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
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
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
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).