Australia 1908 – 1967
The Milky Way
Yirrkala, North East Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, bark paintings, natural earth pigments on eucalyptus bark
One of the most important Yolngu artists in the history of bark painting, Mawalan Marika was born before the time of early European invasion into what is now the Arnhem Land region. He lived in country near Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land, roughly 700 kilometres east of Darwin, which has approximately 25 homeland centres within a 200-kilometre radius. The area itself is known as the Miwatj region, which means ‘morning side’, and refers to the fact that it is the most eastern part of the Top End of Australia. Marika was a senior religious leader, not only of the Rirratjingu clan but also of the Dhuwa moiety, as well as a warrior, songman and dancer.
In 1935, the Methodist Overseas Mission sought to establish a mission station at Yirrkala on Rirratjingu land. Although he was strongly protective of traditional culture and the Yolngu way of life, Mawalan supported the missionaries and assisted in clearing the land for a school, houses, roads and the mission farm.
Politically, he was a key figure in several historic negotiations between the Yolngu people and the outside community. From the 1940s, Marika assisted the Australian anthropologists Charles P Mountford and Ronald and Catherine Berndt with their research into Yolngu culture and society and, in the late 1950s, he was commissioned by Tony Tuckson and Stuart Scougall to make large bark paintings for the Art Gallery of New South Wales. In 1962, he played a leading role in producing painted panels on Yolngu religious themes, which were installed in the Yirrkala Church, contributing to the regional reconciliation of two very different cultures—the English and the Yolngu. In 1963, Marika was one of the signatories of the famous Yirrkala Bark Petitions presented to Parliament to protest the Commonwealth’s granting of mining rights. The historic petitions were not only the first traditional documents prepared by Indigenous Australians that were formally recognised by the Australian Parliament but they were also the first recognised native title claim.
Mawalan Marika was significant in establishing the bark painting tradition of the Top End. He led the way in producing traditional paintings on bark for sale to outsiders and, with Narritjin Maymurru and Mungurrawuy Yunupingu, they developed a narrative approach for their paintings. This became characteristic of much Yirrkala art of the 1960s to the 1980s, and this bark is a classic example of that style. Marika taught bark painting to the boys at the mission school and, in 1963, lived and worked for two months in Sydney—he was one the first Yolngu to travel that far south. He also played an important role in encouraging Yolngu women to paint at a time when women were not allowed to produce sacred paintings.
Marika was an influential figure at the head of one of the most important artistic families to emerge from Yirrkala to date. His brothers Mathaman and Dadaynga ‘Roy’ Marika, son Wandjuk Marika, daughters Dhuwarrwarr and Banduk Marika and brother-in-law Mungurrawuy Yunupingu are all celebrated artists.
This bark painting by Marika depicts Baru the crocodile, an important creation ancestor for the Yolngu people. The black vertical strip on the bark denotes the Milky Way, which is regarded by many northern Aboriginal people as a river in the night sky, teeming with fish and other creatures. The origins of the creation of the Milky Way vary from group to group. According to the chronicles of the Rirratjingu and related Dhuwa clans, two brothers were fishing in their bark canoe when it capsized in a strong wind. 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 then ascended into the night sky and became constellations. A group of Possum ancestors who were conducting a ceremony—playing didgeridoo and clap sticks while women danced—saw the stars and they too ascended into the heavens. The ancestral Native Cat, the submerged canoe and the Scorpion, who was once a man, also joined the others in the night sky. All became constellations. Two bags of stars projecting from the Milky Way in the upper left represent Djulpan, the belt of Orion: the triangular bag is male, the elliptical one female.
This work by Mawalan Marika will be a feature work in the new Indigenous Australian galleries that open next year as part of the Stage 1 building project.
Assistant Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art
in artonview, issue 60, summer 2009
in artonview, issue 60, summer 2009
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