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Liyagalawumirr people

Australia 1921 – 1970

Wagilag Creation Story 1963 Place made: Milingimbi, Central Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, bark paintings, natural earth pigments on eucalyptus bark

Primary Insc: the artist name spelt DAUDI
Dimensions: 110.0 h x 50.0 w cm
Acknowledgement: Acquired by Australian Government before 1970
Accession No: NGA 00.162
Image rights: © Dawidi. Licensed by Viscopy

The Wagilag chronicle concerns two Sisters and the rules of marriage among the Yolngu. In ancestral times, the Sisters had had illicit relationships with their clansmen and so they fled with their children from their home in the east of Arnhem Land. After a long journey they made camp at a waterhole called Mirarrmina which, unknown to them, is the home of an ancestral Rainbow Serpent, Wititj. Annoyed by their presence, the giant Wititj rose into the sky and created the first monsoon by forming clouds with his spittle and flicking his tongue to make lightning.

In order to protect themselves from the storm, the women danced and sang but to no avail. Wititj descended upon them and swallowed them and all their belongings. Satisfied, Wititj rose to the sky once more and boasted of his deeds to neighbouring Rainbow Serpents who made him aware that the Sisters are his relatives—they belong to the same moiety or kin group, and therefore are forbidden food. Wititj became ill, regurgitated the women and fell to the ground.

The act of swallowing and regurgitation is a metaphor for transition and change—for example, Yolngu speak of initiation ceremonies swallowing boys and spitting them out as men. Dawidi’s painting features the graphic structure that identifies paintings about the Wagilag Sisters: the waterhole appears as the semi-circle along the lower margin, from which the Serpent emerges to surround the Sisters and their children. Other details of the story are shown across the bark: the raincloud at the top, the footprints of the women as they danced, clap sticks, and the triangular ground sculpture upon which ceremonies related to the Wagilag are performed.

Wally Caruana

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

In the 1960s, the Liyagalawumirr artist Dawidi Djulwarak held the supreme authority for painting the story of the climactic events of the encounter between the Wagilag Sisters and Wititj the Olive Python. In this ancestral story, events take place through which key elements of the cosmology of the Yolngu, the inhabitants of Arnhem Land, are set in place. The story of the Sisters and the consequences of their exploits is owned by six clans of Eastern and Central Arnhem Land (the Gälpu, Rirratjingu, Marrakulu, Wagilag and Liyagalawumirr and Golumala).

Through Dawidi’s authority comes the capacity to paint encyclopedic paintings like Wagilag Creation Story,in which the artist condensed as many of the details of the narrative as possible into one painting. From his grandfather, Yilkari (1891–1956), Dawidi inherited a painting tradition which enabled him to represent the multiple events of the story in a uniquely complex manner. By illustrating transgressions, the ancestral story sets the rules for the social and natural world – through the Sisters when they give birth and arouse the Wititj, and through the snake who is shamed when he eats the Sisters, his relatives. Using a distinctive painterly perspective, in which space and time appear to be warped and condensed, Dawidi depicted the elements of the story simultaneously and sequentially, both literally and abstractly, as a key to the artist’s deep knowledge and as a score for ritual performance.

The key to this painting is the semicircular waterhole at the bottom of the painting. It is conceptually the centre of the cosmos, from which the figures depicting the events of the story radiate. Being the artist’s conception site, it is also a representation of Dawidi himself. The mystery in this figure is explained by the fact that the sacred waterhole is also, visually, a mirror. As in all self-portraits, we are invited to see the vantage point from which he experiences his knowledge of the world, as if looking through the artist’s own eyes.

Nigel Lendon 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