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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 Manharru5 clan of the Dhuwa moiety. As is customary in Yolu 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 Nurrunyuwa 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.

1 David Malangi, [artist’s statement] quoted in J. Mundine,  ‘David Malangi’ in Bernice Murphy and Janet Parfenovics (eds), Australian Perspecta 1983: A biennial survey of contemporary Australian art,.Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1983, p.67.
2 The dark brown pigment is ratjpa. The rich red pigment is ginimini in Manharrŋu language or girrwal in Balmbi language. John Weluk, personal communication with the author, 2004.
3Rärrk: colour, painting, painted design. Syn: miny’tji. David R Zorc, ‘Yolŋu-Matha Dictionary’, Bachelor NT: School of Australian Linguistics, Darwin Institute of Technology, p.238. (Following references to the dictionary appear as Zorc, p.x.)
4 Yolŋu observe a mourning taboo; for a period the name of the deceased is not spoken and the deceased is referred to by another name. Malangi’s mourning reference was Daymirriŋu. As Malangi was very well known, the family agreed to the use of his former name shortly after his passing, in print media and on his headstone. Five years after his passing, with the family’s authority, we have returned to his original name.
5 Spelling varies according to language. Manharrŋu and Manyarrŋu are the same people. Manharrŋu is the Djambarrpuyŋu language spelling; Manyarrŋu, the Djinang spelling. Shirley Daymirriŋu (a daughter of Malangi) states that the tree is manyarr, the tribe is Manharrŋu and the language is Manyarrŋu (Djinang). Shirley Daymirriŋu, personal communication with the author, 2002. The Manharrŋu belong to a bäpurru (ceremonial group of patrilineally related kin), Howard Morphy, Ancestral Connections: Art and an Aboriginal system of knowledge, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991, p.309. The group includes the Liyagalawumirr, the Buyuyukulmirr, the Djambarrpuyu and the Garrawurra. All Dhuwa clans. Shirley Daymirriŋu, personal communication with the author, 2004.

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