see Edgar Almond Wells, Reward and Punishment in Arnhem Land (1962–63) Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1982. Two similar church panels were made c.1965 by artists of central Arnhem Land, now known as Milingimbi Easter painting (Yirritja and Dhuwa panels), see Sothebys Aboriginal Art Catalogue, Melbourne, 26–27 June 2000, lot 27, p.24.
22 Alan Fidock quoted in original National Aboriginal Visual Artists Database (NAVAD), now NATSIVAD, compiled by Luke Taylor, 1992, in Dhawadanygulili’s record.
23 Jimmy Wululu, interview with the author, 1991.
24 Malangi, interview with the Mundine and Peltier, Ramingining, 1995 (transcript held by the author).
25 He originally had the art store set up under his house. Birrinbirrin, personal communication with Susan Jenkins, 2004.
26 Berndt Museum of Anthropology , University of Western Australia, Perth.
27 Art Gallery of New South Wales acquisition code: P.4 1962.
28 Ronald M Berndt , Catherine H Berndt with John E Stanton, Aboriginal Australian Art: A visual Perspective, Port Melbourne:Methuen Australia Pty Ltd, 1988.
29 See Louis A. Allen, Time before Morning, New York: Crowell Company, 1975, note to p.224 on p.286.
30 See Djon Mundine et al; The Native Born: Objects and representations from Ramingining, Arnhem Land, Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art in association with Bula’bula Arts, Ramingining, p.69.
31 Karel Kupka, Un art a l’état brut: peintures et sculptures des aborigènes d’Australie, avec un texte d’Andre Breton et une preface d’Alfred Buhler, Lausanne: Guilde du livre, 1962; Karel Kupka, Dawn of Art: Painting and sculpture of Australian Aborigines, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1965.
32 Quoted in news article by Ronald Pullen, ‘New dollar owes a lot to Malangi’, South Pacific Post, 11 February 1966.
33 Malangi, interview with the Mundine and Peltier, Ramingining, 1995 (transcript held by the author).
34 See Susan Jenkins, ‘This is our story and this is our country’ this publication pp.13–18.
35 Malangi, interview with Mundine and Babiole, Ramingining, 1992 (transcript held with the author).
36 Following a collecting trip to Arnhem Land on behalf of European museums including Musée national des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie, Paris, Museum für Völkerkunde, Basel.
37 Australian artist Russell Drysdale had a keen interest in Aboriginal art and had travelled across western New South Wales and to remote parts of northern and western Australia including Aboriginal communities.
38 ‘Decimal memories’, Currency, September 1999, pp.14–15.
39 Alan Fidock, personal communication with Susan Jenkins, 2003.
40 CRS: F1/0, item 1973/2998, ‘Aboriginal artist – Malangi of Milingimbi’, National Archives of Australia, Darwin.
41 ‘Decimal currency note design No. 1’, Reserve Bank Permanent Archives, January 1966–July 1968.
42 Cited by David H Bennett in his article, ‘Malangi: The man who was forgotten before he was remembered’, Aboriginal History, 4:1, 1980,
pp.43–47 (p.46).
43 Malangi appears at Ŋaŋalala in the 1968 film by Malcolm Douglas and David Oldmeadow, Across the Top, which comments on his ‘dollar note’ status.
44 He also bought a ‘circus tent’ (marquee) with the money. John Weluk, personal communication with Susan Jenkins, 2004.
45 Malangi, interview with Mundine and Peltier, Ramingining, 1995 (transcript held by the author).
46 ‘MALANGI, David: Born NT. An Aboriginal painter of the Manharrngu Group. Exhibitions: Australian Perspecta 1983, Art Gallery of NSW: Best known for his paintings for the designs which appear on the back of the Australian one dollar banknote’. Max Germaine, Artists and Galleries of Australia (rev. ed.), Brisbane: Boolarong, 1984. p.340.
47 Peter Yates, ‘Aboriginal artists from Arnhem Land’, p.27. Ulli Beier,‘Aboriginal art today’, p.28 in European Dialogue: The third Biennale of Sydney … 14 April – 27 May 1979: a commentary. Pymble: Playbill (Australia), 1979. (This was not the catalogue of the Biennale).
48 Submission to Aboriginal Land Commissioner regarding control of entry onto seas adjoining Aboriginal land in the Milingimbi, Crocodile Island, and Glyde River area, NLC, Darwin, NT, 1980. John Weluk advises the area was two kilometres. Personal communication with Susan Jenkins, 2004.
49 John Mundine, ‘David Malangi’ in Australian Perspecta 1983: A biennial survey of contemporary Australian art. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1983 (exhibition catalogue) p.67.
50 N. Whitlam, speech at press conference of opening of State Bank of New South Wales building, Sydney, 1986. From notes made by author.
51 The Yathalamarra mural was mounted on the sculpture garden wall at the Centre Gallery, Gold Coast Arts Centre, Surfers Paradise, Queensland.
52 Nick Waterlow, ‘A view of world art c.1940–88’ in From the Southern Cross: A view of world art c.1940-88, Sydney: Biennale of Sydney: Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 1988, pp.9–12 (p.11).
53 File 98/0312 ‘Aboriginal Hollow Log / Bone Coffin Memorial’, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
54 Michael Riley, Dreamings: The art of Aboriginal Australia, Sydney: Film Australia, 1988.
55 Malangi, interview with Mundine and Peltier, Ramingining, 1995 (transcript held by the author).
56 Bulun Bulun v R. & T. Textiles Pty Ltd. (1998) 41 IPR 513. See
57 See Margie West, ‘Yathalamarra – Land of the waterlily’.
58 Neapolitan: a reference to the term for ice cream variously flavoured (coloured) and arranged in layers.
59 In early images the Buddha was often represented by his footprints, his mark. For Malangi’s Luku paintings, see Susan Jenkins' ‘This is our story and this is our country’.
60 Malangi, interview with Mundine and Peltier, Ramingining, 1995 (transcript held by the author).
61 Malangi in Malangi, Blackout series, Sydney: ABC Video Program, 1991, (broadcast December 1991), video, 30mins
62 Malangi, interview with Mundine and Peltier, Ramingining, 1995 (transcript held by the author).
63 ibid.
64 ibid.

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