Around the world there are knowledge hotspots and these places illuminate human existence. These hotspots include the great universities, Harvard and Cambridge among others, and the great institutions, the storehouses of knowledge and creativity, the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the Musée du Louvre in Paris and Milan’s La Scala and so it goes. These places draw us in because we need to know, to see, to listen and to share.

“In traditional Yolngu life, everything is connected, every physical and metaphysical thing has a place”

WARNING: This blog contains the names of Aboriginal people now deceased. The blog also contains links to sites that may use images of Aboriginal and Islander people now deceased.

The Indigenous world also has its knowledge hotspots and in Australia’s Arnhem Land the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre is one of these places. Aboriginal culture in Australia is deeply knowledge based, a creative and spiritual force where art making, music and dance are at the core of culture, of law and sacred meaning.

Nyapanyapa paints at the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre

The Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre is in Yirrkala, 700 kilometres to the east of Darwin, in the north east of Arnhem Land. This art centre is in a region where art making, across its 25 homeland centres (surrounding communities), is a constant process, contemporary and evolving and informed by the rich cultural heritage handed down by countless generations of Aboriginal people.

Artists from the surrounding homelands come to the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre to sell their artworks, these include bark paintings, larrakitj and weaving. Artists also gather at the centre to paint, to prepare larrakitj and bark and to reference earlier works and cultural treasures in the centre’s museum and in the extraordinary Mulka Project archive of film, images and sound.

Will Stubbs, Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre Art Co-ordinator

The art centre with its stylish accommodation is also a magnet for curators, collectors and artists from around the world. Wealthy collectors from America, European fashion designers, curators from major international institutions and Australian politicians from a long way south are all drawn here as we are. After you have visited for the first time you want to go back again and again.

Entering the art centre is a powerful experience as the art of the region unfolds before you in room after room. The centre is extremely busy, young students watching films, artists bringing in their work, artists painting, art collectors and visitors to the region purchasing artworks, gallery curators selecting works or discussing the commissioning of major artworks for exhibitions around Australia and elsewhere in the world.

Nyapanyapa works on a major commission

There are American and European accents here demonstrating the Yolngu’s capacity to project their culture to the world. Technology is here too, there are viewing screens and computers, the centre's film production studio and filmmakers and editors. Technology has also entered the art making process and here Nyapanyapa’s Light Painting gently displays a screen of ever changing images.

Watjumi Mununggurr and Kade McDonald

Art as a weapon

Yolngu artists and leaders have created a spine tingling history because of the way they have used their art as a political weapon, a tool for activism, human rights and social justice. Here Yolngu art has spoken with a loud voice, a voice that has helped shaped land and sea rights for Australia’s Indigenous peoples.

The art centre is the keeping place for the masterpieces of Yolngu art, the artworks of senior artists from past generations are displayed here. The Yirrkala church panels are displayed in a special room in the museum section of the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre. The two panels, around 3.6 metres high, one panel Dhuwa moiety and one panel Yirritja moiety, were painted between 1962 and 1963 and describe the journeys of ancestral beings.  The story of the Yirrkala church panels is a complex one which I will not discuss here but to say that the panels represented an early and powerful statement in relation to land rights at a time when the Yolgnu world was changing rapidly with the intrusion of western religions and mining. We should remember that the panels were painted at a time when Australian Aboriginals were not fully recognised as Australian citizens and had very few rights in relation to determining what would happen to their lands or seas.

The circumstances that shaped that time for Aboriginal communities can be described through various Australian Commonwealth acts and the subsequent 1967 referendum in Australia. Here are some significant moments in the long fought battle for rights for Australia’s Indigenous peoples.

  1. The Nationality and Citizenship Act (1948) theoretically made Aboriginal people Australian citizens, because they were born in Australia, this did not guarantee them citizenship rights. Indigenous people had no right to vote in Commonwealth elections, Aboriginal people from Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory had no right to vote in state or territory elections. These changes likely made because of Aboriginal peoples contribution to defending Australia in the Second World War, not only around the world but particularly in Northern Australia. True recogonition of which is still denied in Canberra today.
  2. The Commonwealth Electoral Act (1962) gave all Aboriginal people the right to vote in Commonwealth elections, voting was not compulsory.
  3. Australia’s 1967 referendum required Aboriginal people to be included in the national census and gave the Commonwealth Government the right to make laws for Aboriginal people.

Yirrkala itself was founded in 1935 as a mission after leader Mawalan Marika invited the Methodist missionary Wilbur Chaseling to establish the mission to halt a proposed (1935) Commonwealth Government punitive expedition to massacre Yolngu people living in Yirrkala at that time. Message sticks from the time now exhibited in the centre’s museum tell some of that story.

Art was to be used yet again as a weapon to defend land and culture. The famous Bark Petitions, 1963, were created to demonstrate opposition and resistance to the Commonwealth Government’s exclusion of Yolngu people from decisions at that time relating to mining on traditional Yolngu lands.

On 13 March 1963 the Commonwealth Government excised more than 300 square kilometres of Yolngu traditional land so mining company Gominco could begin to mine bauxite. As was the practice at the time, land clearing and mining operations commenced without consultation with the traditional landowners.

The Bark Petitions were created to demonstrate and assert ownership of land and combined both typing on paper in Gumatj and English with painted designs on bark describing the traditional relationship with the land and the Yolngu law. The petitions were presented to the Commonwealth Parliament in August 1963.

In an event that signalled a significant change in the conduct of the Commonwealth Government towards Aboriginal people a parliamentary committee of inquiry did consider the evidence presented by the Yolngu petitioners and the committee’s report did acknowledge the rights of the Yolngu as set out in the petitions. Recommendations included that compensation for loss of livelihood should be paid and that sacred sites should be protected.

The loss of various court cases in relation to the matter meant that, on this occasion, the Yolngu people were not successful in protecting their lands and mining commenced and a bauxite refinery, now in caretaker mode, was built just to the north of Yirrkala at Nhulunbuy in 1968.

Art continued to be used in this way.

Nhulunbuy or Gove? In 1968 a typed petition, signed by sixteen men and one woman, was attached to the back of a bark painting by Dundiwuy Wanambi.  Dundiwuy‘s painting depicted the figure of Wuyal, the ancestral sugarbag man, standing on the hill that he had named Nhulunbuy. The petition requested that the new town be called by its Aboriginal site name, Nhulunbuy. 

In 1988 the Barunga Statement was presented to Bob Hawke, the Australian Prime Minister at that time. Bob Hawke responded by saying that he wished to conclude a treaty with Aboriginal people by 1990. This promise remains unfulfilled. In its physical form the Barunga Statement is a painting which includes a typed script. The Barunga Statement set out the wishes of the traditional owners:

We, the Indigenous owners and occupiers of Australia, call on the Australian Government and people to recognise our rights:

  • to self-determination and self-management, including the freedom to pursue our own economic, social, religious and cultural development;
  • to permanent control and enjoyment of our ancestral lands;
  • to compensation for the loss of use of our lands, there having been no extinction of original title;
  • to protection of and control of access to our sacred sites, sacred objects, artefacts, designs, knowledge and works of art;
  • to the return of the remains of our ancestors for burial in accordance with our traditions;
  • to respect for and promotion of our Aboriginal identity, including the cultural, linguistic, religious and historical aspects, and including the right to be educated in our own languages and in our own culture and history;
  • in accordance with the universal declaration of human rights, the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights, the international covenant on civil and political rights, and the international convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination, rights to life, liberty, security of person, food, clothing, housing, medical care, education and employment opportunities, necessary social services and other basic rights.

We call on the Commonwealth to pass laws providing:

  • A national elected Aboriginal and Islander organisation to oversee Aboriginal and Islander affairs;
  • A national system of land rights;
  • A police and justice system which recognises our customary laws and frees us from discrimination and any activity which may threaten our identity or security, interfere with our freedom of expression or association, or otherwise prevent our full enjoyment and exercise of universally recognised human rights and fundamental freedoms.

We call on the Australian Government to support Aborigines in the development of an international declaration of principles for indigenous rights, leading to an international covenant.

And we call on the Commonwealth Parliament to negotiate with us a Treaty recognising our prior ownership, continued occupation and sovereignty and affirming our human rights and freedom.

Other petitions were to follow.

In late 1996 Waka Mununggurr discovered an illegal Barramundi fishing camp hidden in the mangroves close to Baniyala. At the camp Waka also discovered the severed head of a Saltwater Crocodile (Baru) in a hessian bag. It was once again time to act and to defend country, law and spirituality.

Djambawa Marawili AM painting at Baniyala

The catalogue Saltwater: Paintings of Sea Country The recognition of Indigenous rights (Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre in association with Jennifer Isaacs & Associates 2nd edition 2014) describes in great detail what happened next with its powerful and evocative statements by Yolngu artists and leaders and its extraordinary collection of bark paintings (now in the permanent collection of the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney).

The catalogue describes what happened as a result of Waka’s discovery:

“This outrageous incident began the monumental story of the production of 80 bark paintings – set against the backdrop of a national legal and political maelstrom as Indigenous sea rights came to the fore. Through all this the events set in train by Waka’s discovery continued as inexorably as the incoming tide.”

“The Yolngu, through non-secular painting, are asking other people to listen to their meanings of existence, philosophies and rigid rules regarding kin- all of which are entirely connected to the land and so to the sea.”

Saltwater will tell you what happened next ………….

As the sun sets on Blue Mud Bay