The title of this collection of paintings by father
and son Charlie Matjuwi Burarrwanga and Peter Datjin Burarrwanga has
a strong sound and an authoritative meaning. Gumatj is one of the largest
clan groups of the Yolngu people from north east Arnhem Land. Rom is
law, the ancestral law of the Yolngu people. Rom provides the moral
basis for human existence; it also lays down the rights that people
have in property, land, sacred objects, and designs. Art is part of
this ancestral inheritance, intimately connected to the land.
Yolngu art is based on inherited designs passed on
by the ancestral beings who created the land. The paintings and sculptures
tell of the epic events of the ancestral past. They record the great
fire spread by the crocodile Baru and quail Djirrikitj that burnt through
the ceremonial ground near Caledon Bay and continues to burn today under
the sacred waters of Mata Mata.
However the designs are more than representations of mythic events -
they are part of the events themselves. They were the designs that the
ancestral beings painted on their bodies, that they wore in ceremonies
and passed on to the foundation ancestors of the clans who succeeded
them in the country they created. The form of some of the designs arose
out of the creative acts of the ancestors - patterns made in folded
sheets of paperbark, or burnt into the surface of a sacred clap stick
(bilma). Paintings are manifestations of the ancestral forces inherent
in the land, and embodied in the people themselves. As Matjuwi says
of his paintings 'this is me'.
In Yolngu paintings nature is transformed into art
through complex imagery. In Gumatj law the natural history of the crocodile,
and its power, are linked to fire and this connection is evoked in Gumatj
art through figurative and aesthetic form. The crocodile brought fire
to Biranybirany on Caledon Bay, and from there fire blazed across the
country just as the crocodile rushes to seize its victim. Fire is represented
in the striking diamond designs that characterise Gumatj paintings.
The red tongues of flame that shoot out, the blackened charcoal of the
burnt wood, the showers of sparks, and clouds of smoke are evoked by
the painted and crosshatched diamonds. Fire is an analogue for the fierceness
of the crocodile, and it is easy to imagine the fear generated by both
through the searing sharpness of the clan design. There is a symbolic
symbiosis between the Gumatj and the crocodile. It is only in preparation
for conflict that the Gumatj will kill and eat crocodile, on other occasions
they are its guardians.
Individual paintings represent different ancestral
events associated with the journey of the crocodile ancestor and the
spread of fire. The crocodile was involved in a great fight with a stingray
in the waters of Caledon Bay. The crocodile had seized and eaten a child
of the stingray, and in anger the stingray lashed out with his tail,
striking the crocodile in his back leg and wounding him severely. The
fight between the crocodile and the stingray has been incorporated in
Yolngu law as the basis for a Gumatj Makarrara, or peace-making ceremony.
A person accused of responsibility for a person's death has to face
an ordeal where he has to avoid spears that are thrown at him just as
the crocodile had to twist and turn to escape the flailing tail of the
ancestral stingray. At the conclusion to the ceremony the accused may
be speared in the leg, both as punishment and as an end to hostilities.
But crocodile and fire are part of a larger process.
The paintings contain images of birth and growth as well as of death
and fear, and provide moments for quiet reflection. The female crocodile
builds a nest in the estuarine swamps, and buries her eggs as the wet
season floodwaters reach their height. She guards them until the young
are hatched. The crocodile as mother, with her young emerging from a
nest beneath the ground, is a complement to the fierceness of the crocodile
as a fighting animal. This is taken up in song and dance as an image
of burial and rebirth. And the fire, once it has passed, creates a time
of silence and peace before the young shoots of grass bring the game
back to the land. The passing fire leaves a thin pall of smoke that
hangs over the ground. In Yolngu song poetry the smoke becomes part
of an analogic chain: it is reminiscent of early morning mist, and reminds
people of the webs of St Andrew's Cross spiders in the light of dawn.
Songs that focus on these symbolic connections are
sung at the conclusion of ceremonies, as a sign of closure and a reflection
on the events that have occurred. Mist is a sign of closure, but is
also the beginning of a new day. The spider's web is a battleground,
a skein of connection, a covering. Smoke, cloud, spider, and mist are
the final refrains in mortuary rituals. The intense activity of the
ceremony is over, the catharsis of the ritual action has taken effect,
and it is a time for reflection.
Through metaphor, Yolngu rituals orchestrate the emotions
evoked by the natural world to give meaning to their ceremonial life.
Metaphors are liberated in ceremony through song and dance, and through
the paintings and ceremonial objects that are used. And the metaphors
exist in a condensed form in the paintings themselves. In Peter Datjin's
painting Sacred Gumatj Fire (see image below), the emphasis is
on the burning of the land, the explosive nature of fire. It is almost
possible to feel the heat In Peter Datjin's paintings of the ganiny,
the ceremonial digging stick, used to prise paperbark from the trees,
the emphasis shifts, though it is still possible to sense the energy
of the fire.
The crosshatched and zigzag patterns radiating from
the ganiny evoke the pattern of the spider's web; 'After the fire
you see smoke, like fog in the morning. Yolngu get up in the morning
and see the fine smoke, it is like a spider's web, that's when we look
for wallaby there ' In other paintings the background pattern refers
to the crosscutting currents in the estuary mouth or the ebb and flow
of the tide along a particular stretch of the coast. Charlie Matjuwi
and Peter Datjin show an exquisite and subtle mastery of Yolngu aesthetic
forms in their representation of Gumatj land and law.
The aesthetic effect of Yolngu painting is to create,
through the process of rarrk crosshatching, an image of shimmering
brilliance that is simultaneously one of movement and clarity. This
brilliance captures the power of the ancestral beings imminent in the
land, transferring it to the painted surface. The specific sources of
the power are refereed to in song and the intoning of sacred names:
the glint in the crocodile's eye, the sharpness of its teeth, the scintillating
rays of the sun on the water and sand, the explosive force of the fire,
and the glistening of wild honey.
The dynamism of Yolngu art resides partly in this
aesthetic exploration of metaphor, this teasing out of the meaning
of designs by connecting them with song, dance, people and land. Dynamism
also arises out of the interplay of different systems of representation.
The geometric art condenses its meaning in multivalent forms: the
diamond design can be fire, or honey, or floodwaters, can be connected
to the paperbark forest or the crocodile's jaws. The figurative art
fixes for a moment the ancestral action to represent a particular
event -the stingray striking the crocodile, the cockatoos in the paperbark
tree. Each painting creates the ancestral being anew, fitting the
form to a particular surface - body, bark, or hollow log coffin -relating
it to a particular purpose - circumcision. mortuary ritual, or exhibition
- or locating it in a particular place. Yolngu paintings are infinite
variations on a series of complex themes that allow for a depth of
aesthetic effect and a density of semantic reference.
The divisions within paintings often designate particular
areas of land or geographical features - rivers flowing into the bays,
islands offshore, and rocks beneath the surface of the sea. Shared
designs allude to the relationships between groups. As Peter Datjin
says of the Gumatj diamond design: 'This is the tongue of the fire,
that is still smoking from the fire. That tongue goes all the way
to Madarrpa country, to Gumatj country, to Warramiri country and Birkilli
Gupapuyngu country'. The paintings record a history of connections
between different clan groups that is relived in ceremonies, and reflected
in the sharing of similar though distinct designs.
Yolngu ceremonies are complex events - operatic in
scale - in which song, dance, sculpture, and painting are brought
together for a purpose: to initiate the young, to establish new relationships
or to guide a dead person's soul to its ancestral place. In ceremonies
people show their sacred law to demonstrate their knowledge of it,
and to assert their rights over it but also as an act of generosity
to share with others the power and splendour of their inheritance.
All Yolngu ceremonies are acts of reconciliation, of agreement, of
Yolngu art was always about establishing connections
- between people and the land, people and the spiritual dimension,
and between neighbouring and distant groups. Yolngu have a history
of extending the boundaries of relevance of their art - they made
it part of their relationship with Macassan traders who visited Eastern
Arnhem land for hundreds of years before European colonisation subsequently
they made it part of their dialogue with missionaries and politicians.
The use of art to communicate with outsiders flows directly from the
important role it has within Yolngu society: it is a way of ensuring
that Yolngu values are relevant to the changing world in which people
live, a way of ensuring that their 'voice' is heard. The same painting
that appears on the walls of an exhibition in an art gallery can be
painted on the chest of a boy at his initiation or on a hollow log
coffin in a mortuary ritual. The right to produce designs is inherited
on the basis of kinship. The designs are part of the process of transmission
of Gumatj law from the ancestral past to the present, a continuing
process in which the ancestral presence in the land is passed on through
succeeding generations of clan members.
Professor Howard Morphy, Director of the Centre for Cross
Cultural Research, Australian National University