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Guest ArticlesMickey Durrng - Artist of East Arnhem Land


Mickey Durrng is an Aboriginal tribal leader, lawman and artist who leads a traditional life on Howard Island (immediately south west of Elcho island) in north east Arnhem Land. See notes about his life.

Elcho Map

His paintings depict sacred stories of the travels and creations of ancestral beings, Barratawuy and Dhalkanalwuy, known as The Two Dian'kawu Sisters. Durrng's paintings represent their journey at the time of creation (Wangarr) from the sun rising to the sun setting. Legend has it the Djan'kawu Sisters first travelled from Burralku, the land of the dead. Yolngu Aboriginal people from north east Arnhem Land say nobody knows just where it is but that it is similar to Heaven.

From Burralku the Sisters followed the morning star from the east to the west, stopping along their way to give birth to the Dhuwa moiety clans and giving them their Rom (laws, rituals and ceremonies). The two Djan' kawu Sisters also gave the clans sacred totems and objects (Madayin or Rangga) specific to the clan and areas of land they caretake.

Durrng's paintings evoke the Djan'kawu travels connected to Dhambala and Garriyak. Dhambala is an outstation on the southern end of Elcho Island and Garriyak is situated on the mainland of Australia, at the base of Point Napier, between Elcho Island and Howard Island. Durrng and Liyagawumirr clan members, also known as Buyuyukulkul-mirr people, own this land.

The Djan'kawu Sisters created sacred freshwater holes at Dhambala and Garriyak at the time of Wangarr. Durrng depicts these in his paintings. Red, yellow and white triangles radiate from the interconnected circles representing the Sacred Waterholes. The colours indicate muddy, dusty and clear water.

Sacred fresh waterholes 1999

The importance of Garriyak is that it is the place at the end of The Sisters' travel by canoe (Guluwurru) end where their sacred Rangga were stolen by men (and to this day it is men who predominate in sacred ceremonies and who hold the most sacred items). The Sisters then travelled by land to finish their journey of creation at Goulbourn Island.

Symbolism in Mickey Durrng's paintings

In Mickey's work colour can also indicate specific country. The one design can have different contexts.The paintings depicting Dhambala have a distinctive purple tinge, from a sacred hard-stone pigment, called Ratipa, representing the land of Elcho Island where Dhambala is situated. The same design with dark reddish-brown depicts the land at Garriyak.

The bold stripes in Durrng's work are called Djirrididi. Djirrididi can express many things: the azure kingfisher bird, the shining rays of the sunrise; the shadows of the sunset; the sacred body designs worn at men's Ngarra and men's business ceremonies; or the stripes on The Two Sisters' bodies.
Mickey Durrng design
Sacred Djirrididi design 1999

Women or the uninitiated would not generally see several of the designs shown in Mickey Durrng's paintings. The ceremonies are sacred and held secretly, away from public view and the stripes can vary in meaning depending on the context of use: "There is one waterhole and one dreaming, but many different stories" says Richard Ghanduwuy Garrawurra from Dhambala outstation.

For example, two goannas are classed as Durrng's "high power totems": Djanda, the freshwater goanna (from the swamp) is linked with many Djan'kawu stories and so too is Rrirripagnan, the saltwater goanna. They are both equal totems and drink from the same freshwater hole although they have different borders and responsibilities.

Yolngu ceremonies and body designs

There are three levels of governing ceremonies:

  • Garma: public ceremony, including women and children
  • Dhuni: men only - learning discipline and stories (age-grading) required
  • Ngarra: men only - a higher level of learning discipline and stories (age-grading) required - longer and more intense initiations.

Individual designs can also indicate the order or stage in a series of ceremonies. The first design, being the one stripe crossing over the chest area, represents the start of the ceremony or men's business.

The next stage is the two stripes crossing over in the centre "X" (see images above). This design can also be said to represent borders or landmarks of the Djan'kawu Sisters travels from the east to the west. as well as representing wild yams. The crossing over of two designs "X' can also represent Balngunda - a yarn vine or creeper that grows plentifully at Garriyak. The spreading of the vine can be said to symbolise the sunrays from which The Sisters came.

The final design, full horizontal Djirrididi striping across the chest, is when the men come back into the settlement and denotes the end of 'men's business' ceremonies. This coincides with the first rains of the wet season. The women and general public are now allowed to participate in and attend the ceremony.

In the time of Ngarra the power names, or Yindi Yaku, are called to attend. Traditionally Ngarra takes place in the months of the dry season and ends in time with the build-up rains.

In ceremony the travels of the Djan'kawu are captured and retraced within songs and dance rituals as well as the visual designs just described.

Durrng comments when asked about the song cycles used in his ceremonies for funerals and circumcision:

"First we sing for travel and fish, then we sing for our totem Wadu (catfish), than we sing for Gapu (water.) The Morning Star is next, than the bird Djirrididi. The last song is Welu (sun)"

When Djirrididi designs are used at the time of mortuary ceremonies, they can be painted on the hollow-log coffin (Dhupan) as well of on the deceased and participants' bodies.

Durrng says:

"These designs are the power of the land. The sun, the water, creation,.for everything'.

Text by Brenda and Steve Westley, Art Coordinators Elcho Island Art and Craft With special thanks to Richard Gandhuwuy Garrawurra

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