Ganalbingu people

Australia 1934 – 1998

Fire and Water Dreaming 1989 Place made: Ramingining, Central Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, bark paintings, natural earth pigments on eucalyptus bark

Dimensions: 200.5 h x 76.0 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1990
Accession No: NGA 90.1064
Image rights: © George Milpurrurru. Licensed by Viscopy
  • The Arafura Swamp and its environs in northern central Arnhem Land are the traditional lands of the Ganalbingu. These wetlands, with their large colonies of water birds, magpie geese, crocodiles, water snakes and plants, including the magnificent cabbage palm, are unique.[1] The country comes alive with the forces of nature during the Yolngu seasons of Dhuludur and Gunmul, from December to February, when the north-west monsoonal storms inundate the land. The swamp is also a nursery for saltwater crocodiles that migrate inland up the swollen rivers during the wet season. Baru, the ancestral Salt Water Crocodile, is the Ganalbingu ancestor who brought fire.

    The fire, the tongue of fire, got two lizards—one was the blanket lizard, the other one was the blue-tongue lizard. They were trying to make a fire; they tried the fire stick but it didn’t burn, so he (the Crocodile) came in and tried and he burned it, he lit the fire, burned it [the land], and he left ashes in there and he took the flame; the Crocodile took the flame.[2]

    The technique of ‘firestick farming’ is practiced by Aboriginal groups across the continent. During June and July, the season of Dharratharra in Arnhem Land, Yolngu burn off the bush to clear the forests of debris and thus prevent the great destructive bushfires that have become a disastrous feature of modern Australian life.

    The Fire and Water Dreaming relates to the cleansing of the land every year. Both fire and running water are thought of as spiritual beings in their own right and Milpurrurru’s painting evokes a landscape awash with their ancestral forces.

    Djon Mundine

    [1] In 1993 UNESCO listed the Arafura Swamp on the World Heritage Register for biodiversity and cultural reasons.

    [2] Gladys Getjpulu in conversation with her father George Milpurrurru, in G Milpurrurru with G Getjpulu, D Mundine, J Reser and W Caruana, The art of George Milpurrurru, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1993, p 8.

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
    From: Franchesca Cubillo and Wally Caruana (eds) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art: collection highlights National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010