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Born clan, Kuninjku language, Duwa moiety

Yirawala.
Yirawala. Photo: ABC TV Collection, Northern Territory Library

About 1897–1976

Yirawala was man of high ritual status and authority. He sought to promote an appreciation of his Kuninjku culture among Europeans in order to protect Kuninjku heritage and land. He was a prolific and highly influential artist who used his ceremonial authority to introduce a number of innovations in western Arnhem Land bark painting. Chief among these was his ability to render countless variations on rarrk clan patterns to infuse his subjects with ancestral power.

Yirawala was raised in the Marrkolidjban region on the Liverpool River before moving his family to Minjilang (Croker Island), where he painted with Jimmy Midjawmidjaw (1897–about 1985), Paddy Compass Namatbara and January Nangunyari Namiridali. Here, in 1964, he met Sandra Le Brun Holmes, who was to become his patron.

Holmes organised his first solo exhibition in 1971, the year Yirawala won the International Co-operation Art Award and was appointed a Member of the British Empire for his services to Aboriginal art. In 1976 the National Gallery of Australia acquired 139 paintings by Yirawala through a program to represent Australia’s major artists in depth. Holmes made two films about Yirawala, one entitled The Picasso of Arnhem Land (1982).

Yirawala’s work has appeared in several international exhibitions, including: Dreamings at the Asia Society Galleries, New York, in 1988; and Aratjara, which toured Europe in 1993–94.

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