| By Jennifer Isaacs, an eminent Australian writer
and curator who has worked with Yolgnu people since 1971
of north east Arnhem Land are amongst the most powerful
and culturally committed of Australia's indigenous nations.
For probably four hundred years before white men appeared
on their shores, they hosted visiting fishing fleets from
Indonesia who made temporary villages and traded cloth,
metal and foods whilst gathering and processing beche-de-mer,
or trepang, the prized sea slug which is a delicacy in
Chinese cuisine. The many clans have maintained their
hunting and fishing economy, whilst carrying on their
rich ceremonial lives to the present day.
Island is an elongated paradise, 50 km long, 6 km
wide, just off Australia's mainland, 500 km east of the nearest
city, Darwin. It is part of the area known as Arnhem Land, set
aside as Aboriginal land since 1931 and cannot be visited without
an official permit.
To the rest of Australia it has therefore remained
remote, unknown. Elcho Island, and its main community Galiwin'ku
is the home of 1500 Yolngu from several different language groups.
Most have relocated from the mainland and are close kin to clans
centred at Yirrkala and surrounding coastal outstations or 'homelands'
centres. These homelands are small villages which connect to
the main centres for supplies and administrative arrangements.
Yolngu belief system
Yolngu came into lasting contact with a belief
system which differed from their own when the Methodist missions
were established in 1934 at Yirrkala,
then on Elcho Island in 1942. As with the Macassans from the
Macassan Straits in Indonesia, whose culture had influenced
Yolngu for centuries before, their response was adaptive and
creative. The Bible seemed to add to or expand upon basic Yolngu
tenets of law, so it was incorporated into Yolngu thought. The
Holy Ghost and various angels have been known to appear at ceremonies
at Elcho Island, and Yolngu have become office bearers in the
Church whilst maintaining their beliefs about the religion of
the land. Rather than existing side by side, the two religions
have become one, and in turn have released a flowering of Yolngu
creative expression over decades. Elcho Island thus differs
from the stricter and less syncretic ceremonial codes observed
on the mainland.
Aboriginal religion centres on the creative
power and laws of what has been termed Wongarr or the Dreaming.
This is spoken of as the Creation era when the earth and all
the animals and plants were formed, but it exists still. The
Creation Ancestors were super powerful humans who travelled
over wide tracts of country. As they moved they made the 'tribes'
and languages, gave sacred objects to their descendants, and
made ceremonies in which, by painting their bodies, they 'revealed'
the designs which held the power for each tract of land. These
ceremonies are enacted to the present day, during the initiation
of young boys, at funerals and at other more 'secret' occasions.
Elaborate cross-hatched designs appropriate to the wearer are
painted with earth ochres over the faces and chests of the dancers.
The dazzling patterns moving and flashing in dance imbue the
ceremonial actors with the power of the Spirit Ancestors.
Although these designs are still primarily
revealed in ceremony, they are also occasionally painted on
bark, and more recently on paper. Increasingly such paintings
are used to reinforce Aboriginal claims to land and to respect
by the wider world community. Today's Yolngu clan leaders hold
themselves proudly as the direct descendants of the Creation
Ancestors and therefore by 'divine' decree the protectors of
the sacred sites of 'power of the land'.
In Australian court cases, Yolngu paintings
have been admitted as visual documents, scripts, or land title
deeds. The patterns, symbols and designs are the Yolngu written
language, and the sacred bark paintings are their Book of Genesis.
Yet they are also abstract symbolic paintings which are highly
contemporary and reveal individual skill, inventiveness and
Clans, moieties and ceremony
Socially, Yolngu clans are divided into two
interrelated and interdependent groups or moieties,
termed Yirritja and Dhuwa, each of which owns quite distinct
lands and traces descent from different Original Creative Ancestors.
Barama and Laintjang, created the Yirritja
people and The Djankawu, a man and his two sisters, created
the Dhuwa. All living things are divided into these two moieties
hence the right to paint designs or creation stories relating
to particular species falls to the correct kinsfolk from that
tract of country.
Detailed episodes along the pathway or 'songline'
of the Creation Ancestors recount mythical sagas - the creation
of fire, of honey, and of waterholes, rocks and trees. A major
Yirritja Creation story is that of Baru the Crocodile who is
associated with fire. Yirritja fire designs are compositions
of diamonds - symbolic of the cracked pat-terns burned into
crocodile skin in the Creation Era. The interaction of 'dangerous'
creatures like crocodiles and stingrays, each of which can inflict
pain, is also a metaphor for the pain involved in initiation
and 'men's business' or 'payback'.
The most climactic ceremonies occur at funerals,
the time for singing and dancing the spirit to rest. The body
or coffin is elaborately painted, and at the appearance of the
first star, the Morning Star, a beautiful slow poetic dance
and song cycle are performed at which sacred morning star poles
and feathered strings are slowly let out across lines of dancers
to represent the journey of the star across the sky. This is
also the pathway the spirit of the deceased must follow to its
The journey of human beings from birth through
life to death is paralleled in nature's cycles. It is represented
by the passage of the seasons, of which there are six, each
named according to coming and going of winds and rain, and also
by the metamorphosis of insects, for example of butterflies
or beetles from eggs to larvae to adults.
Painting by Yolngu artists
Paintings by John Mandjuwi detail the emergence
of 'Wurrkadi' larvae, and their consumption of decaying matter.
Wurrkadi designs are the clan patterns of the Galpu Dhuwa people.
In representing the changing form of a living creature which
in turn is responsible for the recycling of plant species into
the earth from whence they both come, the painting is a profound
Painting by John Mandjuwi 'Sacred Digging Sticks'
Mickey Durrng's 'Sacred Djirrididi Design'
in ochre on paper mark a significant departure in recent
years. These minimalist statements in stripes are the
elegantly refined marks signifying both the painting stages
of funeral ceremonies and the seasons of nature. Until
recently Yolngu made bark coffins termed dhupan
which housed the bones of the dead. The outer surface
of these were covered in such clan designs.
These works by Durrng, profound in their spare
simplicity, mark the sequential stages of both bone-coffin paintings
and the designs used on ceremonial participants during the burial.
"We start in the dry season, paint one side. Then, after,
paint two sides. Then put one stripe across, then full. When
first rains come, djirrididi, it's finish. Women and children
Yolngu aesthetics are directly related to the
cross-hatched patterning or 'rarrk'. These designs, painted
closely by artists who sit beside the bark laid flat on the
ground, demand quiet peace for their execution to be successful.
The painters use long, human hair brushes consisting of only
a few strands. These, loaded with ochre, are laid on the bark
or paper and drawn away from the body to make the long fine
lines of the cross-hatched clan patterns. With the addition
of a small change in colour, over different layers or sequences
of lines, great variation is possible. Gifted artists can achieve
a shimmering effect, much like an aura or halo, and this effect
is apparent in the vibrating work by Peter Datjin. Such resonating
paintings are spoken of as having 'power': "The colours hold
the power of the land. The stripes are the power".
'Reading' Yolngu paintings thus can offer
great rewards. From the initial attraction of the beautiful
and meticulous patterns, through the simplified 'story', to
the deeper layers of meaning Yolngu art offers truths of life
At first the painting of the Macassan sailing
vessel or prau by Charlie Matjuwi may seem a figurative anomaly
in the company of Yolngu sacred religious art. Yet again, this
Painting by Charlie Matjuwi 'Macassan'
Macassan places are well remembered in family
oral history and recently a number of Yolngu from Elcho Island
made a ceremonial visit to the islands of Indonesia to exchange
dance and memories and to seek relatives - descendants from
ancestors who had worked on the praus and married into Ujang
Pandung community. The designs of the prau with sail and flag
has been featured in bark paintings since the first examples
were made for the missionaries in the 1930s. These are social
history as well as expressions of kinship and cultural connections.
The Macassans came each year in December and
went with the close of the wet season (February). As they went,
unfurling sails and raising flags on the prau mast, a commemoration,
a custom of saying goodbye entered Yolngu culture. Today Yolngu
dancers wave flags at funeral ceremonies, farewelling the deceased.
This painting therefore links yet again to themes of the cycle
of life Another layer, another metaphor and for the viewer a
new insight - a revelation.
Jennifer Isaacs is an eminent
Australian writer and curator who has worked with Yolgnu people
since assisting with their first land rights claim in 1971.
This article was written on the occasion of the visit of Elcho
Island artists and dancers to Chicago in 1999.