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Birrikitji GUMANA

Dhalwangu people

Australia 1898 – 1982

Rapids in the Koolatong River c.1960 Description: (No.BDAV 25)
Place made: Yirrkala, North East Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, bark paintings, natural earth pigments on eucalyptus bark

Dimensions: 68.0 h x 29.0 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1990
Accession No: NGA 90.1771
Image rights: © the artist courtesy Buku-Larrnggay Mulka

Birrikitji Gumana was a Yolngu leader and artist and father of another renowned bark painter, Gawirrin Gumana (born c 1930). His birth date is often incorrectly given as 1898, but he was much older than that. He recalled how he had discovered the bodies of the Yolngu killed by a police party at the Gangan massacre that happened around 1911. When the Yirrkala mission station was established in 1935 he was already well into middle age. He was a man of enormous authority and a leader of Yirritja moiety ceremonies.

This painting is said to represent rapids on the Koolatong River which flows into the north of Blue Mud Bay south of Gangan. Arnhem Land is characterised by dramatic seasonal change, with a long dry season (April to November) followed by a dramatic wet season. In the wet season the inland rivers flood and break their banks and great plumes of fresh water flow out of the river mouths into the bays. The floodwaters in themselves are seen to be powerful spiritual forces and a source of renewal. This painting is a Dhalwangu clan design representing the wet season floodwaters as they flow towards the sea. The pattern and surface effect evokes the movement of the floodwaters downstream and the eddies cutting across them. Designs such as this are painted on boys at their circumcision ceremony accompanied by songs which locate them in time and place. Though apparently abstract, they are meditations on the environment and the ancestral powers that lie beneath the surface of the earth.

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