If ever there was an Arnhem Land bark painter who developed his own innovative and distinct style it was the late Paddy Fordham Wainburranga. His bold illustrations of the Rembarrnga ancestors on twenty-four of the two hundred hollow log coffins that make up the The Aboriginal Memorial 1988 stand in direct stylistic contrast to the others. His depictions of impressive Balangjarngalain spirit figures appear to be caught in a tortured state of metamorphosis; they are elongated figurative forms frozen in time, regurgitating, twitching and recoiling erratically, full of foreboding spiritual power and energy.
As a senior cultural leader, Wainburranga thought it important to retell and reinforce the ancient ancestral narratives of the Rembarrnga peoples. But he also wanted to ensure that contact history was recorded from an Indigenous perspective, and his personalised history paintings started to emerge during the mid to late 1980s and included his epic 1988 work Too many Captain Cooks, which was accompanied by a short film of the same name. This significant work was painted in the exuberant lead-up to Australia’s bicentennial celebrations to let the wider community know that, according to Rembarrnga and Ngalkbun peoples and other Yolngu peoples in central and north-east Arnhem Land, Captain Cook and his two wives came to Sydney a million years ago. This, however, is not a parody of European history; it is Rembarrnga history.
Cook lived in harmony with the local Aboriginal people. He brought many important materials with him: calico, blankets, tobacco, steel knives and axes. He was the first law man and showed the Aboriginal population how to build a dugout boat and make paddles. Cook also brought with him a donkey and a nanny goat. These are just some of the items that pertain to the fascinating Rembarrnga and Ngalkbun Dreaming narrative.
As the story unfolds through a series of unfortunate encounters with the Devil, and also because of injuries sustained at the hands of his relatives back on Mosquito Island, Cook eventually dies. However, in his place, many Captain Cooks soon came, causing havoc with the Aboriginal people, killing them, moving them off their land and destroying their culture. With the bicentennial pending, Wainburranga felt compelled to tell the true story of Captain Cook. In the 1989 video accompanying the painting, Wainburranga expands on the story and explains that there are songs and ceremonies that are associated with this first Captain Cook.
Franchesca Cubillo, Senior Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art
in artonview, issue 82, Winter 2015