Ishmael Marika: Knowledge flows

My name is Ishmael Marika, I am a young artist and director at the Mulka Project. My work is filming, directing, editing and producing, working in the Yirrkala community and surrounds in Eastern Arnhem Land.

"My grandfathers went through the struggles and the hard times fighting for the land and fighting for the people"

I have done lots of editing here at the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre, the art centre in Yirrkala in which the Mulka Project is located. I have made documentaries about land rights and ceremonies, filmed sporting events and I made a ten minute drama called Galka.

Galka is a sorcerer or black magic which kills some people. The reason I made this film was because I was sitting down with my family at a campsite and my friends and family were telling me some scary stories that happened in the past. I went to sleep that night and had a nightmare and did not sleep properly. The next day I came to work and thought about writing a script. So I wrote the script about Galka who kills other people. I found the locations and figured out the camera shots, how wide I could shoot and then looked around for the actors. I found some actors but it was really hard sometimes, the mother and the father and the brothers I found easily. I found the Galka and I had to look for him around the community but I didn't find him there because he was at the pub so I had to pull him out from there and put white clay on his body and direct him to act, which he did perfectly.

The film that I made is called Galka and is a warning for other people, other kids so that they make sure that they do not wander off by themselves into the bushes. To make sure they will be safe and stay with the family and friends when they go hunting to make sure they come back safely.

I have three videos at the MCA in Primavera 2014, an exhibition of young artists from all around the country. My work at the exhibition includes the Galka film. 

The second work, I made a video about the land owners, about how the land owners feel about the miners blasting the ground and destroying the trees and stuff. I came up with the documentary called Wanga Watangumirri Dharuk which is the land owners speech.

The third work is My grandfather passing on a message which is my grandfather passing a message to my fathers when they were kids. My grandfather was the father of the land rights case here in Yirrkala. He did not know that the computer was coming so they had a recording tape in the 1950’s early 60’s and 70s. So I recorded him from the tape and he talks about our place, how the ancestors travelled from east to west; giving birth, naming places, giving the languages, song lines and skin names and so on. My grandfather also talks about why my fathers should not fight amongst each other, look after one another, do not fight for the leadership, one voice and one mind. Look after each other because it is a new world this time and a new law and a new government.

My grandfather saw what was coming for my fathers and to us. He passed the message to my fathers to beware and look after each other. Right now they are arguing over leadership, who has more power, are getting jealous of each other. This is why I made this film. We should listen to my grandfather.

So when I listened to the tape of my grandfather and put it on the computer and I came up with the idea, I can do this, I am going to turn this audio into something else. Working on the audio I had to add subtitles for people who do not speak the Yolngu language or do not understand when my grandfather is talking so that they can read what he is saying.

I am extremely proud of my grandfathers as they made the pathways for us. They went through the struggles and the hard times fighting for the land and fighting for the people.

Ishmael was educated in the homeland school at Yilpara (Baniyala), Blue Mud Bay, and then in Yirrkala, Healesville (Victoria) and Darwin.

I started film work, I was at St John’s College in Darwin doing my year 11 studies and came back to Yirrkala during the holidays before my year 12 studies began. I came back for the Garma Festival and I was watching the Bunggul, a dance (performance), and I was standing there watching the dance and the project manager from the Mulka Project was running around with a camera and he saw me standing there. He said to me can you help me? I said help you with what?  He said I am one man short, can you help me with the camera work. I said I could not because I do not know how to use a camera. So he said I can show you so he gave me a camera and I filmed the dance. At the end of the day I gave my camera back and flew back to Darwin and St John’s College. Then I came back for another time to Yirrkala during the holidays and the Mulka Project manager saw me and said you have done a good job, could you work for me?

I said give me some time and let me finish off my year 12. I came back to Yirrkala and worked as a ranger for five months and then I moved to film work at the Mulka Project.

I thought about the film work because I worked as a ranger for five months, my father was a manager of the rangers. I liked the job, looking after the land and the sea, dealing with the feral animals and the weeds. I liked that job but I wanted to find another job to build my skills and change my skill level. Then it came to me that as a ranger I was looking after the land and the sea and feral animals and plants but I might move to the Mulka Project which was looking after the culture and the languages so I moved here and got this job because the Mulka Project stands for the languages, culture and some sacred stuff, so I am looking after these things for future generations.

We worry that the languages will fade away or maybe our culture or our skin will fade away. Most of the people will end up talking another language. Holding culture and holding languages, holding everything is really important for us because we have to keep the culture strong for the next generation and document everything, document everything that we have here from past to present. Document the culture and how it has changed from the past to the present. And maybe in the future it is going to be different to the past and present. If you look at the documents we have it is really important for the future generations, for the young ones so they can keep this culture strong and keep it going.

I wanted to learn and meet different people from different areas and make friends in different places. After I finished school I have also done a lot of travelling with my work. In my first year in this job I attended the Biennale of Sydney in 2010 (17th), in 2011 I went to America and worked for nine days and came back and went to the Garma Festival and showed my work and the President from East Timor, José Ramos-Horta, was watching the film and then he came over to see me and talked to me. He said I would like to invite you to East Timor to check out my culture and teach the young people there.

In 2012 I travelled around Australia and last year I went to London for six days to visit my grandfather’s paintings there. He made paintings, Larrakitj (memorial pole), about the Barama creation story, the stick on the ground. Then on the other side of the pole he put Captain Cook putting his flag on Australia. Prince William was interested in the work and the British Museum had a little bit of information about the paintings so I had to go there and check it out and look at the other paintings in their collection and then help them out with information about the works. That was all in just four years of my work here.

NOTE: Ishmael’s grandfather referred to in this blog was the third oldest brother of the famous generation of Marika leaders and was an important ceremonial and community leader at Yirrkala from the 1970s until his death in 1983. He was an artist who was most active after 1960. His involvement in the landmark case Milirrpum and Others v. Nabalco Pty Ltd and the Commonwealth of Australia, 1971, that finally lead to the Australian Federal Government's Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976, was crucial. In doing so his leadership helped to create significant social change in Australia.

You can learn more about the Mulka Project, Ishmael's exhibition at the MCA and the Marika family.