Saltwater country - Paintings from Yirrkala

| Howard Morphy

Saltwater country - Paintings from Yirrkala

Saltwater Country - Paintings From Yirrkala | Howard Morphy

The Yolngu people, for the most part, live in small settlements on their clan lands, scattered along the coast and inland rivers of eastern Arnhem Land. During the dry season in 2000 a well-known artist of the Madarrpa clan died, too recently for his name to be written here. He was renowned for his paintings and carvings of Bäru, the ancestral crocodile, whose homes are at Yathikpa and Garrangali in the north of Blue Mud Bay. Towards the end, as he lay dying, his clansmen sang the sacred songs of the crocodile ancestor. In song, Bäru moved out from the river-mouth into the sea and then back with the tide to the shore, to his home in the estuarine channels where crocodiles make their nests today. As the songs were sung, the old man’s spirit became one with the spirit of Bäru, moving with the ebb and flow of the tide, smelling the sea, tasting the flavours of the fresh and salt waters as they mixed together, and feeling the powerful forces of the currents offshore. In Yolngu mortuary rituals a dead person’s spirit is united with the ancestral forces that created the land, and carried back to its spirit home. Yolngu ritual brings with it the consolation of this spiritual return. The soul becomes part of that reservoir of ancestral forces that energises certain places - on land and in the sea -and provides the spiritual force that animates new generations. Yolngu life involves a continual exchange between the living and the dead, the ancestral dimension or the Wangarr and the world of the here and now, an exchange that is mediated by song, sacred names, objects and paintings.

Bakulangay Marawili’s painting Yathikpa II, 1997-98, maps the sea off Yathikpa and records its ancestral history. Bäru is not represented in figurative form, but is everywhere present in the diamond clan designs that provide the dominant background pattern of the painting. It was Bäru who brought fire into the world. He created fire inland at Yathikpa - a great fire that spread and burnt the country. Bäru himself was caught in the conflagration. With his body on fire he dived into the sea and the flames spread across the water, causing it to boil and roar. Eventually Bäru left the fire beneath the waves at Marrtjala, where it continues to burn. Bakulangay’s painting centres on a key episode in the lives of the dugong hunters, Burrak and Munuminya, spiritual ancestors of the Madarrpa people. They saw a dugong out to sea swimming in the area of Marrtjala. They saw the sea grass moving like flames beneath the surface of the water. They made a harpoon and set out to sea in their canoe. They harpooned the dugong, but in the anguish of its death it dived deep beneath the surface of the water, dragging the canoe and the hunters with it. They died deep beneath the waves where the flames still burned from the rocks of fire. The canoe drifted back on the tide to be transformed into rocks offshore, and the giant harpoon tossed around in the sea carrying messages of the deaths to the clanspeople of the region. The harpoon in turn became an analogue for the hollow-log coffin in which the bones of the dead could be placed.

The painting is not a literal representation of the mythological events. Rather, it is a form of meditation on them. It is conceptual, and yet the ideas are firmly rooted in place. The painting conveys the idea of the hunt: the dugong are sighted out to sea; the harpoon is prepared; the dugong is speared. It refers to the dangers of the sea: the turbulence of the waters and the strength of the dugong. It refers to the creation of fire by the crocodile, and to the ownership of the land. The straight lines that run along the centre of the painting represent the direction of vision of the hunters, the shaft of the harpoon, the taut line of the rope as the dugong pulls the boat along. Where the line divides in the top central panel it both duplicates the spearing of the dugong and shows the transformation of the harpoon shaft into a hollow coffin, container of the bodies of the dead hunters, infilled with the diamond designs of the Madarrpa clan. In the horizontal plane the symmetry is disrupted by the changing form of the background design and the cross-cutting segments of design. Here the background design conveys the ferocity of the fire and its analogue in the turbulence of sea. We can sense the rip of the tide and almost witness the overwhelming of the boat as it was torn from its straight line by the dugong’s dive. The different segments of the background design refer both to different areas of sea and to the different groups who are connected by the story: the ribbons of diamonds belong to the Madarrpa clan, and the wavy lines around the dugong and canoe represent the coming together of the waters of the Manggalili, Dhalwangu, and Madarrpa clans. The figures hint at details of the story - the empty canoe connected by rope to the mangrove-wood float, or provide a view from the land - the dugong as they move about in the swirling sea. But the meaning of the painting is part of a wider understanding of the relationship between people and place that lies in its interconnection with the songs, sacred names, and the sacred geography of the landscape at Yathikpa.

It was in the area of Yathikpa in October 1996 that Wäka Mununggurr of the Djapu clan discovered, hidden in the mangroves, the illegal camp of some barramundi fishermen. The camp contained drums of fuel, food remains and bedding but also, in a hessian bag, a more tragic memento of their intrusion - the severed head of a saltwater crocodile. While on some parts of the coast Yolngu law allows the killing of crocodile for food, in this area - the spirit land of the crocodile - such a killing is an act of sacrilege. The crocodile, Bäru, is the spirit ancestor of the Madarrpa people themselves, embodied in the very form of the landscape. This event was one of the catalysts for the Saltwater paintings, a group of large bark paintings by Yolngu artists that covered the coastal waters from Blue Mud Bay in the south to Arnhem Bay in the north.

Yolngu have been concerned to protect their rights to the sea from the beginning of European colonisation in the area. Their long struggle to gain land rights under Australian law is well documented. Their bark petition to Parliament in 1963, when they first realised that their land was threatened through bauxite mining, began a long process of political action and persuasion which contributed greatly to the passage of land rights legislation by the Fraser Government in 1976. The legislation, however, only covered rights on land. To the Yolngu, the sea and land are inseparable. And, as coastal hunters and gatherers, recognition of their sea rights is just as important as the recognition of land rights. The paintings in the Saltwater Collection reflect their concern, and document in detail their ownership of the sea and its cultural and social significance. As Dula Ngurruwutthun wrote:

This is our law and our art. By painting we are telling you a story. From time immemorial we have painted, just like you use a pencil to write with. Yes, we use our knowledge to paint from the ancient homelands to the bottom of the sea.2

The sea and the land are interrelated and the arbitrary line drawn along the shore is very much a European construct. The environment is dominated by the seasonal alternation between the wet season and dry, and between the flow of fresh water from the inland to the sea and the movement of the tide bringing salt water back. The same ancestral beings move inland with the tide and out to sea with the currents and floodwaters. Baluka’s painting Manggalili Monuk, 1997-98, follows the flow of the waters from the inland swamps of Mayawundji, where the dogs chase the rats and the heron looks on, through the salt flats of the lightning snake, into the bay and out to sea. In the distance the ancestral turtle plays among fish and strange sea monsters, causing the wind that sucks the water up into clouds that stand high and anvil-like on the horizon. These in turn move back to the land, bringing with them the wet season storms that release the lightning snake and renewing rains.

To Yolngu the sea is every bit as differentiated as the land. A central division in the Yolngu world is that between the two moieties, Dhuwa and the Yirritja. Dhuwa marry Yirritja and vice versa, and a child follows the moiety of its father. Dhuwa and Yirritja are related as child and mother - pothu and yindi. Clans belong to one or other moiety, animal and plant species are either Dhuwa or Yirritja, land is either Dhuwa or Yirritja, and water itself is similarly divided. Gawirrin Gumana’s painting Djarrwark ga Dhalwangu, 1997-98, illustrates areas of sea in the next bay along from Yathikpa. The coast is outlined at the top, and in the centre of the painting is Yirritja water, represented by the pointed ovals, flowing out of the river mouth from Baraltja. The waters are pushed out into the bay by the great Yirritja serpent Mundukul, and are represented by Yirritja designs that spread out across the lower panel. In the top panel to either side of the Yirritja waters are waters of the Djarrwark clan of the Dhuwa moiety, represented by the pattern of horizontal and vertical lines. In ancestral times the Djang’kawu sisters paddled these waters in their canoe before coming onshore and travelling inland. The same clan design marks an oblong shape representing a low sand bar over which the Yirritja waters flow: Dhuwa and Yirritja, mother and child.

In Arnhem Bay, at Raymangirr, the Dhuwa and Yirritja waters converge. Ancestral waters flow into the bay from the rivers, and salt water is sucked into the bay on the tide. The waters from different directions bearing the identity of the places they have come from clash together, heaving and foaming, causing great currents and swells, in some places creating whirlpools and in others fountains of foam. Mowara Ganambarr’s painting shows Mäṉa the ancestral Dhuwa shark at Rorruwuy, where he is responsible for churning up the waters as he lashes about with his tail. The waters belong to clans that intermarry - to the Dhuwa clans, including the Dätiwuy and Ngaymil, and to the Yirritja, Wanguri and Gumatj clans. At one place the Yirritja waters called gandjipa landed on top of the sleeping shark and cried out: ‘Hey what did I land on?’. The Dhuwa shark replied: ‘Yes it is me mother, I was sleeping. You will not break my tail. Do not tread on my eyes -1 am sensitive and easily provoked.’3

The sea and the places within it created by the ancestral beings are a source of ancestral power and intimately connected to the clans that own them. Many people are literally born out of the sea. As Langani Marika writes: ‘A child’s spirit can come from the saltwater. It can reveal itself for the first time by adopting the form of a creature from the sea, like a turtle or a fish bringing unexpected fortune. This is our spiritual belief.’4 Certain places in the sea are reservoirs of spiritual power associated with particular ancestral beings and the source of conception spirits. They provide continuity between the ancestral past and the clan members of today. In Mr. Wanambi’s painting Bamurrungu, 1997-98, the spiritual force associated with the ancestral Djuwany people almost explodes in the form of schools of garrawa (oval spotted coral fish) that swim around a sacred rock in Trial Bay. Fish symbolise the conception spirits, and the painting combines playful energy with images of fertility and procreation that evoke the life-giving qualities of the place.

In Yolngu art the forces of nature are incorporated in images of ancestral power that reflect Yolngu experience of the world, their knowledge of the sea and its dangers, their appreciation of its power and splendour, and the sources of its productivity. Nature provides a rich source of metaphors for the finite nature of human life, and for the necessity of death, the renewal of life, and the continuity of the world. The turtle hunters in Dhukal Wirrpanda’s painting Gapuwarriku at Lutumba, 1997-98, unlike the dugong hunters we encountered earlier, returned with their quarry. But they too have become the basis for the imagery of mortuary rituals, in this case of the Dhuwa moiety. The turtle shell is like the bones of the body; the turtle rope is an image of connection bringing People together for the ceremony; the tide that brought the turtle hunters back to the shore and washes over the turtle’s body in the sand provides a rich image for use in cleansing ceremonies; and the turtle buries its eggs in the sand from where life comes forth.

The life histories of Yolngu are mapped out in the journeys that they have taken on land and sea, and their survival is based on an intimate knowledge of the environment. This knowledge has a social and spiritual dimension that cannot be separated from the way Yolngu learn about the world, and from the rules they follow in managing their resources. Their paintings are in a very real sense maps of the sea: maps that mark the relationship between people and place, covering the sea and the land with a tapestry of clan designs that demonstrate the rights that people have in place and help the orderly utilisation of the sea’s resources. The sea is part of the Yolngu social world. As Langani Marika puts it: ‘Our kinship connects us to whatever lies in the sea. It holds our family. And everything in the ocean is related.’5

My thanks to Andrew Blake, Pip Deveson, Frances Morphy and Will Stubbs for their assistance in preparing this article. 


The following biography was provided for Morphy in the frontmatter for this issue: “Howard Morphy is Professor and Director of the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research at the Australian National University. He has published widely in the anthropology of art, aesthetics, performance, museum anthropology, visual anthropology and religion. His books include Ancestral Connections: Art and an Aboriginal System Knowledge (University of Chicago Press) and Aboriginal Art (Phaidon).”

All artwork illustrating the pages of art&Australia are part of the permanent collection of The Australian National Maritime Museum. They are provided in context of the original article. Images should not be extracted or republished without prior permissions from the artists or rights holders. For more information about the artwork, please refer to the current The Australian National Maritime Museum catalogue:


1. This article is based on the Saltwater Collection of bark paintings from Yirrkala. The paintings have been acquired by the Australian National Maritime Museum. The paintings are superbly documented in the catalogue Saltwater: Yirrkala Bark Paintings of the Sea Country produced by Buku-Larngay Mulka Center in association with Jenifer Isaacs Publishing. Citations from the artist come from that work. The paintings were shown at the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney, 5 May- 9 July 2000, and toured to Heidi Museum of Modern Art, Victoria, 19 August -15 October 2000, and the Araluen Centre, Alice Springs, 2 December – 20 January 2001.

2. Dula Ngurruwutthun, ‘Declaration’ in Saltwater: Yirrkala Bark Paintings of the Sea Country, Buku Larmgay Mulka Centre and Jennifer Isaccs Publishing, Yirrkala and Sydney, 1999, p.10

3. Derived from Mowara Ganambarr, ‘Declaration’, ibid. pp, 17-18, 84

4. Larangi Marika, ‘Declaration’, ibid, p. 19.

5. ibid.

Image captions
P.421: NUWANDJALI MARAWILI, Baru at Yathikpa, 1997-98, 118 x 47 cm, ochres on bark, courtesy Buku-Larrngay Mulka Centre, Yirrkala.
P.423: BAKULANGAY MARAWILI, Yathikpa ll, 1997-98, ochres on bark, 208 x 66cm, courtesy Buku-Larrngay Mulka Centre, Yirrkala.
P.423: BALUKA MAYMURU, Manggalili Monuk, 1997-98, ochres on bark, 281 x 82cm, courtesy Buku-Larrngay Mulka Centre, Yirrkala.
P.424: GAWIRRIN GUMANA, Djarrwark ga Dhalwangu, 1997-98, ochres on bark, 153 x 83cm, courtesy Buku-Larrngay Mulka Centre, Yirrkala.
P.425: MOWARA GANAMBARR, Mâna at Rorruwuy, 1997-98, ochres on bark, 122 x 87 cm, courtesy Buku-Larrngay Mulka Centre, Yirrkala.
P.426: Mr. WANAMBI, Bamurrungu, 1997-98, ochres on bark, 186 x 81cm, 1998, winner of the National and Torres Strait Islander Art Award 1998, courtesy Buku-Larrngay Mulka Centre, Yirrkala.
P.427: DHUKAL WIRRPANDA, Gapuwarriku at Lutumba, 1997-98, 158 x 80cm, courtesy Buku-Larrngay Mulka Centre, Yirrkala.

Photographs by David Silva Photographies. 

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