Narritjin MAYMURU, Nyapililngu Ancestors at Djarrakpi Enlarge 1 /1

Narritjin MAYMURU

Manggalili people

Australia 1922 – 1981

Nyapililngu Ancestors at Djarrakpi c.1978 Place made: Yirrkala, North East Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, bark paintings, natural earth pigments on eucalyptus bark

Dimensions: 158.0 h x 60.0 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased from Gallery admission charges 1986
Accession No: NGA 86.1130
Image rights: © the estate of the artist courtesy Buku-Larrnggay Mulka

In this painting, set in the spiritual landscape of Djarrakpi, the Manggalili clan estate on Cape Shield in Blue Mud Bay, Narritjin manages to combine aesthetic balance and coherence with a density of layered meanings.

The central feature represents the lake at Djarrakpi bounded on the seaward side (left) by high sand dunes and on the inland side by a low gravel bank. The dominant pattern of the central section represents the lake’s waters and is a marker of the clan’s identity. The land was created by the ancestral Possum and Emu, led by a Koel-cuckoo (Guwak) represented on the far right in the elongated shape of a ceremonial string-bound object, his open beak at the top. The composite figures represent two ancestral women, the Nyapililngu. Their heads are depicted in the shape of baskets, their eyes, noses and mouths being clearly visible. Their bodies are in the shape of ceremonial digging sticks that the women use to gather food. The women’s bodies extend down into the elliptical shape of a yingapungapu sand sculpture used in mortuary rituals.

Two anvil-shaped figures are drawn in the top and bottom panels of the painting, opposing each other. From one perspective these are the women’s bodies. The cross(es) represent the breast girdles that women wear and the projections on either side, breasts. But the figures also represent the clouds of the wet season that in song are described as analogous to the billowing breasts of the ancestral women. The painting can be placed in a broader geographical space looking out across the sea. The two ancestral women are standing on the high dunes at Djarrakpi looking out for their brothers out fishing in a storm. The sets of triangular shapes at the bottom represent the dunes. The sequence of triangles at the top are the clouds as they first appear coming over the distant horizon, and the anvil shape represents the clouds moving towards land as the storm builds up.

The work is by a master artist at the height of his career, whose translucent images have influenced subsequent developments in the work of Yolngu artists from Blue Mud Bay.

Howard Morphy


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

Narritjin Maymuru’s homeland of Djarrakpi provided the central focus of his art. His paintings explore the spiritual and emotional dimensions of Yolngu life, from spirit conception, through engagement with the landscape and its history, to death and the reincorporation of the person in the spiritual dimension.

This painting combines a representation of the form of the landscape at Djarrakpi with the story of its creation in the Wangarr, or ancestral past. In the centre is the lake, with anvil-shaped clouds rising at either end. The dunes that separate the lake from the sea are marked by irregular triangular shapes along the left-hand border. The head and elongated body of the Guwak (koel cuckoo), which stretch along the right side of the painting, mark the edge of the lake. The two figures on either side of the lake represent the ancestral Nyapililngu women who, together with the Guwak, created much of the landscape. The forms of the women’s bodies are interwoven with the events that shaped their lives.

The Nyapililngu lived in the dunes and on the lakeshore. Their bodies are represented by the sticks that they used in walking the sand dunes, digging into the ground and collecting wild plums. Their heads are the baskets into which the plums were placed. The sticks were also used to cut the women’s heads when mourning close relatives. The cross motif, recurring throughout the painting, represents the breast girdles of the women and also signifies the billowing wet season clouds. The cross, too, is a sign of mourning, since clouds rising over distant lands are a portent of death. In the women’s faces, the crosses mark their cheeks and allude to the grief they felt as they cut themselves in mourning and tears poured down their faces. The painting is a supreme illustration of the complex symbolism of Narritjin’s art and the way in which meaning is interwoven with expressive form.

Howard Morphy, 2002.


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002