Australia 1908 – 1967
Yirrkala, North East Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, bark paintings, natural earth pigments on Eucalyptus bark
Mawalan Marika was the senior ceremonial and community leader of the Rirratjingu clan. He was the head of an artistic dynasty that included his brother Mathaman (1920–1970), his son Wandjuk, daughters Dhuwarrwarr (born c 1946) and Banduk (born 1954), and his brother-in-law Munggurrawuy Yunupingu, who are all renowned artists.
Mawalan was strongly protective of Yolngu traditional culture and way of life, particularly at the onset of European presence and influences. However, he was also mindful that he, his family and community needed to work with Europeans to ensure the survival of his people and culture.
Mawalan was instrumental in several historic negotiations between the Yolngu and the wider community, the academic and art worlds, government and business. In the early 1960s he was one of the signatories of the famous Bark Petitions presented to the Federal Parliament, and was the leading Dhuwa moiety artist in the painting of the Yirrkala church panels in 1962–63. He was the first of a handful of Yolngu men who produced carvings and bark paintings for the anthropologist Donald Thomson in the 1930s and 1940s. And from the 1940s on, Mawalan assisted the anthropologists Ronald and Catherine Berndt with their research into Yolngu culture and society.
It was during the course of this research that Mawalan became interested in the Berndts’ photographs of paintings they had collected in Gunbalanya (Oenpelli). Intrigued by the western Arnhem Land style of painting, Mawalan experimented. Each section of Untitled c 1957 is his rendition of images found in western bark paintings: several frames are based on images of sorcery figures, others show mimih, a lightning spirit and a Wubarr ceremony.
Some eight years later, Mawalan painted The Milky Wayc 1965. To many northern Aboriginal peoples, the Milky Way is regarded as a river in the night sky, teeming with fish and other creatures. The origins of the Milky Way tell of two brothers who had been fishing in their bark canoe which capsized when a strong wind blew. One brother’s body washed up on shore; the other’s sank. The crocodile Baru went looking for food and smelled the body of the brother on the beach. The two brothers and Baru ascended into the night sky and became constellations. A group of Possum ancestors who were conducting a ceremony, playing didjeridu and clap sticks while the women danced, saw the stars and they too ascended into the heavens, as did the ancestral Native Cat, the submerged canoe and also the Scorpion who was once a man. They all became constellations. Two bags of stars projecting from the Milky Way, in the upper left, are called Djulpan: the triangular bag is male, the elliptical one female.
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