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Paintings GalleryYirrkala Community, Arnhem Land


Yirrkala is a settlement on the Gove Peninsula at the northeast tip of Arnhem Land, which began as a Methodist mission in 1935. Friction between the many groups drawn together in close association at the station was an early problem. In the 1970s, several groups established outstation communities on their own lands. By the 1980s, about 10 outstations had been formed, with a total population of 200 or more.

In the mid-1970s, the church passed control of the mission to a town council of representatives from the principal clans.

Many languages are spoken in Yirrkala: the most common ones are Gumatj, Rirratjingu and Djambarrpuyngu.

Among town amenities is a health centre, at which clinics are conducted by several Aboriginal health workers. Other facilities include a general store and take-away, women's centre, childcare centre and Landcare centre.

The primary school adopted an innovative bilingual program and produced its own literacy materials. The Yirrkala Homelands School services approximately 270 students living in small remote communities on the north-eastern tip of Arnhem Land.

An agency important in providing work for local people is Yirrkala Business Enterprises Pty Ltd. During the 1960s and 70s, the Yirrkala community inspired Aboriginal people all around Australia.

The Northeast Arnhem Land region has a rich tradition of bark painting and it was largely through the work of Yirrkala artists, whose works were marketed in southern capitals from the early 1960s, that the wider world became aware of it. Yirrkala is still a key centre for maintaining the tradition of painting on bark.

The Buku-Larrnggay Mulka art centre at Yirrkala was established in 1975 and artists working with the centre have won many major awards, including five in a row in the late 1990s for bark painting. The elders and artists who control the centre have a long history of using their art to influence and challenge the colonial mainstream forces which have sought to marginalise them. Yirrkala was perhaps the earliest community to embrace the production of art for these reasons.

Yirrkala artists have maintained a strong discipline in their art - using only natural materials and following ancestral designs rigorously. For example, the works produced at the centre are still painted with natural earth pigments on sheets of bark prepared using traditional methods (see the page on bark painting).

From the Bark Petition in 1962-3 up to the Saltwater collection in 1998-2001, the art has been shared with outsiders to help them understand the special connection between Yolngu and their country. The Saltwater collection is a superb collection of works purchased by National Maritime Museum in Sydney, and well documented in the beautiful book "Saltwater: Yirrkala Bark Paintings of Sea Country" available from our online shop.

These paintings are an excellent complement to the works by other leading Yolngu artists Peter Datjin, Charlie Matjuwi and Mickey Durrng on our Web site. In our Resources section there is an essay by Howard Morphy about the symbolism in the work of Yolngu artists. Howard Morphy has also written an excellent essay "Saltwater Country: Paintings from Yirrkala" (Art and Australia, Vol 38, No3, 2001).


Source: Dr Ian Howie-Willis from the Encyclopedia of Aboriginal Australia


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