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Yalangbara: Art of the Djang’kawu: exhibition launch

Mawalan 2 Marika, Matilda House, Franchesca Cubillo, Dr Margo Neale and Andrew Sayers, 9 December 2010

ANDREW SAYERS: My name is Andrew Sayers and I am the Director of the National Museum of Australia and I would like to welcome you here to the Museum today. I would particularly like to acknowledge Matilda House who is going to welcome us to country. I would particularly like to welcome to the Museum all of you guests here today. You will notice that the proceedings are being video recorded for the Museum and for various other projects.

Now a particular welcome to members of the community from Yirrkala here today. I would like to welcome you all to the Museum: Langani Marika, female custodian of Yalangbara and the eldest daughter of Mawalan 1 Marika. I would like to welcome you, Mawalan 2 Marika, son of Wandjuk Marika and senior male custodian of Yalangbara. I would like also to welcome Yalumul, brother of Mawalan Marika, and nephew Neil Yunupingu; also Witiyana Marika, the son of Roy Marika; Waninya Marika OAM, the son of Milirrpum - welcome; and also the other Djang’kawu custodians from Elcho Island - Richard Gandawuy and Mark Bukulatjpi. I would like to welcome Jenny Home, Wandjuk Marika’s wife, and Mayatili Marika, daughter of Wandjuk and Jenny Marika.

This exhibition was the initiative of Banduk Marika and other members of her family to honour their most important sacred clan land at Yalangbara. I would like to acknowledge Banduk who is not able to be with us today as the driving force behind this exhibition. Yalangbara is considered to be the site of the first creation for the Yolngu in north-eastern Arnhem Land, especially for the clans of the Dhuwa moiety. Yalangbara is where the Djang’kawu first landed after their canoe voyage from the east and began their creative journey across the Miwatj, the north-eastern Arnhem Land region. The national heritage significance of this region was recognised by the Federal Government when it was listed on the national estate as a place of importance for all Australia.

This exhibition honours not only the place but also three generations of this famous family: Mawalan Marika and his brothers Mathaman, Milirrpum and Roy. These men fought for the recognition of their land rights when their land use was excised for mining in the 1960s and, as a result of their initial legal actions, the first land rights legislation was passed in the Northern Territory in 1976. Since this time the members of the family have continued to promote their rights in a spirit of reconciliation, especially with their two-way education programs that aim at promoting a cross-cultural understanding among the Yolngu and wider Australia. And that is the aim of the exhibition here today Yalangbara.

Now I would like to introduce Margo Neale, Senior Indigenous Adviser to the Director.

MARGO NEALE: Hello everybody and welcome to the Gallery of First Australians of the National Museum of Australia. I would like to acknowledge all the elders here, Indigenous and non-Indigenous elders, particularly the Marika family and all the other Yolngu from Yirrkala, and also a special local elder Jilpia Napaljarri Jones, who is very important to the Museum - of course I am in trouble now because I have started picking people out so excuse me if I don’t mention everybody.

I am very mindful that the National Museum of Australia stands on Aboriginal land and particularly on the land of Matilda House’s ancestors. As a member of the Indigenous community in Canberra for some 20 years, it gives me great pleasure to invite our Ngambri elder, Matilda House, to welcome you to country. Thanks, Matilda. [applause]

MATILDA HOUSE: I want to thank the National Museum of Australia in the first people’s gallery here for inviting me to do this welcome. It’s an honour and a privilege.

In the 1970s a wonderful man came down from Arnhem Land, and as his name has been mentioned here today it was Wandjuk. He was very hungry for some fish. So we went out and got him some fish and had a good feed of that. Then we went up to a place in Pearce, which is where I live, but further up was Charlie Perkins place. There we had a great time with Wandjuk. I had a photo taken, which I left on the table, with me, Wandjuk and of course Tammie Fraser. He was talking about the beautiful art and things that he was doing. So for the second time in the history of meeting the Marika family, I would like to say to you it was such a privilege and honour at that time to have Wandjuk down here to give talks and do business.

I wanted to say to the Marikas that I am a mother of four, grandmother of 12 and a great-grandmother of one and a half. I too want to acknowledge all elders that are here today. One of my very best mates is Jilpia. It’s the first time I have seen her for quite a while. Jilpia, I have to tell you that when I broke my foot I couldn’t go anywhere, so here I am today seeing you for the first time for a while.

I would like to say to Franchesca: thank you for being here and being part of everything that is happening in this wonderful Gallery of First Australians; to the guy that has taken the baton and is still running with it, Andrew [Sayers], thank you so much; and of course - I don’t know what she calls herself these days but she’s not a bad Sheila - to Margo; and to all the wonderful people that have come and supported this wonderful family that have come from so far it’s really a pleasure to be here to provide this welcome. As we all know, all around Australia for thousands of years welcomes have been here long before anything else that the Endeavour created. It’s a pleasure.

The name of this exhibition is Yalangbara. They are of the Djang’kawu, a beautiful place - Port Bradshaw. It’s one of the Marika family clan’s estates. It’s a place of great importance for the people of the Dhuwa moiety. The works in the exhibition follow the travels of this wonderful clan right across the land. We must all acknowledge the generosity of the Arnhem Land guests in sharing their stories. It’s so pleasing that some of them are here today to demonstrate. We are very lucky down this end of Australia that you are here today with us. It’s a great pleasure.

It is yet another example of our Aboriginal peoples and how they share their stories with the world in hope of a better part of Aboriginal culture and the understanding. They learn about our culture and they learn from the people who come from so far away, who travelled to bring down and show us some of that wonderful culture that they have. How lucky they are to live up there. I always think how lucky they are such wonderful people who live up in that beautiful land. We weren’t so unlucky down this way - I guess you all know why - when Jimmy came. But he done a good job anyway in some parts of the world.

I appreciate being here with my cousin and my mate Jilpia and my wonderful girl that looks after me, Theresa. But once again I want to thank you all for being here and I thank this wonderful Museum for all the work that they themselves have put into this. To the Marika family from me as a Ngambri woman of the Walgalu speaking clan, I welcome you. Thank you very much. [applause]

MARGO NEALE: Thank you very much for those warm words in welcoming and welcome to country and for everybody here, Matilda. Matilda, I have a little gift for you, the one she’s been asking for me to bring back from the Vatican which I did recently. It’s been duly blessed by Father Mapelli, who in fact blessed her and many other Aboriginal people when he was in Canberra some months ago.

MATILDA HOUSE: Thank you so much for that, Margo.

MARGO NEALE: All the way from the Vatican - I was simply a courier. It gives me great ear pleasure indeed to introduce Mawalan Marika, son of Wandjuk Marika and brother to Dhuwarrwarr and Banduk. Banduk is very well known at the Museum and the initiator of the project that became this exhibition.

But before I give the microphone over to Mawalan, I too, like Matilda, in the early 1970s had the great pleasure of meeting Wandjuk when he actually took me to Yalangbara when I was sort of a little fella. I was living in Milingimbi in those years and we used to go to Yirrkala for school holidays - I was a teacher not a school child. We used to charter old Sheppy’s plane - Sheppy [Harold Shepardson] was a legend of that era. My first encounter with the Djang’kawu story at Yalangbara was also my first encounter with a buffalo. I had a very bruising experience when I bumped into one at night - I won’t go into the details here but I still have the scars to prove it. Unfortunately whenever I think of Yirrkala and the Djang’kawu sisters, I also think of that damn buffalo. That’s an unusual sort of collaboration, I would suggest.

Mawalan, who is the senior male custodian of Yalangbara, has also played a very important role in this exhibition and has works in here of a very high standard - given the lineage it’s not surprising. He is from a very strong and talented family who can trace lineage back to the original Dhuwa moiety, the Rirratjingu ancestors and a direct line to the Djang’kawu. He has traveled, as the Marika family and others have, a very long distance to get here - many stopovers and many hours. We truly appreciate what an enormous trip you have taken. I would now like to hand over to Mawalan to talk to you.

MAWALAN 2 MARIKA: Hello, thanks for coming everyone. I am son of Wandjuk Marika, Mawalan Number 2. I would just like to say something and read a paper with my presentation. I am very happy to be here for this day for the opening of the Yalangbara exhibition. I will not forget my brother-in-law, whose name I won’t say, and that’s my Auntie Banduk Marika’s son who was a great … man that I won’t forget.

I would like to give big thanks to Margie West and the people helped her do us such a great honour to those who have been helping her like my mother, Jenny Isaac and … Geoff Bagshaw but he’s not here with us. My people in the Rirratjingu clan are very proud of this day and I would like to thank the people who brought us here to this cold place Canberra.

This project was little when we started it and it took a long time for this day. I wish my Auntie Banduk Marika could be here with us, but her older sister is here with us and her name is Langani Marika. She is my Auntie, my father’s sister. I am very grateful to have her here for this exhibition because she is the only senior elder of my clan. She is the only one who is older in the Marika family.

My family will celebrate this day when we go back to our country in Gove in the Northern Territory. This day will be a big day of celebration but it will take time. I wish my father Wandjuk Marika could be here with us for this day. He is long and gone but his spirit is with us today.

I would like to thank my brother Richard Gandawuy from Elcho Island for coming down here for this exhibition and to thank the rest of my family for coming with me. We have the same song line of the two sisters called Djang’kawu whose names were Bidchororo (?) and Miraletch (?). They travelled from the east and landed at the place called Yalangbara. That is why we are here for this exhibition of Yalangbara. Thank you. [applause]

MARGO NEALE: Thank you very much, Mawalan, for those fine words. I am sure everybody will be looking for an opportunity to speak with you later with your great knowledge of Yalangbara and the paintings here that are about Djang’kawu and Yalangbara.

Before I move on I would also like to acknowledge Howard and Frances Morphy who are here who have worked with Yolngu of north-eastern Arnhem Land for probably four decades. So they are truly family to that mob.

Now I would like to introduce you to our guest speaker today who has come all the way from across the lake. She is the senior curator of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art department at the National Gallery of Australia. Her name is Franchesca Cubillo. Could I invite you to the stage.

FRANCHESCA CUBILLO: It is truly an honour and a privilege to be asked to speak here at this wonderful exhibition opening to the Rirratjingu clan and Marika family - I thank you for this opportunity. As a Larrakeyah, Waddaman, Bardi and Yanuwa woman from the Top End regions of Australia I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land, the Ngambri peoples of this country. I want to thank Matilda House for your generous welcome this morning and acknowledge other Indigenous peoples to this country. On a personal note thank you for allowing me also to talk at this gathering here today. To Andrew Sayers as Director of the National Museum of Australia, it’s wonderful to come back again into this gallery because in a previous life I had the opportunity to work here. It’s wonderful to see the dedication of this institution to celebrating Australian Indigenous art and culture.

It is difficult to know where to begin. For those of us who are not aware, the Marika family and the Rirratjingu clan of north-east Arnhem Land have been at the forefront of asserting and negotiating Indigenous rights within Australia from the very early days of colonisation. From the mid to late 1800s they were engaged with Macassan seafarers who traded and worked with Yolngu for hundreds of years. From the early 1900s Mawalan 1 Marika, with his brothers Mathaman, Milirrpum, Roy Marika and Doondala (?) assisted in the establishment of the Methodist mission at Yirrkala.

From the 1930s through to the 1960s Mawalan 1 engaged with anthropologists such as Donald Thomson, Charles Mountford and Ronald and Catherine Berndt. Mawalan 1’s eldest son Wandjuk as he grew older assisted his father and uncles in the production of the most significant works of art: the Yirritja and Dhuwa church panels of 1962 and 1963 and the Yirrkala bark petition of 1963, a deposition tabled here in Parliament here in Canberra to assert Indigenous rights to land. This work of art was recognised by the Commonwealth government as title deeds to country and was a prelude to the major land rights case against the mining company Nabalco.

Wandjuk Marika recognised the important role art played in the communication of Indigenous culture and rights to country. He became a founding member of the Aboriginal Arts Board in 1973 and was appointed chairman in 1979. He was also awarded a Member of the British Order and was one of two inaugural judges for the first National Aboriginal Art Award at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in 1984.

Many museums and art galleries today in Australia and overseas contain beautiful works of art created by several generations of the Marika family. Currently painters today include Mawalan 2, Dhuwarrwarr, Banduk, Wanyubi, Yalmay and Barrmula Marika who are represented in this exhibition.

Bark paintings and sacred objects from the 1930s through to today convey the magnificent narratives of the Djang’kawu. Banduk Marika states:

It is important to show that art is not just done for the money, that art is really about our land and our heritage that has been passed down by our fathers and their fathers to their children from generation to generation. You could say that by showing the art we’re entering into our parliament, the Rirratjingu people’s parliament. We are giving public access to information that has been forbidden for thousands of years because it is time to show the public that Yalangbara is important. This is our country, our inheritance and our responsibility and we must look after it. This is our law and our strength.

As the direct descendants of the Djang’kawu, the Rirratjingu have a responsibility to protect and maintain the sacred sites associated with the Djang’kawu, the most significant of these sites being Yalangbara. Today the ascendant male custodian is Mawalan 2, who works together with the most senior Rirratjingu custodian responsible for this country and the stories associated with this region Langani Marika. If I can be so embarrassed to quote you, but I think this wonderful statement by Langani goes to the heart of what this exhibition is about:

I have the responsibility to look after Yalangbara even when they want to do the Narro (?) ceremony they come and ask me whether they can use the things, the feathered ceremonial items for leononburra (?). It is very important for my clan and for me. I succeeded and inherited rights on both sides Gulurunga (?) and Yalangbara, and this is why it is important for me as the main person for Yalangbara. Even though I am not doing painting, every painting is in my heart and in my body or in my head because I come here from Gulurunga and Yalangbara.

I think we are very privileged today to see the culmination of decades of work that started way back in the 1800s. The ancestors and the elders of the Rirratjingu clan have done so much for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country. I know that, when Banduk first started to investigate museums and art gallery collections in Australia in the mid-1990s with Geoffrey Bagshaw, she had a commitment to identify and find these beautiful works of art. I want to acknowledge Banduk for persisting and for approaching Margie West, as the senior curator at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory at that time, and convincing her to get on board to be the co-curator with Banduk, to investigate and tell the story of the Djang’kawu, to tell the story of the Rirratjingu clan and of the Marika.

I want to acknowledge Margie West’s work. I also want to acknowledge Anna Malgorzewicz, the Director of the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in Darwin who supported this exhibition from the very beginning. There are many people involved including Henrietta Formile from the Christianson Fund, who assisted in providing funds for the publication of the beautiful Yalangbara book that is here for sale today.

I also want to thank Craddock Morton, the then Director of the National Museum of Australia, for partnering with the museum in Darwin to make this exhibition happen. In addition the support by Mike Pickering and Mat Trinca from the National Museum in making this happen is something that should not be underestimated.

This project began for Banduk in the late 1980s in response and in honour of her brother. To see it happen today and to hear Mawalan 2 talk about the fact that he is here, that their ancestors are here, that the work is beautiful works of art that resonate their art, their culture, their family and their traditions. Again, I say it is an honour to speak at this opening today, but there have been many people who have also worked together to make this happen, so thank you very much. [applause]

MARGO NEALE: Thank you very much Franchesca for those informative and inspiring words that capture the essence of this whole project. I also remember a quote from Wandjuk when he said, ‘Art speaks for the land because land cannot speak for itself.’ This is a perfect example of that here, as you move around and look into the works in the context of what you see and hear here today.

The owners and custodians of the Djang’kawu ceremony would like to now do a small song cycle performance which refers to the Djang’kawu’s travels over Yalangbara, which as you have heard is the primary site for Rirratjingu clans of the Dhuwa moiety and of course one of the Marika family’s clan estates. We are really privileged to see the bit that we do see today performed in public. It’s not something they would do all the time. It shows how much they feel about this exhibition being here and how much they feel about all of you being here in order to enable you to experience this small snapshot of the Djang’kawu story.

It is important to note that it is absolutely critical that works on a wall in a gallery like this that are essentially static are animated in some way by some performance, as they are very much interrelated so that the song cycle, the performance and the static works all become un-static.

I would like to again mention the names of the people who are here - I don’t know how many of these will be in the song cycle. It is up to that mob to work out. There is Langani, the female custodian of Yalangbara and the eldest daughter of Mawalan 1; there is Mawalan 2 Marika who has already spoken, the grandson of Mawalan and son of Wandjuk, senior male custodian of Yalangbara and as I said important to this project. We also have Yalumul, brother of Mawalan; Witiyana Marika, son of Roy Marika; Waninya Marika, son of Milirrpum Marika, the third eldest brother of Mawalan 1; and the other Djang’kawu custodians from Galiwin’ku, Elcho Island, Richard Gandawuy and Mark Bukulatjpi. We also have Jenny Home, wife of Wandjuk Marika who was son of Mawalan 1; and Mayatili Marika who is the daughter of Wandjuk and Jenny Home. I think I have got everyone. There are two grandchildren who are having their arms raised because they were asleep - I heard one of them had a few words to say before. [applause]

FEMALE SPEAKING (through Interpreter): We are opening the exhibition with the sacred mat here on the wall for each and every one of you to come and see. That’s all. What we are going to do now is trace the way around the exhibition slowly with the song and the dance of the song lines to officially open up the exhibition.

[Performance by members of the Marika family] [applause]

ANDREW SAYERS: We are tremendously honoured to have the exhibition opened - thank you and welcome. I would like to say a few words of thanks. The Museum and Gallery of the Northern Territory are partners in this exhibition with the Northern Territory government and particularly Margie West, consultant curator and emeritus for Aboriginal art and material culture. I would like also to thank the Council of the National Museum of Australia under chair Danny Gilbert and the staff of the National Museum who work to create the circumstances for us to be able to understand culture.

I would like also to acknowledge Visions of Australia, the Australian government program that supports touring exhibitions, that is supporting the tour of this exhibition which is very important. Leighton Holdings are also a sponsor of the Yalangbara exhibition. Through their Leighton Group operating company’s work they are honoured to support the Marika family and share Yalangbara through this exhibition/ And also Capital Wines, the wines that we will be enjoying a little later. We are going now to have some lunch. The exhibition is open and you can spend your time looking at the exhibition. We were going to have lunch outside but we were a little bit unsure about the weather so it is over on the other side of the Garden of Australian Dreams in the Peninsula Room. So please stay and enjoy some Museum hospitality. Thank you. [applause]

Date published: 8 August 2011