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Meaning in Yolngu bark paintings

Professor Howard Morphy, Australian National University with an introduction by Genevieve Jacobs, 666 ABC Canberra, 3 April 2014

GENEVIEVE JACOBS: Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon and welcome. I am Genevieve Jacobs from 666 ABC Canberra where I present the mornings program and I am delighted to be with you in this second of our series of lectures at the National Museum of Australia on the Old Masters bark paintings. This is quite a journey we are on through both the ideas and the physical realities of these extraordinary works. The exhibition has been really successful on a number of levels. First, it’s a really good idea in the first place. The National Museum of Australia has a extensive body of work on bark that reflect all kinds of collecting priorities. There are works that would have been regarded as ethnographic when they were originally sourced from their makers, illustrations of culture that were later recognised for the art that they actually are.

There are major works that go towards a profound understanding of culture and creativity in various Indigenous communities and, in common with all art works, there are multiple ways of both looking and seeing – and this is where we go today with Professor Howard Morphy towards understanding meaning in Yolngu bark painting. Howard’s academic career covers territory that I find personally absolutely fascinating. He is professor of anthropology in the Research School of Humanities and the Arts at the Australian National University and has published widely on the anthropology of art, aesthetics, performance and related areas - understanding the cultural patterns and meaning in art and performance.

For this exhibition, that is a profoundly important approach because among a group of artists who are largely born before extensive European contact with the remote north. Culture is everywhere in a way we find almost impossible to grasp in this day and age. Culture permeates song and dance and marks on bark. It weaves its way through language and the natural world through the understanding of everything around these makers: the stars above them, the way the water moves in the sea, and in the little freshwater creeks trickling their way towards the ocean. And that understanding then permeates the work in ways that are far more complex than simple representation or decorative motives. So the designs in these works come from the maker’s own identity, a diverse library of visual references about moiety and skin and country. They convey the essence of what the world is about at an almost cellular level. It’s about the energy that buzzes through it. So it is the sound of the earth, bees at work on the bush honey, wind moaning through the trees, roaring waves, frogs talking about becoming wet, the feel of flies and sands flicking on the skin, the noonday glare of the sun and the pulsing purple sky waiting for the thunder to break. It is an extraordinary thing to conjure with, the comfort with which Yolngu live among multiple layers of coexisting reality.

I have often reflected on the art world’s delight with the desert paintings of Emily Kngwarreye and the like with the power of their abstract forms. But of course what is actually going on is ten times more dense and intricate than that. We are all visitors in this land. We cannot be anything another. It would be like walking into Chartres Cathedral with a hammer and some four by two and saying that we get the concept.

So we are privileged today to have another insight into the world of the Old Masters. This is the second of three lectures that accompany the Old Masters: Australia’s great bark artists exhibition. [The final lecture is being held here at the National Museum on 5 June by Luke Taylor. It will be on individual inspiration and social connection in western Arnhem Land.] Please welcome Professor Howard Morphy. [applause]

HOWARD MORPHY: Thank you, Genevieve. That was such a wonderful introduction that I can just flick through the slides and get people to put their interpretation on the images as they come up. I am going to be talking about eastern Arnhem Land, about the region from Yirrkala down to Blue Mud Bay. The exhibition covers a whole range of parts across Arnhem Land. Luke Taylor’s next lecture will be primarily on the art of western Arnhem Land, so don’t expect to see any X-ray art or any sorcery figures appearing at least consciously today.

This is Munggurrawuy Yunupingu. It is a photograph by Margaret Tuckson. Margaret and Tony Tuckson played a very important role in the reception and acknowledgment of the equality of Aboriginal art with other arts in Australia. These were the first paintings to enter consciously the collections of an art gallery, the Art Gallery of New South Wales. They were collected in 1959. Margaret suddenly saw Munggurrawuy Yunupingu, whose painting we will see later on, just staring at this large sheet of bark and she suddenly said, ‘Good heavens, that is like any artist looking at a canvas thinking before he paints.’ The extraordinary thing, of course, was that she was absolutely right because today as you talk to Yolngu artists about their work, they will often say, ‘I think before I paint.’ You will see in a series of images we will be looking at this incredible creative process that is involved and the diversity of works.

This is the work that launches the exhibition The Djan’kawu Cross Back to the Mainland by Djunmal, an artist from Milingimbi. I am beginning with this one because almost inevitably if Yolngu are talking about their world, about their life, about their art, about their relationships, about the destinations of their soul, they will say, ‘You must remember that there are two moieties Dhuwa and Yirritja.’ I am not going to huge amount of kinship here, but the painting by Djunmal, this is his clan of Dhuwa moiety associated with two ancestral women, the Djan’kawu sisters, who created a series of waterholes on their journeys across Arnhem Land. You can imagine these are each waterholes in turn created by those women as they walked across the drying wetlands. On the other side is a design from his mother’s clan, the Yirritja moiety. It is a design associated with wild honey and fire. When I talk about Dhuwa and Yirritja as we go through, and I won’t talk about it too much, you will understand that we are talking about core features of the Yolngu universe.

This is a painting of the Dhuwa moiety by Munininy 2 which also associated with the Djan’kawu sisters [The Djan’kawu Sisters at Gärriyak]. Whereas in the previous painting we saw this whole sequence of places where the women journeyed, in this place we are focussing down on one of them. This circle represents one of the places created by the Djan’kawu sisters when they put their digging sticks into the ground, and it was a place where they collected oysters. This pattern here represents the oysters on the rocks at this particular place. This is a very classic Yolngu painting that you could see as a body painting in a circumcision ceremony or could be painted on person’s coffin after they passed away in order to direct their soul to the spirit place they are connected to.

This is one of the contexts in which exactly those kinds of paintings are produced [image shown]. This was at a circumcision ceremony that I filmed some six years ago. Here we are having a painting that is connected with the Djan’kawu sisters and their journey. Here is a more detailed version of it. One of the things I would like to point out here something that is to do with the technique and aesthetics of bark paintings and body paintings.

The first step is to cover the surface with red ochre, which is in a sense putting power and blood of the ancestral beings onto the surface that is being painted. Then the basic designs are drawn in yellow and red ochre, and then the final stage is this process of cross hatching with a thin brush of human hair that creates this incredible effect of shimmering brilliance. The Yolngu word for this is bir’yun. When people are talking about it and developing analogies, because the Yolngu will always create analogies to help outsiders understand, they will say ‘It is like the sparkle you get from running freshwater.’ Narritjin Maymuru, when he came to Canberra as a creative arts fellow, had flown from Sydney with me and he said, ‘It’s really like when we were looking out of the airplane and we saw all of those waterholes shining in the evening light, that sparkle that comes back to you.’ In the context of Yolngu painting, this is in a sense the painting of spiritual power into the surface that then emanates from it.

Here we have one of the first bark paintings collected from eastern Arnhem Land by the anthropologist Donald Thomson in the 1940s. It is just to show the particular shape is one that relates to the body of the person who is being painted. That goes up the top of the thighs and those over the shoulder. This particular painting on the left that was done at that circumcision ceremony, some 70 years after Thomson collected that painting is actually a painting of the same place. It’s that place there, Baraltja [shows map]. This painting represents an ancestral fish trap created by - in the middle you can actually see a snake, which is a death adder. It’s the bones of the ancestral serpent that was put across the river mouth here that were transformed into a fish trap in ancestral times. Paintings relate to ancestral action in place, and in a sense they are manifestations today of that ancestral beings power and they are transportable manifestations that can be painted in different contexts as body paintings for different purposes. But they also exist in other design forms in the shape of sand sculptures or things woven into sacred baskets, but we are looking at paintings today.

This is a painting which captures in some ways what we mean by bir’yun or shimmering brilliance. This is a painting of Birrkuda, the wild honey ancestor of the Yirritja moiety [Sugarbag Dreaming by Jimmy Wululu]. The diamond pattern here will immediately tune any Yolngu to the fact that here we are looking at the Yirritja moiety painting. You never get diamond patterns on Dhuwa moiety paintings, only on paintings associated with the Yirritja. There are a density of meanings associated with this image here.

I won’t be going into all of them. I will be tracing wild honey and fire as it goes to different clans of the same moiety. Wild honey and fire go together in this context. This is honey that grows in paperbark trees. One of the meanings of the pattern here is the paperbark tree itself associated with that wild honey. This represents the core of the paperbark tree.

This though, at the same time, from a completely different perspective, represents the cells of the beehive filled with honey, grubs, little sticks and pieces, and bees flying in and out which you can see here. However, it also represents fire and the passage of fire, because this particular wild honey birrkuda is collected at the beginning of the dry season just after the country is drying out. The area around paperbark swamps is very dense so, in order to get access to them, the land is burnt. And this represents the passage of fire. You will begin to see that, as well as these designs being abstract and multi-layered, in all sorts of contexts meaning is built into them on the basis of their form. In this particular case, the red here is the flames; the black is the black of the wood left behind after the fire has gone by; the white represents the smoke; and the red and white cross hatching are the sparks a that are coming out ahead of the fire. Fire is obviously something that is very present in Arnhem Land and that needs to be managed, but it can also at times get out of control. We will see some of the ways in which fire gets out of control in ancestral times as we go on.

This is a second painting of a different clan [Birrikidji] - the first one we looked at was a painting of wild honey associated with the Gupapuyngu clan - this is wild honey from a place called Gangan in the centre of Arnhem Land. This is another place where the wild honey ancestor went. I won’t go into this in detail, but the meanings encoded in this case are very similar to the previous one, except here you can see the central core of the paperbark tree and that is the entrance of the hive with the bees flying in and out. You can imagine here it is the paperbark forest with the flood waters coming down in the wet season. It’s the fire growth time; it’s the wild honeycomb.

This shows the journey of wild honey across Arnhem Land through different clans and moiety [shows map]. This is that place where which I showed in the first painting, the fish trap. Here is Gangan, here is the fire from Gangan moving to an adjacent territory associated with it, then moving down to a place called Yatikpa on Blue Mud Bay, and then fire being carried by a crocodile that we can see here right the way up to Caledon Bay. We will look at paintings that relate to that journey in a minute.

The fire moved from here when an ancestral being grabbed a burning brand and threw it ahead of him, and that burning brand travelled down to here. It was the fire that people there were using for cooking and various other kinds of things. Then one day a man called Bäru, human then in form, had a row with his wife, Dhamalingu, blue tongue lizard. He had a row over shellfish. She got very, very angry with him. He threw things at her. She set fire to the bark hut in which they were living, and with the blazing bark hut on his back he dived into the waters here. As he dived into the waters, he changed his shape from human form to that of a crocodile. Here we can see the ancestral crocodile’s tail [image shown], the serrated edge of the dune going out into the bay. Behind me are two rock formations in the shapes of the hands of the crocodile. The ancestral beings are transformed literally into shapes in the landscape and just offshore here are great areas of sea grass, which looks red waving beneath the surface of the water and looks like flames - more about that in a minute.

This is not a painting by an old master but in a way by a young master. It is a print by Djambawa Marawili showing the crocodile there engulfed with the fire that was involved in its creation but also surrounding the nests in which the eggs that produce future generations of crocodile are spiritually important to the Madarrpa clan.

Offshore with these fields of sea grass. In this painting The Fire Dreaming at Yathikpa by Mutitjpuy Mununggurr, here we can see ancestral dugong and we can see people in boats hunting dugongs, with people here in the water. What happened in this particular place was that, in ancestral times, two ancestral beings harpooned a dugong, and the dugong was a fire perpetually burning beneath the sea, dragged the boat and the men beneath the surface of the water where they were immolated and their dead bodies and remains of the boat ended up floating onto the shore. Then fire moved on in the form of the crocodile to Caledon Bay.

This is the fire at Caledon Bay [The Great Bushfire Dreaming of the Gumatj People by Munggurrawuy Yunupingu]. You will see again the diamond pattern associated with the fire and in many cases wild honey and paperbark. Similar sets of meanings involved in that. The fire was brought here by ancestral crocodile and burnt through the countryside. It burnt through a ceremonial ground in which ancestral beings were performing what’s called a Ngära ceremony. In that ceremonial ground, again, the people were immolated. In this painting by Munggurrawuy Yunupingu, who we saw looking at the bark earlier on, we can see the ceremonial ground here, we can see the people dancing in the ceremonial ground and we can see the fire moving through.

In the case of each of these images, I could talk for half an hour about every one of them. I am having to discipline myself and moving on so that we will get through to the end of this talk. [Painting Ngärra Ceremony at Biranybirany by Munggurrawuy Yunupingu shown] A very interesting thing about this is the shape of the ceremonial ground. At the bottom are actually in this context sticks that are made to create a sort of hut in which people hide or reveal certain kinds of objects. But Munggurrawuy’s country also included a place called Dhupuma, and that place Dhupuma happened to be where the Australian government set up an Eldo tracking station, space tracking station. It was one of the tracking stations that was set up for I think even the moon voyages. This is remarkably a ceremonial ground like the shape of a space ship. Munggurrawuy did a whole series of paintings in which he slightly modified this to refer to a contemporary use of his Gumatj land in relation to the space race.

This looks like a completely abstract painting [Ngärra Ceremony by Birrikitji Gumana] with all these geometric designs. Already people will be able to say and look at this and say, ‘It probably has something to do with the Yirritja moiety. It could well have something to do with fire or wild honey.’ Then you can read the description and it says ‘Ngärra Ceremony’. A Ngärra ceremony is a ceremony where all the different groups associated with a particular ancestral track, like the wild honey fire complex, come together to perform their own dances and to show their body paintings to each other. This is what people look like when they are coming out of the Ngärra ceremonial ground [image shown]. This is actually a combination of Dhuwa moiety and Yirritja moiety designs associated with the Blue Mud Bay native title court case. These have all come out of the sacred space so it is perfectly all right to photograph them. Here you can see the set of diamond designs on that group of people in the centre. What in fact Birrikitji, the artist who did this painting, was doing was in a sense conveying the nature of this sort of almost ecstatic performance that occurs when people come out of the closed ceremonial space all with their body paintings and all dancing in different directions.

I am going to show you another series of paintings by that same artist Birrikitji. I think Genevieve said that some Yolngu were born before European colonisation. Effective European colonisation in eastern Arnhem Land wasn’t until around 1935 when the first mission station was built. There was strong interaction with outsiders, a long history of relationships with people from eastern Indonesia, from south Sulawesi. But Birrikitji, the artist here who I met towards the end of his life, from working out his genealogies and so forth, we worked out he was probably born around 1878. He was born some nearly 50 years before the mission station at Yirrkala was started.

We saw the previous painting of this extraordinary kind of apparent abstraction. We are going to see now paintings by him from two estates. One of those estates is at Gangan, which is inland associated with fire, wild honey, an area of paperbarks. This is where it is [image shown]. And the other is a coastal area associated in particular with sting rays. I think these are absolutely extraordinary paintings [on the left Minhala the Long-Necked Tortoise at Gangan by Birritkitji Gumana and on the right Male and Female Wititj by Mithinarri Gurruwiwi]. Again, the interplay between figuration and abstraction in Yolngu art is recognised at the centre of the painting on the right, and in the way that you can see the figure of the long-necked freshwater tortoise Minhala beneath the surface of the water, because these are now the flood waters that are going between the paperbark trees. You can see the way that the limbs of the tortoise are integrated with a design that is reminiscent of the diamond pattern on either side. In fact, one of the ancestral origins of the diamond pattern are all the weeds at the bottom of the wet waters in the wet season that get attached to freshwater tortoises’ legs and things. When you actually hunt them and pull them out of the water, you will see these long trailers of weed outside. There is an evocation and to me this painting evokes a sense of being in the shade in a waterhole in the wet season that is full of life, that is bubbling water – just extraordinary. On the right, what is this image in the centre? This is actually a diver bird. You can see the wings there directing itself into the water to get fish. Again this boundary between expression and abstraction and figuration.

These are adjacent waterholes [on the left] but looking at the background pattern - Yirritja moiety - and looking at the background pattern, this is Dhuwa moiety. When you get those kind of intersecting parallel lines there, never will you find it in a Yirritja moiety painting. [In the painting on the right Male and Female Wititj by Mithinarri Gurruwiwi], this is the neighbouring stretch of that river, and this is the ancestral snake Wititj associated with one of the great foundations, sort of myths, of north-east Arnhem Land - that of the Wägilak sisters. There was a wonderful exhibition at the National Gallery - it must have been nearly 20 years ago now – on the paintings of the Wägilak sisters. This is by Mithinarri. We are going to see quite a few paintings by Mithinarri as we progress.

Let me just summarise [illustrated map of area shown]: here, that is the waterhole at Gangan. That is actually a painting by Yangarin that is not in the collections here, but Birritkitji’s paintings were variants on that. You can see the long-necked freshwater tortoise. And that is the next door Dhuwa moiety area of land. So in fact, all of these paintings create a mapping of place and the ancestral relationships between people and place.

Let’s move on. As I said, Birritkitji was a great artist. There are two areas of country associated with the Dhalwangu clan. One is this area inland here [map shown] and the other is at a place called Garaparra on the saltwater side - and that is where these paintings of the sting ray are from [Painting of Stingrays by Birrikitji Gumana shown] together with I think it’s a barracuda species. What I am interested in these images for a little while is that, in the nature of a formal construction of art, I have been talking about the dialogue between figuration and abstraction, and looking at this painting you can really see what I mean. There is exquisite artistry involved in Yolngu paintings.

Birrikitji did a whole series of variations on this theme which I think are quite wonderful [displays three paintings by Birrikitji Gumana from left to right: Stingrays, Ngärra Ceremony and Stingray Dance Performed in the Yirritja Ngärra Ceremonies]. It also shows a particular construction that artists use all across Arnhem Land in creating a pattern out of figurative representations that almost reflects the pattern of geometry that lies behind the painting.

Let see how some other artists done that. That is George Milpurrurru with the flying foxes in the Arafura swamp [Yirritja Ngärra Flying Fox Dance].

This is Narritjin Maymuru [Djarrakpi: The Lightning Snake Passes Through], a variation on the theme. These are a whole series of possums that are climbing up and down and in and out of a hollow tree, but at the same time they are on ancestral journey and are accompanied by a Yirritja moiety lightning snake.

Here is Mithinarri Gurruwiwi again [Stone Axe Heads]. You can see the structure of this painting. This painting represents steel axes because it alludes to communication and relationships with Macassans. You can look at these paintings as magnificent works of art.

I was talking to a curator at the National Gallery just yesterday about an unbelievably wonderful painting and he said, ‘How does one know that this beautiful painting and the way it is structured is not in part an accidental product of the artist’s eye and so on and so forth?’ I suppose the only thing is that every single painting one looks at by Mithinarri had this accidental stroke of genius about it. When we are looking at artists cross-culturally, with Yolngu artists there are enormous synergies that can go on and one can have a discussion that one can imagine artists anywhere having about their works with each other.

I remember talking to Narritjin Maymuru - some of whose works we will see in a minute – when he was sitting there doing a painting and he looked up, without my asking any question, and he said, ‘The thing about these paintings is that you can be doing them for hour after hour.’ You can imagine all this cross hatching takes. He went on, ‘Then you look at it and think maybe it’s going to end up a horrible mess and then suddenly it all comes together.’ I should think words like ‘all comes together’ are part of cross-cultural artists’ discourse wherever you are. There is a kind of magical element in art.

This is indeed Narritjin Maymuru [image shown]. This is him when I first met him painting a fairly abstract painting in a wet season hut in Blue Mud Bay. This is the paint here [image shown].

That is the painting we have seen earlier [Djarrakpi: The Lightning Snake Passes Through] so I will move on.

This is one of the oldest paintings in the exhibition associated with the Mountford expedition in 1948 [Guwak ga Marrngu (Night-Bird and Possum) by Narritjin Maymuru]. This is an ancestral journey. Again, Yolngu paintings can always be interpreted both as journeys and as maps of land. They can actually change in scale according to how you are interpreting them. If we are talking about this as a journey, this a journey of Guwak the Koel Cuckoo, who is now journeying very much to Canberra. This is the track that he took to Djarrakpi. He was accompanied by possums and emu, which you can’t see here, and he created and transformed the landscape through his action. I have written a whole book about this, so I won’t talk any more or we won’t get to the end.

This is the place that was his final destination, Djarrakpi [image shown]. There is a beautiful lake here with piled-high sand dunes that separate the lake from the sea. Those sand dunes are going to be part of the story in a minute, because they were associated with some ancestral women called Nyapililngu, who would climb up and down the sand dunes with their digging sticks, would catch and eat fish, and in the end invented a great ceremony for their brother’s funeral.

This is another painting by Narritjin [Fight between Crocodile-Man and Stingray-Man]. Again I am showing you this in part to delight at the extraordinary sort of construction, the whimsy, the wit. There are elements of this that look almost Escher-like. You can see how the sword fish becomes the tail of the sting ray. Look at those particular elements going across - they look like abstract designs but could be linked to the Yirritja moiety.

[Painting shown Djirrididi ga Damala] What is that shape there? We will see in a minute. This is actually Narritjin’s mother’s mother’s country. This is to do with an ancestral fight between a crocodile and sting ray, and the sting ray jabbed the barb of the sting ray into the crocodile’s leg. You can see these transformed into the shape of two islands in Caledon Bay.

This is a very complex painting [Yingapungapu at Djarrakpi]. This is a painting of a story often told to children about Djet. Djet was a young boy who had an argument with his father over fish and had a temper tantrum. The boy caught a tiny little fish, his father asked him to share it with him and the boy said ‘no’. So his father went out in a boat and caught a whole boatload of fish, and the little boy said, Can I have a fish?’ and the father said ‘no’. The boy had a terrible temper tantrum, jumping up and down and screaming and yelling, and gradually feathers would start appearing in his legs and arms and then eventually he took off into the sky. You can see in this little bit of the story that transformation in process.

The rest of the story - again, there are many elements to it. But I am going to pick out one of those elements. This boat here is a boat in which the body of an ancestral being was overturned out at sea like the story of the dugong hunters. In fact, you can see this rope is the rope associated with harpooning dugong.

I would like you to look at the image of the two women [The Two Wurrathithi with Ceremonial Digging Stick]. Those are the ancestral women, Nyapililngu, who walked up and down the sand dunes; those are the women who created a sand sculpture in which they placed the remains of their brother whose body washed back on the shore after drowning.

This is a variant on that theme, which also has to do with the Djet story. It also has to do with people going out to sea. These are those two ancestral women you can see on either side of this digging stick. This shape here - bear that in mind this elliptical shape - because that is the shape that they created. They created it first of all to bury the remains of fish left over after a meal. So it was an act of returning to the land anything that was in excess. They did that on the beach. Then maggots came and ate the fish remains, and then sand crabs and ate the maggots, and then Guluwitjpitj, a type of bird, came and ate the sand crabs. So it’s a story about death and regeneration.

Let’s move on. These are those two women, Nyapililngu. That’s the digging stick in the middle that they used when walking up and down the hills. They used it to knock wild plums off the trees. They also used it to cut their heads in mourning when their dead brother’s body came up the beach.

This photograph is an ancestral sand sculpture called the Yingapungapu. It was that shape, that ellipse, that they made as a shape to lay the body of their dead brother who was washed up on the shore. In a sense they invented a sand sculpture that is used to contain the pollution associated with the dead body but also where cleansing ceremonies were performed. It actually also then becomes a forum for great joy when at the end of funerals they try to bring the whole community together to have a sense of commensality and of looking forward into the future.

[image shown] Here is this sand sculpture actually outside the shade where a deceased person was prepared for burial. You can see that elliptical shape. That is the elliptical shape that we saw in that series of paintings and it has many meanings.

This is a painting collected by me in about 1975, a long time ago [Yingapungapu, 1974 by Narritjin Maymuru]. That has that elliptical shape. You can see here the fish remains in it. Here you can see the sand crab that would be eating the maggots that are consuming the remains of the fish. There are those Guluwitjpitj birds who are going to then eat the sand crab. What you have here is a whole series of things that are part of this metaphor. Up here [same painting] you can see people dancing at a memorial ceremony around a Yingapungapu sand sculpture. It is important to see there is a tremendous relationship between ancestral dimensions, between ritual action in the present, that crosses over all sorts of different forms of aesthetic action. Here that shows quite clearly the relationship between those particular shapes].

I am going to show a couple of images of the ritual performance. [images shown] That is inside the sand sculpture. People are doing a dance which imitates first of all them cooking the fish and then eating the fish and then they will bury the fish remains symbolically in the sand sculpture. And then, [image shown] good heavens, a whole group of maggots crawls into the sand, crawling over the place where the fish remains were, leaving this particular pattern behind, which is an analogue for that process – the decay of the fish, the journey of the maggots and so on and so forth - but we must also remember that the story is about a beach. The first Yingapungapu were shallow scoops in the beach where the fish remains. In the beach what happens is that the tide comes in and the tide goes out. One of the other themes of this ceremony is forgetting the sadness of a person who has died and passed away, wiping out those sad memories and renewing the world. So these are all ceremonies of renewal.

This is a painting by Narritjin [Gunyan White Sand Crab] of that sand crab on the beach. I just want to draw attention to another technique of Yolngu representation which they have a word for called buwuyak, which means faintness or emergence, suddenly being able to see it. These are the sand crabs. This is its movement in the sand. In fact, if you have rid of those two little eyes at the front, this would look like a geometric pattern. There is a sort of dialogue here between figurative form and that tremendously expressive geometric form behind. With a lot of the art that would be done in the context of body paintings and circumcision ceremonies and so on, actually Narritjin would say, ‘It is just like that except you wouldn’t see the figures,’ but the meaning is still there lying behind. It is a technique used by all Yolngu artists.

Here is another painting by Mithinarri Gurruwiwi [Frogs at Mirarrmina]. It takes a little while to actually see - these are the frogs, no problem – how are these the leaves of the water lilies? And the more you look at it, the more you can see the figurative and then it disappears. So if you didn’t actually have the clues of the figurative representations, you may well look at this and see this as a dynamic abstract form.

These are three paintings by Mithinarri that you have seen before [from left: Frogs at Mirarrmina, Stone Axe Heads and Male and Female Wititj] showing the diversity of representational techniques that Yolngu artists deploy and have always deployed and in a sense what people mean when they say, ‘We have to think before we paint,’ it is because they actually can deploy their knowledge and skills as artists to produce anew time after time after time.

I have a final series of images which are looking at the way in which Yolngu art interacts with the history of their relationships with the outside world, and I will zoom through these because we are out of time.

[Makasar Boiling Down Trepang by Mathaman Marika] These are Makassan praus. These are people from south Sulawesi who are boiling trepang, sea slugs on the beach. All over north-east Arnhem Land you can see the remains of these areas where pots were being boiled and trepang prepared. Yolngu had largely good relationships with Makassans. They exchanged names with Makassans. Macassan captains used to come to the same place each wet season. Yolngu used to sail back to Makasar, which is why they have quite a good idea of the internal structure of the boats [Makasar Prau]. These paintings are by Mawalan Marika, a great Rirratjingu artist. Of course, the Macassans, at the time when this painting was done, had not been to eastern Arnhem Land for some like six years. 1907 was one of the first occasions when the Australian government turned the boats back and, from then on, the Makassans who had been trading for some 300 years with the people of eastern Arnhem Land were no longer able to come. You can imagine the impact that that would have when suddenly overnight this occurred - no regard whatsoever for the rights of Yolngu people who at that time were still beyond the frontier, because the frontier was coming from south to north.

Again, not an abstract representation but a beautiful painting by Mawalan of a series of kris’s [Makasar Knives shown] from eastern Indonesia.

This is Munggurrawuy Yunupingu’s representation for Ron Berndt - it is one of the crayon drawings at the Art Gallery of New South Wales – of the township of Macassar [Port of Macassar]. Again, I can’t go into details what these separate wards represent, but he said, ‘This is where the Aboriginal people were living,’ and so on. Again, people passed on knowledge through art, through performance, through dance, through ritual of that important part of their historical time. [Drawing shown] This is Yalangbara Port Bradshaw showing the intense activity that the Macassans were involved with.

What about images of the rest of Australia? Mawalan was one of the artists whose paintings first graced the Art Gallery of New South Wales and he came down for the opening of the exhibition. When he returned to Yirrkala, he painted the lights over Sydney at night from the air [Sydney from the Air]. So Yolngu systems of representation can actually be used for new contexts. Yolngu can actually perform a ceremony almost at the drop of a hat if asked to for a particular event. A great ceremony that was held celebrating AIATSIS’s 50th anniversary was very much involving Yolngu dance performances.

[The Four Great Yirritja Lawgivers of Eastern Arnhem Land] Is it the influence of Christianity here? Can we see all of these saints? This is a painting by Birrikitji Gumana, that wonderful artist. These are the foundation ancestral beings of the Yirritja moiety sending out emissaries to different areas of land bringing them the ancestral law - a very powerful painting. But Yolngu have been very much in dialogue with Christianity and with the Methodist church. In fact, an article that I wrote on that was called ‘Mutual conversion’, because there was absolutely no doubt that as the missionaries were as converted as the Yolngu and both happy to carry on with their own beliefs.

Here is Narritjin’s painting of Australia [Coat of Arms], definitely a Yolngu and Yirritja moiety taking over of Australia. Okay, that’s all thanks. [applause]

GENEVIEVE JACOBS: Howard, thank you so much. That was just dazzling, absolutely wonderful. We have time for some questions and answers and we have a couple of microphones. If you have a question please raise your hand and we will get the microphone to you.

Howard, I would like to start with a question of my own, you finished with Birrikitji from the Yirritja moiety. Do the Yolngu recognise particular creative genius or do they see these makers as people simply fulfilling a particular role?

HOWARD MORPHY: No, they absolutely recognise that sort of genius and that it can be in different capacities. Two very good examples of that. First, circumcision ceremonies are obviously a very important part of Yolngu ritual life. They are, if you like, an early coming of age of your sons so people really want someone who is a renowned artist to paint. What you tend to find is that the artists who are commissioned to do paintings at a Yolngu ceremony - or asked to do paintings, not commissioned; they are not paid for it – will be among those artists that the art world outside recognises. That is one thing. Another thing is that there is no disrespect of a person if they can’t paint. One of the greatest Yolngu ceremonial and political leaders was man called Daymbalipu Mununggurr who never did paintings. He would be asked to authorise paintings and things like that. So I asked him and he said, ‘I can never hold a hairbrush [brush of human hair used for cross-hatching] without shaking too much.’

GENEVIEVE JACOBS: I wonder too about this idea of the abstract, which is a concept that we have quite clearly in the West. Is that a notion that has real currency among the Yolngu?

HOWARD MORPHY: Yes, if you see abstraction as a process. For some unknown reason, with the use of the word ‘abstract’, in most instances we actually do mean something that has a relationship to meaning. If you are writing an abstract of something, you are condensing it. Yolngu see the geometric art forms as ways of condensing significant meanings that can then be expanded in different kinds of ways. So it’s very relevant. The whole process of abstraction, the way in which figurative form can disappear into geometric form, that is a process of abstraction that would lie at the heart of say abstract expressionism or something like that in certain contexts. It is the sort of thing that De Kooning would have done, making the women he was painting almost disappear into the abstract sort of expressive form of the canvas.

GENEVIEVE JACOBS: Or perhaps another comparison that occurs to me is fractals that compress an enormous amount of information into a very small shape and are capable of exploding if we have the key to that information.

HOWARD MORPHY: Absolutely.

GENEVIEVE JACOBS: The role of metaphor was also something you touched on extensively. It seemed to me that perhaps was a crucial way into some kind of understanding of Yolngu. I was fascinated by your description of a dance that mirrors but also at the same time effectively remakes the world.

HOWARD MORPHY: The whole point of this ancestral dimension, the Wangarr, is that it is present but it is also future. In a sense remaking it through ritual performance for different people and for different occasions is the way that you actually do renew it. So it’s a very dynamic society. People talk about the dreaming as though it was something that was absolutely set in the past, but it is very much a creative force that has a trajectory. You can’t do anything, you have to work within certain – if someone from the Dhuwa moiety said, ‘really I think the Djan’kawu sisters’ design ought to be a diamond one,’ people would just laugh at you because actually they are not talking about a real world as they would understand it. But if you decide, as say Banduk Marika, a great Rirratjingu artist, did when doing print making she said, ‘Well, that particular design, I am going to do it in blue and white now because I have access to those colours and that is reflecting the landscape of this particular place at a particular time of the day.’ Then that is perfectly acceptable so people are innovating.

GENEVIEVE JACOBS: It is a wonderful notion, the act of constant remaking of the world through your own participation in it. Do we have any questions from the audience?

QUESTION: Thanks, Howard, that was fabulous. One of the things that really struck me, and I think you reiterated it just now, is that sense in which the translation of motifs into that abstracted form is actually what opens them up to multivalence, the sense in which the imagery becomes at a sense detached from a literal association and then can have those multiple associations. I thought that was a great way of putting it. The question that came to mind for me was that motif you referred to as the ellipse in relation to the burial ceremony and renewal. Surely that is a vaginal reference?

GENEVIEVE JACOBS: What a cracking question.

HOWARD MORPHY: In a sense there is an easy answer to that, because renewal does involve reproduction and in the context of Yolngu mortuary rituals people are looking to spiritual continuity. When Yolngu bury people they always bury them in something that can be considered to be a womb or a nest or something like that - so definitely looking forward to that process, yes.

QUESTION: Many thanks indeed for a very stimulating lecture. How did you initially get into the interest in this area, and how long ago?

GENEVIEVE JACOBS: This is quite a yarn.

HOWARD MORPHY: Yes, but I will have to make it quite brief. I first of all became very interested in the anthropology of art and material culture at University College London when I was a masters student there. I actually wrote a theoretical masters thesis and in those days supervision wasn’t that good so I handed in my thesis and they said, ‘But we want some examples. It’s no good having all this theory.’ So I went to the library of the Royal Anthropology Institute and I found a book [an article] called the The toas of the Lake Eyre tribe of Central Australia published in the first volume of the proceedings of the South Australian Museum and it had 450 images of these toas with their meanings, and these toas are really beautiful objects. The South Australian Museum was extraordinary. They sent me photographs of them and documentation. So I then applied my theories to the analysis of those.

Then I was working at the British Museum but I wanted to carry on field work, research and things like that so I applied to the Australian National University for a scholarship - there are not enough of them for overseas students these days. I came here and I really in a way wanted to study — working with artists in a community rather than working on a museum collection there, so that’s what happened. I was very lucky.

GENEVIEVE JACOBS: I think you have probably all been stunned by the brilliance of what we have heard. It has been absolutely magnificent. I want to draw to your attention the catalogue and the exhibition, which I hope you have all seen but, if you haven’t, it’s a journey into another country that is our own country. It is a place that we all ought to visit. We have been enormously fortunate to have a guide today in Howard Morphy. Please join me in thanking him. [applause]

Date published: 1 May 2014