Gumatj rom – Yolngu art of Charlie Matjuwi Burarrwanga and Peter Datjin Burarrwanga

The title of this collection of paintings by father and son Charlie Matjuwi Burarrwanga and Peter Datjin Burarrwanga has a strong sound and an authoritative meaning. Gumatj is one of the largest clan groups of the Yolngu people from north east Arnhem Land. Rom is law, the ancestral law of the Yolngu people. Rom provides the moral basis for human existence; it also lays down the rights that people have in property, land, sacred objects, and designs. Art is part of this ancestral inheritance, intimately connected to the land.

Elcho Map

Yolngu art is based on inherited designs passed on by the ancestral beings who created the land. The paintings and sculptures tell of the epic events of the ancestral past. They record the great fire spread by the crocodile Baru and quail Djirrikitj that burnt through the ceremonial ground near Caledon Bay and continues to burn today under the sacred waters of Mata Mata.

However the designs are more than representations of mythic events – they are part of the events themselves. They were the designs that the ancestral beings painted on their bodies, that they wore in ceremonies and passed on to the foundation ancestors of the clans who succeeded them in the country they created. The form of some of the designs arose out of the creative acts of the ancestors – patterns made in folded sheets of paperbark, or burnt into the surface of a sacred clap stick (bilma). Paintings are manifestations of the ancestral forces inherent in the land, and embodied in the people themselves. As Matjuwi says of his paintings ‘this is me’.

In Yolngu paintings nature is transformed into art through complex imagery. In Gumatj law the natural history of the crocodile, and its power, are linked to fire and this connection is evoked in Gumatj art through figurative and aesthetic form. The crocodile brought fire to Biranybirany on Caledon Bay, and from there fire blazed across the country just as the crocodile rushes to seize its victim. Fire is represented in the striking diamond designs that characterise Gumatj paintings. The red tongues of flame that shoot out, the blackened charcoal of the burnt wood, the showers of sparks, and clouds of smoke are evoked by the painted and crosshatched diamonds. Fire is an analogue for the fierceness of the crocodile, and it is easy to imagine the fear generated by both through the searing sharpness of the clan design. There is a symbolic symbiosis between the Gumatj and the crocodile. It is only in preparation for conflict that the Gumatj will kill and eat crocodile, on other occasions they are its guardians.

Individual paintings represent different ancestral events associated with the journey of the crocodile ancestor and the spread of fire. The crocodile was involved in a great fight with a stingray in the waters of Caledon Bay. The crocodile had seized and eaten a child of the stingray, and in anger the stingray lashed out with his tail, striking the crocodile in his back leg and wounding him severely. The fight between the crocodile and the stingray has been incorporated in Yolngu law as the basis for a Gumatj Makarrara, or peace-making ceremony. A person accused of responsibility for a person’s death has to face an ordeal where he has to avoid spears that are thrown at him just as the crocodile had to twist and turn to escape the flailing tail of the ancestral stingray. At the conclusion to the ceremony the accused may be speared in the leg, both as punishment and as an end to hostilities.

But crocodile and fire are part of a larger process. The paintings contain images of birth and growth as well as of death and fear, and provide moments for quiet reflection. The female crocodile builds a nest in the estuarine swamps, and buries her eggs as the wet season floodwaters reach their height. She guards them until the young are hatched. The crocodile as mother, with her young emerging from a nest beneath the ground, is a complement to the fierceness of the crocodile as a fighting animal. This is taken up in song and dance as an image of burial and rebirth. And the fire, once it has passed, creates a time of silence and peace before the young shoots of grass bring the game back to the land. The passing fire leaves a thin pall of smoke that hangs over the ground. In Yolngu song poetry the smoke becomes part of an analogic chain: it is reminiscent of early morning mist, and reminds people of the webs of St Andrew’s Cross spiders in the light of dawn.


Songs that focus on these symbolic connections are sung at the conclusion of ceremonies, as a sign of closure and a reflection on the events that have occurred. Mist is a sign of closure, but is also the beginning of a new day. The spider’s web is a battleground, a skein of connection, a covering. Smoke, cloud, spider, and mist are the final refrains in mortuary rituals. The intense activity of the ceremony is over, the catharsis of the ritual action has taken effect, and it is a time for reflection.

Through metaphor, Yolngu rituals orchestrate the emotions evoked by the natural world to give meaning to their ceremonial life. Metaphors are liberated in ceremony through song and dance, and through the paintings and ceremonial objects that are used. And the metaphors exist in a condensed form in the paintings themselves. In Peter Datjin’s painting Sacred Gumatj Fire (see image below), the emphasis is on the burning of the land, the explosive nature of fire. It is almost possible to feel the heat In Peter Datjin’s paintings of the ganiny, the ceremonial digging stick, used to prise paperbark from the trees, the emphasis shifts, though it is still possible to sense the energy of the fire.

The crosshatched and zigzag patterns radiating from the ganiny evoke the pattern of the spider’s web; ‘After the fire you see smoke, like fog in the morning. Yolngu get up in the morning and see the fine smoke, it is like a spider’s web, that’s when we look for wallaby there ‘ In other paintings the background pattern refers to the crosscutting currents in the estuary mouth or the ebb and flow of the tide along a particular stretch of the coast. Charlie Matjuwi and Peter Datjin show an exquisite and subtle mastery of Yolngu aesthetic forms in their representation of Gumatj land and law.

The aesthetic effect of Yolngu painting is to create, through the process of rarrkcrosshatching, an image of shimmering brilliance that is simultaneously one of movement and clarity. This brilliance captures the power of the ancestral beings imminent in the land, transferring it to the painted surface. The specific sources of the power are refereed to in song and the intoning of sacred names: the glint in the crocodile’s eye, the sharpness of its teeth, the scintillating rays of the sun on the water and sand, the explosive force of the fire, and the glistening of wild honey.


The dynamism of Yolngu art resides partly in this aesthetic exploration of metaphor, this teasing out of the meaning of designs by connecting them with song, dance, people and land. Dynamism also arises out of the interplay of different systems of representation. The geometric art condenses its meaning in multivalent forms: the diamond design can be fire, or honey, or floodwaters, can be connected to the paperbark forest or the crocodile’s jaws. The figurative art fixes for a moment the ancestral action to represent a particular event -the stingray striking the crocodile, the cockatoos in the paperbark tree. Each painting creates the ancestral being anew, fitting the form to a particular surface – body, bark, or hollow log coffin -relating it to a particular purpose – circumcision. mortuary ritual, or exhibition – or locating it in a particular place. Yolngu paintings are infinite variations on a series of complex themes that allow for a depth of aesthetic effect and a density of semantic reference.

The divisions within paintings often designate particular areas of land or geographical features – rivers flowing into the bays, islands offshore, and rocks beneath the surface of the sea. Shared designs allude to the relationships between groups. As Peter Datjin says of the Gumatj diamond design: ‘This is the tongue of the fire, that is still smoking from the fire. That tongue goes all the way to Madarrpa country, to Gumatj country, to Warramiri country and Birkilli Gupapuyngu country’. The paintings record a history of connections between different clan groups that is relived in ceremonies, and reflected in the sharing of similar though distinct designs.

Yolngu ceremonies are complex events – operatic in scale – in which song, dance, sculpture, and painting are brought together for a purpose: to initiate the young, to establish new relationships or to guide a dead person’s soul to its ancestral place. In ceremonies people show their sacred law to demonstrate their knowledge of it, and to assert their rights over it but also as an act of generosity to share with others the power and splendour of their inheritance. All Yolngu ceremonies are acts of reconciliation, of agreement, of reciprocity.

Yolngu art was always about establishing connections – between people and the land, people and the spiritual dimension, and between neighbouring and distant groups. Yolngu have a history of extending the boundaries of relevance of their art – they made it part of their relationship with Macassan traders who visited Eastern Arnhem land for hundreds of years before European colonisation subsequently they made it part of their dialogue with missionaries and politicians. The use of art to communicate with outsiders flows directly from the important role it has within Yolngu society: it is a way of ensuring that Yolngu values are relevant to the changing world in which people live, a way of ensuring that their ‘voice’ is heard. The same painting that appears on the walls of an exhibition in an art gallery can be painted on the chest of a boy at his initiation or on a hollow log coffin in a mortuary ritual. The right to produce designs is inherited on the basis of kinship. The designs are part of the process of transmission of Gumatj law from the ancestral past to the present, a continuing process in which the ancestral presence in the land is passed on through succeeding generations of clan members.