Trepangers from Makassar, in Sulawesi, Indonesia, visited the shores of Arnhem Land every wet season for more than 200 years until 1907, after the introduction of the government’s White Australia Policy. They came in fleets of prau to collect trepang (sea cucumbers), a delicacy in South-East Asia. The Makasar people established friendly relationships with Yolŋu, a number of whom sailed back with the visitors to Makassar and settled there.
The Makasar did not settle in Arnhem Land but they did have an influence on Yolŋu society and ritual. They introduced calico, tobacco and smoking pipes, and words that are still in use today, such as rrupiya (money). Most importantly they introduced an item of technology that transformed Yolŋu life — metal. Metal blades, knives and axes made everyday practices easier for Yolŋu, from cutting food to making large dugout canoes and complex wooden sculptures.
Although not part of the Dreaming, the Makasar did enter Yolŋu cosmology. The prau sail disappearing over the horizon at the end of the wet season, for example, is symbolic of the soul leaving this world for the ancestral realm. Birrikitji Gumana’s painting Makasar Prau recalls his meeting with the trepangers when he was young. Mathaman Marika uses variations of the Rirratjiŋu clan design to indicate dry land and the sea.
Paintings in the exhibition
Click on the images below to see a larger version and more information, including dimensions. Please note these images are not to scale.
All these bark paintings are part of the National Museum of Australia’s collection. © the artist or the artist’s estate, licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency 2013, unless otherwise specified. These images must not be reproduced in any form without permission.