The Yolngu of north east Arnhem Land are amongst the most powerful and culturally committed of Australia’s indigenous nations. For probably four hundred years before white men appeared on their shores, they hosted visiting fishing fleets from Indonesia who made temporary villages and traded cloth, metal and foods whilst gathering and processing beche-de-mer, or trepang, the prized sea slug which is a delicacy in Chinese cuisine. The many clans have maintained their hunting and fishing economy, whilst carrying on their rich ceremonial lives to the present day.
Elcho Island is an elongated paradise, 50 km long, 6 km wide, just off Australia’s mainland, 500 km east of the nearest city, Darwin. It is part of the area known as Arnhem Land, set aside as Aboriginal land since 1931 and cannot be visited without an official permit.
To the rest of Australia it has therefore remained remote, unknown. Elcho Island, and its main community Galiwin’ku is the home of 1500 Yolngu from several different language groups. Most have relocated from the mainland and are close kin to clans centred at Yirrkala and surrounding coastal outstations or ‘homelands’ centres. These homelands are small villages which connect to the main centres for supplies and administrative arrangements.
Yolngu belief system
Yolngu came into lasting contact with a belief system which differed from their own when the Methodist missions were established in 1934 at Yirrkala, then on Elcho Island in 1942. As with the Macassans from the Macassan Straits in Indonesia, whose culture had influenced Yolngu for centuries before, their response was adaptive and creative. The Bible seemed to add to or expand upon basic Yolngu tenets of law, so it was incorporated into Yolngu thought. The Holy Ghost and various angels have been known to appear at ceremonies at Elcho Island, and Yolngu have become office bearers in the Church whilst maintaining their beliefs about the religion of the land. Rather than existing side by side, the two religions have become one, and in turn have released a flowering of Yolngu creative expression over decades. Elcho Island thus differs from the stricter and less syncretic ceremonial codes observed on the mainland.
Aboriginal religion centres on the creative power and laws of what has been termed Wongarr or the Dreaming. This is spoken of as the Creation era when the earth and all the animals and plants were formed, but it exists still. The Creation Ancestors were super powerful humans who travelled over wide tracts of country. As they moved they made the ‘tribes’ and languages, gave sacred objects to their descendants, and made ceremonies in which, by painting their bodies, they ‘revealed’ the designs which held the power for each tract of land. These ceremonies are enacted to the present day, during the initiation of young boys, at funerals and at other more ‘secret’ occasions. Elaborate cross-hatched designs appropriate to the wearer are painted with earth ochres over the faces and chests of the dancers. The dazzling patterns moving and flashing in dance imbue the ceremonial actors with the power of the Spirit Ancestors.
Although these designs are still primarily revealed in ceremony, they are also occasionally painted on bark, and more recently on paper. Increasingly such paintings are used to reinforce Aboriginal claims to land and to respect by the wider world community. Today’s Yolngu clan leaders hold themselves proudly as the direct descendants of the Creation Ancestors and therefore by ‘divine’ decree the protectors of the sacred sites of ‘power of the land’.
In Australian court cases, Yolngu paintings have been admitted as visual documents, scripts, or land title deeds. The patterns, symbols and designs are the Yolngu written language, and the sacred bark paintings are their Book of Genesis. Yet they are also abstract symbolic paintings which are highly contemporary and reveal individual skill, inventiveness and personal expression.
Clans, moieties and ceremony
Socially, Yolngu clans are divided into two interrelated and interdependent groups or moieties, termed Yirritja and Dhuwa, each of which owns quite distinct lands and traces descent from different Original Creative Ancestors.
Barama and Laintjang, created the Yirritja people and The Djankawu, a man and his two sisters, created the Dhuwa. All living things are divided into these two moieties hence the right to paint designs or creation stories relating to particular species falls to the correct kinsfolk from that tract of country.
Detailed episodes along the pathway or ‘songline’ of the Creation Ancestors recount mythical sagas – the creation of fire, of honey, and of waterholes, rocks and trees. A major Yirritja Creation story is that of Baru the Crocodile who is associated with fire. Yirritja fire designs are compositions of diamonds – symbolic of the cracked pat-terns burned into crocodile skin in the Creation Era. The interaction of ‘dangerous’ creatures like crocodiles and stingrays, each of which can inflict pain, is also a metaphor for the pain involved in initiation and ‘men’s business’ or ‘payback’.
The most climactic ceremonies occur at funerals, the time for singing and dancing the spirit to rest. The body or coffin is elaborately painted, and at the appearance of the first star, the Morning Star, a beautiful slow poetic dance and song cycle are performed at which sacred morning star poles and feathered strings are slowly let out across lines of dancers to represent the journey of the star across the sky. This is also the pathway the spirit of the deceased must follow to its resting place.
The journey of human beings from birth through life to death is paralleled in nature’s cycles. It is represented by the passage of the seasons, of which there are six, each named according to coming and going of winds and rain, and also by the metamorphosis of insects, for example of butterflies or beetles from eggs to larvae to adults.
Painting by Yolngu artists
Paintings by John Mandjuwi detail the emergence of ‘Wurrkadi’ larvae, and their consumption of decaying matter. Wurrkadi designs are the clan patterns of the Galpu Dhuwa people. In representing the changing form of a living creature which in turn is responsible for the recycling of plant species into the earth from whence they both come, the painting is a profound narrative.
Painting by John Mandjuwi ‘Sacred Digging Sticks’
Mickey Durrng’s ‘Sacred Djirrididi Design‘ in ochre on paper mark a significant departure in recent years. These minimalist statements in stripes are the elegantly refined marks signifying both the painting stages of funeral ceremonies and the seasons of nature. Until recently Yolngu made bark coffins termed dhupan which housed the bones of the dead. The outer surface of these were covered in such clan designs; see example.
These works by Durrng, profound in their spare simplicity, mark the sequential stages of both bone-coffin paintings and the designs used on ceremonial participants during the burial. “We start in the dry season, paint one side. Then, after, paint two sides. Then put one stripe across, then full. When first rains come, djirrididi, it’s finish. Women and children are painted.“
Yolngu aesthetics are directly related to the cross-hatched patterning or ‘rarrk’. These designs, painted closely by artists who sit beside the bark laid flat on the ground, demand quiet peace for their execution to be successful. The painters use long, human hair brushes consisting of only a few strands. These, loaded with ochre, are laid on the bark or paper and drawn away from the body to make the long fine lines of the cross-hatched clan patterns. With the addition of a small change in colour, over different layers or sequences of lines, great variation is possible. Gifted artists can achieve a shimmering effect, much like an aura or halo, and this effect is apparent in the vibrating work by Peter Datjin. Such resonating paintings are spoken of as having ‘power’: “The colours hold the power of the land. The stripes are the power“.
‘Reading’ Yolngu paintings thus can offer great rewards. From the initial attraction of the beautiful and meticulous patterns, through the simplified ‘story’, to the deeper layers of meaning Yolngu art offers truths of life and death.
At first the painting of the Macassan sailing vessel or prau by Charlie Matjuwi may seem a figurative anomaly in the company of Yolngu sacred religious art. Yet again, this is special.
Painting by Charlie Matjuwi ‘Macassan’
Macassan places are well remembered in family oral history and recently a number of Yolngu from Elcho Island made a ceremonial visit to the islands of Indonesia to exchange dance and memories and to seek relatives – descendants from ancestors who had worked on the praus and married into Ujang Pandung community. The designs of the prau with sail and flag has been featured in bark paintings since the first examples were made for the missionaries in the 1930s. These are social history as well as expressions of kinship and cultural connections.
The Macassans came each year in December and went with the close of the wet season (February). As they went, unfurling sails and raising flags on the prau mast, a commemoration, a custom of saying goodbye entered Yolngu culture. Today Yolngu dancers wave flags at funeral ceremonies, farewelling the deceased. This painting therefore links yet again to themes of the cycle of life Another layer, another metaphor and for the viewer a new insight – a revelation.