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Indigenous Law Bulletin

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Sharp, Nonie --- "Book Review - Saltwater: Yirrkala Bark Paintings of Sea Country, Recognising Indigenous Sea Rights" [2000] IndigLawB 34; (2000) 4(29) Indigenous Law Bulletin 23

Book Review-

Saltwater: Yirrkala Bark Paintings of Sea Country,
Recognising Indigenous Sea Rights

Buku-Larr_gay Mulka Centre

in association with Jennifer Isaacs Publishing, Sydney, 1999

Reviewed by Nonie Sharp

Saltwater is the work of 47 Yolngu artists of Yirrkala in northeast Arnhem Land. Their 80 sea paintings on bark are currently touring nationally.[1] The paintings range through Yolngu culture - the footprints of the Ancestral Creator Spirit beings and Law makers, the sacred designs in the seas they bestowed upon the clans, clan properties in the sea, foods of sea country, the salt and fresh waters speaking to one another in the manner of people with kinship and marriage ties, are all represented. The painting by the late Djutjadjutja Mununggurr, a leading Yolngu artist to whom the book is dedicated, is of his land-sea country, where a person’s soul is believed to enter waters protected by a sacred shark.

In 1996 an event which distressed and angered Yolngu people occurred at the sacred place of the Ancestral Crocodile in the sea country of the Madarrpa clan on the shores of Blue Mud Bay. This act was the desecration of a crocodile’s nest by barramundi fishers from ‘outside’. Beginning in anger, their response ended in an act of generosity: the painting of each artist’s sea country to help balanda (the Yolngu name for white people) understand some of the significance of their Ancestral inheritance. Djambawa Marawili, the Chairperson of Buku-Larrnggay Mulka, the Yirrkala Arts Centre, says ‘...if you are living in the way of reconciliation this is how we should live’ and his words are echoed and extended in the introduction, by Djon Mundine OAM: ‘when you, as a member of Australian Society understand it, you will be changed’.

The paintings, beautifully reproduced in book form, are accompanied by commentaries by the artists in cooperation with Buka Larr_gay Mulka, the Yirrkala Arts Centre co-ordinator and staff, and community members who translated and transcribed where necessary. They are intended as expressionss of a way of being which also forms the basis of claims to land and sea in non-indigenous law. Like the strata of a river bed, they carry layers of meaning reaching deep into the Ancestral past. The deepest ‘inside meanings’, as Yolngu call them, are available only to those Yolngu who know the law.

This is by no means the first occasion on which Yolngu have sought to teach the world about the way their sacred designs are their ‘title deeds’ to lands and seas. Thirty years ago, Yolngu presented a petition to the Federal government attached to a piece of stringybark, in defence of their lands threatened by a bauxite mine. They made films of the ceremonies given to them by Creator Beings. Through visual art, they have conducted what Peter Yu, Executive Director of the Kimberley Land Council called for recently – ‘a dignified dialogue’ in the search for reconciliation. On this occasion, the brush and the word go together to depict a resilient, forthright people with vibrant sea traditions. Their generosity is remarkable - but then a people blessed with exceptionally rich spiritual and moral resources can find it in themselves to be generous.

[1] Sydney, Australian National Maritime Museum 5 May - 9 July

Melbourne, The Museum of Modern Art at Heide 19 August - 15 October

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