SYDNEY- 8 March 2015

Yirrkala sits on the top right-hand corner of the Top End. It is surrounded by a eucalyptus forest that stretches uninterrupted for seven hundred kilometres to Darwin. On a normal passenger jet from Darwin you can fly there in over an hour without seeing a manmade structure below.  

The land is extreme but not a desert. The sun is intense and feels like it is just over your shoulder. But in the wet season the humidity makes you feel that you are swimming, not breathing; this is a Shakespearean season, full of brewing, fecund intrigue and violence. Lightning explodes the stringy-bark trees, thunder trembles the ground for hours on end and rivers fall out of the sky. This is when the bark is cut, oozing sugary sap and slipping off the tree.

Then the tempest stops and sanity creeps back. The sky is blue every day for six months, with no chance of rain. Like all good things, too much fine weather is unsustainable. Water contains life force in infinite forms. By the end of the Dry all life is clinging by a thirsty thread. The Yolngu set cleansing fires as part of land management. Instead of killing everything in their path, they renew it. It is normal to drive through these cool, midget bushfires. They amble along beside the dirt roads for weeks at a time. From the ashes of this incineration magically sprouts green grass which will be eight feet tall again within months.

It is easier to explain this physical environment than it is the mental.

Time flows like a river. Most cultures agree that time is linear and has a direction that cannot be reversed. But Yolngu cosmology has a different structure, one that grows from the grammar of the language. Events in wangarr, or creation tense, simultaneously occur in the distant past; now; and far in the future – three rivers in one that flow in an infinite loop.
The much-degraded English word Dreaming attempts to capture this shape but usually fails because the people who hear the word lack such a geometry in their minds to understand it.

Nawurapu Wunungmurra uses patterns that denote flood water sliding off the plain into the mangrove creek. The water is exciting the monumental snake to stand and spit lightning into the sky. He is not simply recording the equivalent of a biblical event in the ancient past but capturing the present and foretelling the future as well.

This is just one area of Nawurapu’s clan’s country. The Dhalwangu clan is one of at least sixteen interrelated landowning groups in north-east Arnhem land. This mangrove creek, Baraltja, is therefore just a tiny fragment of the physical and spiritual whole.

The meeting of fresh floodwaters and tidal estuarine creek embodies a link between the Dhalwangu and their maternal grandmothers, the Madarrpa. Yolngu use the action, interaction and reaction of water as a philosophical modelling tool. All of the Yirrkala barks in this book consist of patterns specific to identifiable water. On land an estate will be defined by its spring, swamp, waterhole, river, coast, mist or dew. At sea the identifiers include currents, river outflows and islands. Each of the estates that make up the patchwork has its own pattern. All of these designs have been touched by the ancestral forces/beings/heroes that are still manifest in that essence.

Nawurapu’s work doesn’t show us what happens after the water spills out into the coastal sea. The spirit of that water changes identity but continues as a new generation to the horizon. Here it cheats oblivion by leaping into the next dimension. The life force continues its infinite cycle as invisible water vapour. It rises to impregnate the maternal thunderheads sitting out at sea. These mothers of all life birth their burden in the escarpment country where trickles become streams, become rivers, become floods. Each stage with its own pattern and song.

The river of time returns to where it was all along.

This Yolngu visual language is esoteric and scientific. The diamond-shaped fresh water at the head of the Gängan river is imbued with the mud stirred by the eruption of a founding ancestor from a spring in the bed. Further downstream elliptical mangrove leaves bank up against the serpentine sandbank.

This knowledge exists in the poetry of song cycles as well.

Both songs and patterns come down in strict template from generation to generation from their initial crystallisation in the moment itself. But every singer has a different cadence or style, rhythm and tone. Similarly each artist breathes a fresh spirit into his or her rendition of the timeless miny’tji (sacred clan design).

Yolngu art predates not only European contact but probably the European concept of ‘art’ and certainly its progeny, the ‘art world’. When the two met, the Yolngu proffered their sacraments as diplomatic instruments. These were commonly the raw designs themselves, as painted on bodies or sacred objects.

When Yolngu found these paintings being traded, displayed and profaned, as mere objects, they withdrew. Europeans seemed immune to the sacred obligations created in these exchanges. A convention was adopted to cover the raw power of sacred design with protective figurative imagery (commonly an animal drawn from the songs summoned by the pattern depicted).

Fifty years after its adoption, this convention has begun to roll back. During this period the Yolngu have effectively educated the newcomers in the power of their designs. The Yirrkala Church Panels (1962 – 3), the Yirrkala Bark Petition (1963), the Gove Land Rights (1971), the Barunga Statement (1988), the Saltwater Collection (1998) and the Wukudi Memorial (2003) have all used art as political documents of beauty and significance. Yirrkala was possibly the first community to market its secular art commercially through the Methodist missionaries in the 1950s. Following the lead of Narritjin and Nanyin Maymuru, the community took over the marketing role itself in 1976 with the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre.

They themselves have also learnt about the outsiders. A sense of confidence and trust has returned through contact with outsiders who understand and show respect for the inherent sanctity and power of the designs. Over a recent period the Yolngu have chosen to reveal again as much as they had initially.

Jim Davidson, Louis Allen, Dorothy Bennett, Tony Tuckson, J.W. Kluge, Kerry Stokes and Colin and Liz Laverty are a few of the important collectors who have engendered that trust. Bill and Anne Gregory of Annandale Galleries (Sydney), Dallas Gold of Raft Artspace (Darwin) and Beverley Knight of Alcaston Gallery (Melbourne) are some of the significant 
personalities in this reborn conversation. The artists’ own art centre has also proved itself as a resolute protector of sacred law under the stewardship of a number of talented co-ordinators, including Steve Fox and Andrew Blake.

The Lavertys have always collected with a spirit of giving rather than taking. Their gentle manners and pure desire to nurture worthwhile human expression have been rewarded. With hindsight we can see that this instinct has intuitively compiled a stunning record of a dynamic period.

Gawirrin Gumana’s and Mathulu Munyarryun’s work is probably least affected by what in some ways is a generational shift. However, the depth and the breadth of the knowledge displayed mark them as daring acts of sharing. Nawurapu’s work in the 1995 Telstra Award was a seminal piece as it was just miny’tji. It caused conservative Yolngu to question the artists’s
authority to paint so freely. Once the controversy was resolved the work became part of the Queensland Art Gallery’s collection. But the message was received and innovation was slowed until around 2001.

Wanyubi Marika’s work exemplifies the Buwayak principle. Buwayak, which means ‘invisibility’, was the name the artist gave to the groundbreaking exhibition of 2003 where the Yolngu made explicit their subversion of the old convention.

Then the tide changed. The pure patterns of the ancient body designs began to submerge the figurative shields (often pictures of goannas, crocodiles, sharks). The objects placed on top of the non-figurative miny’tji are still there. They no longer obscure its power but are themselves covered by it. Galuma Maymuru was another of the three Buwayak artists and an
important progenitor.

Each artist finds their own evolutionary path in this period. There is no formula. Gulumbu Yunupingu untethered her design from the sanctions of land and paints a design her father used as an illustrative background. Wukun Wanambi follows the lead of the influential Djambawa Marawili and allows the force of the currents he depicts to bend and loosen the ancient
template of Marrakulu water meeting its maternal grandmother at the mouth of Trial Bay. Marrnyula Munungurr bleaches the Djapu fishtrap pattern back to a monochrome without altering its skeleton.

But through it all the Lavertys were there, offering a support that was not yet fashionable, not asking what we could do for them but the other way around. It isn’t always that the goodies come out on top. But in this case the artists, and the small band of collectors and gallerists who backed them, should be proud of what they have achieved.

In the spirit of sharing inherent in these relationships, we can all now enjoy the result of the Lavertys’ prescience. Their faith in Yirrkala foretold a dynamic period of change. In a linear view this decade has seen a seismic change but on a longer view the art has simply turned full circle. We can now feast our eyes on the gifts that our predecessors disrespected. What is now revealed was always there.

The river of time returns to where it was all along. And flows on … in the future/present/past.