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.
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
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
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
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.
Sacred Djirrididi design
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
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.
and body designs
There are three levels of
- Garma: public ceremony, including women
- 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
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'
"These designs are the power of the
land. The sun, the water, creation,.for everything'.
Brenda and Steve Westley, Art Coordinators Elcho Island Art and
Craft With special thanks to Richard Gandhuwuy Garrawurra