For thousands of years, Aboriginal Art was often created on temporary surfaces – symbols and ceremonial images drawn on bodies or into the sand, disappearing once the ceremony was over.
For the Yonglu people of Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land, the desire for their art to be more tangible, with greater longevity, became important. They wanted to properly document their culture and history, making other Australians aware of it.
Anthropologists Ronald and Catherine Berndt heeded their call to be heard, and in 1947 they encouraged ceremonial leaders at Yirrkala to create vibrant crayon and brown paper artworks. Over the course of five months, 365 drawings were created by the indigenous people, depicting in detail the intimate complexities of Yonglu life and the cultural heritage passed from generation to generation.
By creating crayon drawings on paper, the Yonglu were able to see their Dreamings and totemic history as something more permanent rather than the fleeting images they had once been. The drawings were readily-transportable, allowing them to be taken beyond the Yonglu land of Yirrkala and to be shared with white Australians as well as other Indigenous peoples.
The Yirrkala Drawings’ rich color palette distinguishes them, making them unique from more traditional drawings. Designs etched in blues, reds, yellows, greens, and black, carefully detailed with the use of a lead pencil, are not only eye-catching but strikingly different from the more traditional earth tones of Aboriginal Art at the time. Despite crayons not being their typical medium for art, the Yonglu creations show great mastery, with the artists achieving an impressive level of detail.
Many images in these Aboriginal artworks document ancestral, sacred symbols used in ceremonies, as well as the day-to-day lives of the Yonglu people and their experiences. Interestingly, many of the drawings document the relationships that Aboriginal people formed with other Indigenous people from overseas, beginning long before the European colonists arrived. Some of the creators of these works went on to become leading Aboriginal artists, such as Munggurrawuy Yunupingu and Wonggu Mununggurr. Descendants of the original artists continue to create art to this day, preserving the deep tradition of sharing knowledge and Dreamings with the world.
This incredible set of strikingly vibrant and vivid pictures was originally considered to be little more than an extension of the Berndt’s research materials. These images are now recognised as cultural treasures, which have retained their cultural significance and importance in the world of art to this day.