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Djambawa Marawili AM, Gurtha, 128x75cm Bark
  • Aboriginal Art - Djambawa Marawili AM, Gurtha, 128x75cm Bark
  • Aboriginal Art - Djambawa Marawili AM, Gurtha, 128x75cm Bark
  • Aboriginal Art - Djambawa Marawili AM, Gurtha, 128x75cm Bark
  • Aboriginal Art - Djambawa Marawili AM, Gurtha, 128x75cm Bark
  • Aboriginal Art - Djambawa Marawili AM, Gurtha, 128x75cm Bark
  • Aboriginal Art - Djambawa Marawili AM, Gurtha, 128x75cm Bark
Aboriginal Art - Djambawa Marawili AM, Gurtha, 128x75cm Bark
Aboriginal Art - Djambawa Marawili AM, Gurtha, 128x75cm Bark
Aboriginal Art - Djambawa Marawili AM, Gurtha, 128x75cm Bark
Aboriginal Art - Djambawa Marawili AM, Gurtha, 128x75cm Bark
Aboriginal Art - Djambawa Marawili AM, Gurtha, 128x75cm Bark
Aboriginal Art - Djambawa Marawili AM, Gurtha, 128x75cm Bark

Djambawa Marawili AM, Gurtha, 128x75cm Bark

  • Aboriginal Artist - Djambawa Marawili AM
  • Community - Yilpara / Yirkala
  • Homeland - Bäniyala / Yilpara
  • Aboriginal Art Centre - Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre
  • Catalogue number - 7488/19
  • Materials - Earth pigments on Stringybark
  • Size(cm) - H128 W75 D6 (irregular)  
  • Postage variants - Artwork posted flat and ready to hang with a metal mount for stability
  • Orientation - As displayed

Djambawa explains the elements of his painting, which incorporates themes of fire and water and describes the ancestral events in which Bäru, the crocodile, plays a central role.

The miny’tji, design, painted in the background of the painting, is a Madarrpa clan design representing both saltwater and fire. Ashes from the fire are depicted in black.

‘Bäru was [camped] at a fire and his wife, Dhamiliŋu, went hunting and got Mänyduŋ, snails. Bäru was sleeping and his wife was eating the snails and throwing the shells on his head. Bäru got wild and threw his wife into the fire. 

It was by being burned by the fire following this argument, that Bäru is said to have been scarred badly resulting in the characteristic skin of the crocodile. Bäru, as an important ancestor of the Yirritja moiety, played a role in naming areas of land belonging to various Yirritja clans. ‘Bäru said, “My tribe will be ....”, and gave names to all the places and people. He also went to Maningrida - they have a story for him there but they have different language and different designs. They call themselves Madarrpa people. At Roper there are also people who call themselves Madarrpa. But here, in Bäniyala, I am of the saltwater Madarrpa tribe - we have our own language and songs.’

Hidden in the firey maelstrom is the following adjunct to the story;

Two Ancestral beings Burrak and Garramatji of the ancient Yirritja took to sea in their dugout canoe from the Blue Mud Bay coastline from Yathikpa to hunt. They prepared their objects of harpooning paraphernalia, manifestations of which are used today in secret ceremony. On seeing Dugong they pursued it. In this area was a submerged rock surrounded by turbulent and dangerous water and it was here that the Dugong took shelter to escape the hunters. The action of the flung harpoon towards the Dugong, hence the rock, enraged the powers that be, causing these dangerous waters to boil from sacred fires from underneath. The canoe capsized, drowning the Ancestral Hunters that were washed to shore with their canoe and hunting paraphernalia. The harpoon changing to the hollow log used for, in this case, the first mortuary ceremony for the Madarrpa.

In many ways, the harvesting and material production to create bark paintings is an art in itself. The bark is stripped from Eucalyptus stringybark. It is generally harvested from the tree during the wet season. Two horizontal slices and a single vertical slice are made into the tree, and the bark is carefully peeled off. The smooth inner bark is kept and placed in a fire. After firing, the bark is flattened and weighted to dry flat. Once dry, the bark becomes a rigid surface and is ready to paint upon.

Collecting Barks in Yirkala

Djawakan Marika, Yilpirr Wanambi, Wukun Wanambi and Nambatj Munu+ïgurr Harvesting stringybark for artists Photo credit: David Wickens

Harvesting barks for artists to paint in Yirkala

Wanapa Munu+ïgurr, Yilpirr Wanambi and Wukun Wanambi harvesting stringybark. Photo credit: David Wickens

Firing a bark ready for artists to paint in Yirkala

Wanapa and Nambatj Munu+ïgurr firing a bark to start the flattening process. Photo credit: David Wickens

Arnhem Land paintings are characterised by the use of fine crosshatched patterns of clan designs that carry ancestral power: the crosshatched patterns, known as rarrk in the west and miny’tji in the east, produce an optical brilliance reflecting the presence of ancestral forces.

These patterns are composed of layers of fine lines, laid onto the surface of the bark using a short-handled brush of human hair, just as they are painted onto the body for ceremony.

Aboriginal Artists, Rerrkiwaŋa Munuŋgurr painting her husbands design Gumatj fire or Gurtha.

Rerrkiwaŋa Munuŋgurr painting her husbands design Gumatj fire or Gurtha. Photo credit: Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre

The artist’s palette consists of red and yellow ochres of varying intensity and hues, from flat to lustrous, as well as charcoal and white clay(pictured above). Pigments that were once mixed with natural binders such as egg yolk have, since the 1960s, been combined with water-soluble wood glues.

Naminapu Maymuru White collecting gapan white clay used for painting.

Naminapu Maymuru White collecting gapan white clay used for painting. Photo credit: Edwina Circuitt


Djambawa Marawili is an artist who has experienced mainstream success but for whom the production of art is a small part of a much bigger picture. Djambawa’s principal role is as a leader of the Madarrpa clan. He is a caretaker for the spiritual well-being of his own and other related clans, and an activist and administrator in the interface between non-Aboriginal people and the Yolŋu (Aboriginal) people of North East Arnhem Land. First and foremost a leader, art is one of the tools Djambawa Marawili uses to lead.

He was involved in the production of the Barunga Statement (1988), which led to Bob Hawke’s promise of a treaty; the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody; and the formation of ATSIC. Djambawa was appointed to the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council in 2013. In 1997, Djambawa was one of the elders at Timber Creek who burned the Prime Minister’s 10 -point plan.
In the push for Sea Rights, he is the focus of a Northern Land Council video called ‘Terry Djambawa Marawili – My Native Title’. This was made to explain the concepts of Yolŋu ownership of undersea lands and, as before, he uses his painting to show the sacred designs that embody his right to speak as a part of the land (although this time the land is undersea). He was instrumental in the initiation of the Saltwater exhibition. He co-ordinated the eventual Federal Court Sea claim in 2004, which eventuated in the High Court’s determination in the 2008 Blue Mud Bay case that Yolŋu did indeed own the land between high and low water mark. In these political engagements, Djambawa draws on the sacred foundation of his people to represent the power of Yolŋu and educate outsiders in the justice of his people’s struggle for recognition.

Away from the spotlight of activism, Djambawa must fulfill several other leadership roles. The principal ones are: as a ceremonial leader; as an administrator of several mainstream Yolŋu organisations; as the leader of a 200-strong remote homeland community; and as a family man with three wives, and many children and grandchildren. In recent years he has been very successful in advocating for his and other homelands against the anti-homeland movement championed by urban policymakers. This included a televised demonstration against the NT Government’s Homelands policy at the anniversary of the Sea Rights victory at Yilpara in 2009. He has recently secured a new school building and permanent teachers for Yilpara.
Somehow art is integral to each of these roles as well. Obviously the sacred designs figure to some (secret) extent in the countless circumcision, burial, memorial and other ceremonies that he is required to assist or lead. As a Director and later Chairperson of the Association of Northern and Kimberley Aboriginal Artists Association (ANKAAA) from 1997, and Chairperson of Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre from 1994-2000, art is never far away from consideration. In 2004, he was appointed to the Australia Council ATSIA Board. He was granted a two-year Fellowship from the Australia Council in 2003. He has been at various times a member of the Northern Land Council.

In 1996 and 2019, Djambawa won the Best Bark Pain ng Prize Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. He is represented in most major Australian institutional collections as well as several important overseas public and private collections. In addition to sculpture and bark painting, this senior artist has also produced linocut images and notably the first screenprint image for the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Printspace in 1996. Other highlights of Djambawa’s artistic career include Buwayak-Invisibility (2003) and his solo Source of Fire (2005) shows at Annandale Galleries; The Wukidi Installation at The Supreme Court of the NT; his solo show at the Sydney Biennale in 2006 and the one-man show to launch the 2006 Asia Pacific Triennial and the new Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane in the same year. In 2009 he travelled to the 3rd Moscow Biennale in Russia and sang open his installation of bark paintings there. He also opened the exhibition Larrakitj featuring 110 memorial poles from the Kerry Stokes Collection at the Art Gallery of Western Australia in 2009. This show featured in the Sydney Biennale in 2010 at the MCA.
Djambawa’s artistic influence since the mid 1990’s has been monumental. As well as pioneering a path and an aesthetic for other artists he has inspired a new generation of ‘Young Guns’ through example, encouragement and direct mentorship. A whole generation of artists took inspiration from his muscular engagement with his own law to produce new aesthetics that were at once visually dynamic and spiritually powerful. He bent the formal compositions and moulded them onto fluid representations of the water they signified. He was the main activist in shaking off conventions that had been entrenched since the 1950’s about how painting for the outside world should be composed. He argued for a freeing up of these restrictions as long as the spirit of the Law was honoured. This was part of his own natural creativity and instinct to challenge the status quo responsibly. He found it difficult to be criticised by his elders for encouraging them to reveal deeply held Law in the course of the sea rights claim. He understood their objections but felt that a proactive stance was required. A younger generation of artists took as a given the innovations that he had fought hard for.

Amongst the notable artists who acknowledge their debt to Djambawa are his kinsmen Wanyubi Marika, Wukun Wanambi, Yilpirr Wanambi and Gunybi Ganambarr. There are countless others who he has encouraged directly and indirectly to take on greater authority in ceremony and art. This encouragement extends beyond his region through his leadership of ANKAAA. He applies his generosity, sense of Indigenous unity and belief in the power of art to all artists. In 2010 Djambawa was awarded an Australia Medal for his services to the arts, homelands and sea rights. He was also accorded the honour of being appointed as a judge of the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. In this year he also hosted a groundbreaking project between 4 prominent non-Yolŋu artists (Fiona Hall, Judy Watson, Jorg Schmeisser and John Wolesley) at his homeland in Yilpara. The resultant exhibition Djalkiri was shown in Darwin and Yirrkala before touring nationally.

During his ascent to leadership in the mainstream world as a leader in land and sea rights, arts administration, homeland policy and general Indigenous governance, Djambawa also became increasingly important ceremonially. He now holds a rank within the Yolŋu spiritual world that is the equal of any. His knowledge is deferred to by all who seek it. Typically he exerts that influence within the narrowest zone required of him but is often called upon to assist or adjudicate elsewhere which he invariably honours. It is this role as Dalkarra which is the foundation of his leadership and for which he has been groomed since childhood. In 2013 he was chosen as a member of the Prime Minister’s 12 person Indigenous Advisory Council. In 2015 he was invited by Carolyn Christov-Bakagiev to play a role in the Istanbul Biennale. His art was shown with seminal Yirrkala political art and moved Bakagiev to declare that perhaps this region provides the first activist art.

Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre is the Indigenous community-controlled art centre of Northeast Arnhem Land. Located in Yirrkala, a small Aboriginal community on the north-eastern tip of the Top End of the Northern Territory, approximately 700km east of Darwin. Our primarily Yolŋu (Aboriginal) staff of around twenty services Yirrkala and the approximately twenty-five homeland centres in the radius of 200km.

In the 1960’s, Narritjin Maymuru set up his own beachfront gallery from which he sold art that now graces many major museums and private collections. He is counted among the art centre’s main inspirations and founders, and his picture hangs in the museum. His vision of Yolŋu-owned business to sell Yolŋu art that started with a shelter on a beach has now grown into a thriving business that exhibits and sells globally.

Buku-Larrŋgay –  “the feeling on your face as it is struck by the first rays of the sun (i.e. facing East) 

Mulka – “a sacred but public ceremony.”

In 1976, the Yolŋu artists established ‘Buku-Larrŋgay Arts’ in the old Mission health centre as an act of self-determination coinciding with the withdrawal of the Methodist Overseas Mission and the Land Rights and Homeland movements.

In 1988, a new museum was built with a Bicentenary grant and this houses a collection of works put together in the 1970s illustrating clan law and also the Message Sticks from 1935 and the Yirrkala Church Panels from 1963.

In 1996, a screen print workshop and extra gallery spaces was added to the space to provide a range of different mediums to explore. In 2007, The Mulka Project was added which houses and displays a collection of tens of thousands of historical images and films as well as creating new digital product. 

Still on the same site but in a greatly expanded premises Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre now consists of two divisions; the Yirrkala Art Centre which represents Yolŋu artists exhibiting and selling contemporary art and The Mulka Project which acts as a digital production studio and archiving centre incorporating the museum.


Text courtesy: Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre

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