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Cairns, Queensland

Yidinji country

This land holds their spirit

If a foreigner looks at this ... they’ll think it’s just an ordinary thing: a boomerang, painting, design. But that design tells a big story to the person who held that boomerang in their hand ... how he made it, what he used, and why he put the pattern on there.

Dorita Wilson, Yidinji, 2013

A closeup photo of tall tropical rainforest trees. The closest tree has two large leafy plants growing on its trunk. The atmosphere looks steamy.
Yidinji country, Cairns, Queensland. Photo: National Museum of Australia.

In the 1890s in Cairns in far north Queensland, colonial entrepreneurs were acquiring objects from the Yidinji community and producing photographs of Yidinji people to supply collectors, tourists and new colonists wanting souvenirs to send back home.

An oval, curved wooden shield with and abstract design of interlocking shapes in red, white and yellow ochre running along its length, all outlined in black
Shield, Yidinji people, collected in the Cairns region by Derwent Vallance before 1903, 89.5 x 33 x 9 cm; British Museum Oc1933,0403.5.

It would have been my people, it would have been my grandfathers and grandmothers ... who were making these necklaces ... the shields and the message sticks.

Henrietta Marrie, Gimuy Walabura Yidinji Elder, 2013

The shield (right) was among 90 objects collected by a young Englishman, Derwent Vallance, who paid the equivalent of a month’s wages for them. He wrote to his sister, ‘Do display them well as they are a very fine collection’. Objects such as these remain a source of pride among Yidinji people today.

Having these objects visiting here is the first step in negotiation between the sovereign Aboriginal nations of Australia ... It’s a negotiation between us and the British Government all over again ... for these objects to come back home. This land holds their spirit.

Gudju-gudju (Seith Fourmile), Yidinji Traditional Owner, 2013

Old objects

This shield would have belonged to a wawun [scrub-turkey] man. The colours on the shield are the ochres and clays from country that people still use in ceremony. The white areas on the design are the djumbun [scorpion] design. The djumbun is a central totem for Yidinji people. [This shield is a fighting shield].

Gudju-gudju (Seith Fourmile), Yidinji Traditional Owner, 2015

New objects

From left to right of the image, front and back of a surfboard and an etching resembling a shield
Left and centre: cantchant 2015, back and front, shield sculpture from a series by Vernon Ah Kee, Yidinji, Kuku Yalandji, Waanji, Koko Berrin and Gugu, Yimithirr peoples, 180 x 12.5 x 47 cm. National Museum of Australia. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane. Photos: George Serras.

Right: Crossroads 2014, etching by Paul Bong, Yidinji people, Cairns, 120 x 53 cm. National Museum of Australia.

Vernon Ah Kee's artwork bears a striking rainforest shield design. On the back is the face of George Sibley, Ah Kee's great-grandfather, who was photographed by anthropologist Norman Tindale on Palm Island in 1938. It is one of a series that critiques white Australian beach culture.

Carl Fourmile
Carl Fourmile, Yidinji, talking about local artwork at his home in Cairns. National Museum of Australia.
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