We Yolngu belong to different barpurru [clan groups] and each barpurru paints things differently; it depends if you come from the gulunbuy [mangroves] or diltjipuy [forests] or rangipuy [beach]. It's important to know the difference and we need to teach the young people to paint in this way because they don't know. I teach them by painting a picture so they learn to see the difference.
Stretching from the East Alligator River in the Northern Territory to the Gulf of Carpentaria, Arnhem Land covers an area of some 150,000 square kilometres. It was declared a reserve for Aboriginal people in 1931. Today Arnhem Land is owned by Aboriginal people under Commonwealth laws.
In Arnhem Land, the right to paint is usually inherited patrilineally. although many artists paint their mother's story too. The designs on the hollow logs in the Memorial are the same themes that these artists paint on bark and on people's bodies in ceremony.
Several remote communities — some of which began as missions, others as government settlements — are spread through the region.
Ramingining township has a population of approximately 1,000, including the small populations in surrounding outstations. Whilst Arnhem Land people (who in the central and eastern areas refer to themselves collectively as Yolngu, meaning human beings) have adopted some elements of European culture, they also continue their traditional practices, including ceremonial activity.
Retja — The jungle
Jungles are uncultivated, densely grown, tangled mazes of tropical and sub-tropical forest, now often referred to as rainforests. To Europeans, they represented the unordered and primitive places and people of distant colonial lands. Generally the jungle was imagined to be either a hellish enigma or a romantic paradise. The English word jungle really comes from the Hindi word jangal, or from the Sanskrit jangala.
Around Ramingining are little pockets of jungle, sometimes nourished by springs, which are thought of as spiritual places for Yolngu people; Garrkman, a Frog Spirit, belongs to one place, Karr, a Spider Spirit, to another and spirits associated with Barnumbirr the Morning Star to another. Secreted in escarpment ravines along the sides of the Arafura Swamp are a further series of palm fringed sites. They are sacred places, and rich sources of bark for making string, fruits, small game mammals and birds such as the jungle fowl.
Rangi/Monuk — The beaches and oceans
Historically, beaches and oceans have featured in many people's cultures as sites of creation, beginnings and hedonistic pleasure. The forebears of Aboriginal people crossed the ocean to Australian shores in simple water craft at least 60,000 years ago. Indigenous religious beliefs around the continent tell of creator ancestors that came from across the sea to bring life and order and to populate the land. In the north, for example, the Djan'kawu trio of creator ancestors came from the sun (east) to bring life to the land of the Arnhem Land clans. On their ocean voyages they discovered, named and brought to life the various eco-systems they encountered. The movement and life cycle of sea creatures, turtles, whales and various fish and shell fish species were recorded by them in litanies of song and dance cycles.
Just as present-day Australians live in greater numbers near the coast, so Aboriginal populations have historically been larger along the continental shoreline where a wealth of food and other resources allowed for a more comfortable lifestyle.
Gulun — The waterhole
Water has always been of vital importance in the history of human occupation of the Australian continent, even in the monsoonal tropical north. It was no accident that in 1788 Captain Arthur Phillip established the British penal colony on a sacred site, a spring, in Sydney Cove, that would grow into the present day city of Sydney, and, by extension the Australian nation. Indigenous people have never seen the landscape purely as real estate or an exploitable resource but enjoy an intimate spiritual relationship that defines their use of it. In everyday usage, the word gulun from the Djambarrpuyngu language means billabong, waterhole, pool, lagoon or freshwater swamp. It also means stomach, but in a more revealing context a woman's stomach, or womb. Waterholes are thought of as the place of unborn and deceased spirits; it is often said 'I wasn't born then, I was still in the water then'. Gulunbuy, the adjective of gulun, means physically from the mother's womb at birth, and, spiritually from the sacred waterhole.
The Ramingining-Glyde River region is blessed with a number of permanent water courses, springs, and the large inland freshwater Arafura Swamp. Various spirit beings, the Diver Duck, two Spirit Women, the Eel-tailed Catfish, the Long-necked Tortoise, and the Rainbow Serpent, worked to create the lush permanent waterholes at Yathalamarra and at Gatji lagoon. Inland where the Glyde River becomes the Goyder, a Dog Spirit created a spring that became the life-rich Arafura Swamp.
Diltji — The forests
Central Arnhem Land, surrounding the Glyde River valley, is a place of seemingly endless savanna and eucalyptus forests. Much of the Yolngu creation beliefs are 'born' in these forests. Both the Dhuwa and Yirritja Honey Spirits moved through and animated the wooded landscape searching for honey. They saw and named the various species of animal, bird, plant and insect life in their journeys.
The people of the forest create works of art out of this environment. Most bark paintings and sculpture of Yolngu artists from this area are vertical in orientation, and dictated as much by the medium of bark as artistic design. The vertical trunks, and art works, are emblematic of the human frame.
The spiritual nature of the forests is deeply rooted in Yolngu society. The English word forest, meaning an area of land covered by trees, comes from the Latin foris meaning the place outside the door, the wild dangerous land outside the fence. The Djambarrpuyngu word diltji also means a tree-covered landscape but, more importantly, means backbone, the backbone of the kangaroo, the frame which supports life.
Larrtha — The mangroves
Although most common along the tropical coastline, mangroves grow in many areas around the Australian continent. The mangrove zone is that coastal belt where the land meets the sea in a tract of trees and mud flats down to the low waterline.
In the Glyde River region, an important life creating area for many natural species, the Djan'kawu creator ancestors hunted in and animated these environments and gave birth to the first Manyarrngu and Liyagawumirr people.
The Manyarrngu people's name actually means the people from the manyarr (mangrove) trees. The Liyagawumirr people come from the head of the river, the mangrove tidal mud flats.
Interestingly, the European word mangrove really comes, through various transitions, from the Haitian Arawak Indian 'mangle'(describing the tree roots) which was adopted by the Spanish who went there in the 1600s.
Ninydjiya — The plains
Early European settlers often wrote poems about the grand vista across the vast Australian plains, attempting to describe the new, strange, unfathomable landscape they encountered in coming to the southern continent. Yolngu song cycles describe how the original creator ancestors moved across the open plains, seeing, naming, and creating particular sites of personal reference for their descendants — constructing a matrix of experiences, intimate observations and artistic images. The Yolngu word ninydjiya, meaning a clear open space, is also applied in a personal way to describe the bald heads of aging men.
These tropical flood plains are lush with vegetation in the monsoon season, the grass often growing over two metres high. Their flooding allows Yolngu to spear fish on the open plains. The dry seasons are a complete contrast: grasses are fired for hunting drives and the land becomes bare with a sparse spread of leftover blackened stubble, which eventually returns to green.