Knowledge, painting and country

WARNING: This blog contains the names and images of Aboriginal Australians now deceased. I want to take you back for a moment. ANDREA and I first travelled to Australia on Christmas Eve 1974. The jet sped down the runway at Paya Lebar Airport in Singapore and lifted into the heavy night air. As our plane wobbled its way towards the North of Australia, Cyclone Tracy was about to destroy Darwin.

'Some of the best days you will ever spend in your life will be walking country with Aboriginal people in Australia'

Anthony Murphy

Somewhere down below in the darkness that night so long ago, Kunwinjku artist and ceremony man, KALARRIYA ‘JIMMY’ NAMARNYILK, sheltered in the bathroom of the Darwin leprosarium. Somehow that ‘strong wind’ had an impact on us all. For ANDREA and I it was the beginning of a lifetime of collecting Aboriginal art and a deep regard for Australian Aboriginal ideas and knowledge. JIMMY and ANDREA and I all made it that Christmas Eve, now long ago, but that ‘strong wind’ will always bind us all together.

The latest of what seems like a lot of trips to Darwin in the last couple of years, relating to various projects we had in the Northern Territory of Australia, was in August of 2010 to coincide with the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair and the 27th Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award (NATSIAA). We made the trip to take our latest Arnhem Land films to Darwin and to do some shopping to add to our collection of Australian Aboriginal Art.

Early morning in Gunbalanya


As a collector of Aboriginal art you naturally live with the works that you have purchased. What this did to us is make us think about, and try to learn more about, the lives of the artists who created the compelling images hanging in our properties. After a while a strange thing happens, in a way these artists become part of the family, you think about them and you wonder what they are doing and how they are getting on.

In late 2009, when I spoke to ANTHONY MURPHY, then the Director of Injalak Arts and Crafts, high up on a rock ledge in the Stone Country in Arnhem Land, Anthony said this:

“I think there is a need for a lot of people in the wider community, the European (Balanda) white people to see or understand something that we may have lost and maybe there is a great attachment to. Something metaphysical, or something, the land, culture, a belief system, you know there is the term ‘dreaming’ and the art that is produced by these artists is some little way of us maybe getting a piece of that”.


The Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair is a relatively new event conceived in 2007 and now attracting 38 Aboriginal art centres to exhibit there. This year’s event was held in the Darwin Convention Centre. For us it is a time to catch up with old friends and to look at the diversity of art being produced by Aboriginal artists across Australia. The scope is immense.

We attended the preview of NATSIAA at the Museum and Art Gallery Northern Territory and spent the evening listening to the opening concert and watching the presentations. The Museum is situated at Fannie Bay and overlooks Darwin Harbour. Although it was winter in Australia, the tropical evening was warm.

The pre-selection panel for this year’s award included Julie Gough (Creative cowboy films We walked on a carpet of stars). Julie was also an award co-judge for the 2004 award.

The overall winner of NATSIAA, JIMMY DONEGAN, whose homeland was Ngatuntjarra Bore in Western Australia and who now lives in Kalka, South Australia, produced a painting called Papa Tjukurpa and Pukara, a painting of two stories about his father’s and grandfather’s country. The Kalka community is situated close to the  Surveyor-General’s Corner, the intersection of the South Australia, Western Australia and Northern Territory borders.

A number of Injalak arts centre artists in the Creative cowboy film The brush sings had been selected for the award exhibition, they include GLEN NAMUNDJA, GABRIEL MARALNGURRA, CLARA NGANJMIRRA and KALARRIYA ‘JIMMY’ NAMARNYILK. GLEN, his second Telstra award, won the Bark Painting Award for a work called Kunabibbe Ceremony at Manmoyi.

I have spent a lot of time watching GLEN paint his highly detailed, complex and meticulous works. What is remarkable is how works of such complexity are created in the way that they are, it is almost as if GLEN has pictured every line in every place before the painting is started.

Glen Namundja

GLEN’s winning bark painting is about a dreaming at the ceremony ground near Manmoyi outstation. As the men conducted a Kunabibbe Ceremony (strictly mens’ business) two women entered the ceremony grounds. The rainbow serpent, Ngalyod, saw the women and in his anger killed them both, the dead women are depicted in GLEN’s painting within the coil of the serpent’s body. The men were angry that Ngalyod had killed the women and speared the serpent. The bodies of women and serpent are now part of the landscape. A highly complex story to tell in one painting.

Now we go back to country and to the Creative cowboy film Knowledge, painting and country as we visit traditional owner, Mikginj Valley, JACOB NAYINGGUL.

PETER HYLANDS: You probably know this land like the back of your hand?


PETER HYLANDS: So you have spent many times…..

JACOB NAYINGGUL: Yes, since I could walk. I understood from my father and grandfather, that is where they started off singing all these areas into my head, and I never forgot.

PETER HYLANDS: Country is so important isn’t it? Can you describe some of your feelings about your country?

JACOB NAYINGGUL: Yes, I feel a responsibility all over my territory and my traditional land. Not only because of me being a traditional owner, but of my father and grandfather who was here before me, here before me and another one before me. It went for many years… The feeling I have is I love my country…