The flight from Maningrida to Milingimbi takes 11 minutes. Our small Embraer aircraft flies low crossing the northern Arnhem Land coast, leaving Australia’s mainland, with its meandering river systems with twisting mangroves lining each bank.

"Art, as always plays an important and central role in keeping culture"

The patterns of the earth all unfolding below, turquoise blue sea, brown rivers green banked, the glaring white of the occasional salt pan, mud flats in the dry season with their distinctive patterns and colours, all in contrast to bright sea and mangroves.

We fly out across a small strip of the Arafura Sea and then down again onto the Milingimbi (Yurrwi) airstrip. The Arafura Sea is relatively shallow as it is extant across part of the Sahul Shelf, which during the last ice age (glacial maximum), formed the land bridge between Australia and New Guinea, assisting human migration across the region.

Leaving the mainland

Milingimbi is an Aboriginal settlement on the island of the same name, and in the local language known as Yurrwi.  The island belongs to a group of islands known as the Crocodile Islands, these islands are the home of the greatest reptile on earth, the Saltwater Crocodile. It is a ten-minute drive from the airstrip to the township.

Milingimbi's health clinic

In the centre of Milingimbi there is a store, a health clinic, council offices, a church, a men’s shed, a small post office and banking facilities and the Milingimbi Art Centre. Along the Milingimbi township shoreline grow a number of magnificent Tamarind Trees, that legend has it, were planted by the Makkasans, trepangers from Sulawessi, in the 1800s.

Council offices and the Milingimbi Art Centre building in background

A few minutes walk from the centre of town are the community education centre and recreational hall and a small and unmanned police station. The houses line the streets as they would a small settlement on Australia’s mainland. Milingimbi’s dogs lie in the sunshine, one eye on passers by.

The barge arrives with supplies

Milingimbi, home to around 1200 Aboriginal people, will be our home for two weeks. The township of Milingimbi has various camps, along the coast there are Top Camp and Bottom Camp. Inland from the centre of Milingimbi there are Garden Camp, Army Camp and Bush Camp. Bodiya is a small out station about ten minutes out of town. This is where our Milingimbi Art Centre friends Raymond and Joyce live.

Milingimbi Art Centre's Joyce Naliyabu

Art, as always plays an important and central role in keeping culture. In Milingimbi the art centre building faces the Arufura Sea, a dirt road and beach separate the building and the sea.

To the right of the art centre building, adjacent to the building and the seashore and obscuring much of the sea view, are six enormous containers left on the shoreline by contractors more than one year ago. The locals tell us that the containers are full of building waste including dangerous asbestos waste now contained. Buried by bureaucracy, asbestos waste policy and remediation for remote Indigenous communities in Australia is a disgrace and it is not he first time we have seen these horrible double standards in action.

Inside the Milingimbi Art Centre Building there is a collection of artworks created by the centre’s artists from Milingimbi and it's homelands of Bodiya, Rapuma, Murrungga, Dhipirri, Gamarr Guyurra and Langarra.

Here there are bark paintings, weaving, baskets and fish traps, Yidaki, painting on canvas and carving created by the regions artists. Joe Dhamanydji, the Milingimbi Art Centre chairman, explains that Milingimbi is the home to the Gorryindi, Malarra, Gamalangya, Gupapuyngu, Djambarrpingu, Liyagalawurri, Liyagawumirr, Warramirri, Djapu, Wangurri, Birrikili, Gupapuyngu, Datawuy, Wagilak, Gamal, Warra Warra, Bindarrarr, Ngurruwulu, Walamangu, Burarra ga (and) Bindarr Walamangu.

Art materials are collected from various locations in the region and sometimes involve travelling by boat or longer journeys on foot through the mangroves. In a separate blog artists and cultural advisor Raymond Bulambula takes us on an expedition to collected ochres (yellow and red) from a beach nearby.

Raymond Bulambula

So we have discovered that in Milingimbi yellow and red ochres can be collected from the beach. The black colour used in paintings is from the Dhangi tree and the white clay is collected from the island of Gananagarr. Raymond’s responsibilities include advising the local artists about the correct colour palate for their work. Milkwood is collected for carving sculptural works, bark is collected in the wet season and prepared, in a complex process, as the canvas for the island’s now famous bark paintings. Hollow logs are gathered to make Yidaki (Yolngu for didgeridoo) which are also decorated using ochres and in traditional patterns. All these things are part of the rhythm of life in this community as they have been for generations.

Raymond collecting yellow and red  ochres

Traditions remain strong in Milingimbi and the law tells each artist what they are allowed to paint, that is, what stories they can describe, what patterns they can use and what totems they can represent in their work. In that way, and as traditions have it, everyone has a story and a style that can be handed down to family members. What of course is remarkable here is that these Arnhem Land traditions have evolved in direct line over some 50,000 years of knowledge and heritage.

The art of weaving in the region is strong and the women gather and process pandanus and stringy bark (bush string) and the plants and berries that provide the dyes for their baskets and mats. Baskets have been an important part of the material culture of Aboriginal people all around Australia and have been so for thousands of years as they are used for hunting and gathering along sea shore and in the bush and also have an important role in the traditional stories of Aboriginal people. The women also make fish traps from collected plant materials. In a separate blog we visit the weavers of Langarra.

In the old days the weavers tell us that babies were carried in paperbark baskets and paperbark was also used for making drinking vessels and containers to hold water.

Today many of these beautiful objects find a home in art collections or galleries and museums around the world. Here in Milingimbi, the weavers like to keep at least some of their baskets which are then used, as they have always been, for gathering food and other domestic tasks.

Milingimbi Art Centre Chairman Joe Dhamanydji

Our warm thanks to the Milingimbi Art Centre, its artists, Chairman Joe Dhamanydji and mananger Zanette Kahler. Here is the link to the Milingimbi Art Centre Facebook page.

SUBJECT: Aboriginal art and culture / Yolngu / Arnhem Land / Painting / Weaving

Notes on this blog


East Arnhem Regional Council talks about the region’s Indigenous culture: “Yolngu means ‘Aboriginal person’ in the languages of northern Arnhem Land. Yolngu is also the name given to a group of intermarrying clans who live in Milingimbi, Yirrkala and Galiwin’ku and speak a dialect of one of a number of closely related languages. Yolngu people identify themselves first by their family group, then by their clan and language, and finally by their family’s country.

The Yolngu landowning groups are divided into two moieties, Yirritja and Dhuwa. People belong to the moiety of their father and marry someone of their mother’s moiety”.

Saltwater Crocodile Crocodylus porosus

The Saltwater Crocodile is the largest living reptile, males can reach a maximum weight of around 2,000 kilos and maximum length of just under seven metres. The Saltwater Crocodile has an extensive range from the eastern coast of India, throughout much of Southeast Asia, stretching south to northern Australia and including the Torres Strait, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea to the east.

Declining in population in many regions and now extinct on the East African coast, Saltwater Crocodile numbers have increased in Australian waters in the last 25 years in line with the protection of the species which was very nearly lost to hunting. We see far less evidence of Saltwater Crocodiles in Indonesian waters so it appears populations have declined there. These are extremely dangerous animals and should therefore be treated with great respect and caution.

Northern Territory legend, in which the Saltwater Crocodile plays an important role, has it that the most likely type of person to be eaten by a croc is a white male after a few beers swimming with his dog. I guess sometimes you can be just too disconnected from your environment.