A short history of Yolngu activist art

Djambawa Marawili, Istanbul Biennial
Djambawa Marawili AM at the Istanbul Biennial, 2015. Photo: Buku Larrngay Mulka

This is an account of some objects that appeared in the 2015 Istanbul Biennial and how two people responded to them very differently. Carolyn Christov Bakagiev was the curator of that Biennial and the person who identified and assembled the objects for exhibition. She proposed in her accompanying text that the land and sea rights achieved through art from Yirrkala formed perhaps the first case of activist art. And, as reported by The Australian, in her opening speech at the media launch “Christov Bakargiev mentioned the bark petition and Saltwater Collection – the theme of the biennial is saltwater – as early examples of art used to further claims to land.” As she stated, “The bark petition triggered the whole process of restitution of lands and it started with this gift of an artwork.”[1]

Christov Bakargiev, who is Italian–American, curated the 2008 Biennale of Sydney and the 2012 Documenta in Kassel, Germany, both notable for their strong representation of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian art. By this time, she had established a reputation as a provocateur on the international curating and lecture circuit when the British Art Review named her “the most influential person in the art world”.

In support of that stunning claim, for the 14th Istanbul Biennial in 2015, Bakargiev exhibited the Message Sticks from 1935, some of the Berndt Crayon Drawings from 1947, one of the Yirrkala Bark Petitions from 1963, the Thumbprint Petition of the same year, some of the Saltwater Bark Paintings from 1998 and a new work by Djambawa Marawili from 2015 which connected the fire-imbued saltwater of Blue Mud Bay with the ancestral political conflicts of the Bosphorus. These were given a central role in the Biennial, with its overriding title Saltwater: A Theory of Thought Forms.

By coincidence, at a gathering of finance ministers in preparation for the G20[2] meeting in Ankara held the same time, the then Treasurer Joe Hockey visited Istanbul with Australian Ambassador James Larsen. In conversation, Hockey asked what the object on display in a glass case was? It was the Bark Petition. The Yirrkala Bark Petition has been on permanent display in the lobby of Parliament House for the entirety of Hockey’s parliamentary career. It has been described as Australia’s Magna Carta, a document originating outside the circle of power that fundamentally altered democratic governance such that it is honoured within Parliament itself. Not only had he never seen it, Hockey – a senior practitioner in Australia’s democratic process for decades – had never even heard of it, expressing surprise that he had to come to Turkey to learn about it. He is now Australia’s ambassador to the United States of America.

Yirrkala bark petitions
Yirrkala Bark Petition, 1963. Courtesy National Musuem of Australia and presented with permission of the Yolngu people, Yirrkala

In March this year, Ambassador Larsen was almost killed in Ankara while travelling with his daughter near the site of a bomb blast likely set by Kurdish groups seeking autonomy and sovereignty from the Turkish state. This offers a useful point of contrast for Yolngu people, who have been patiently using art to express their cultural and political identity for over eighty years. Bakargiev asserts that they may be the originators of a tradition that now looms large in global art. But, as Hockey shows us, such patient and sophisticated efforts have not been respected within the very corridors of power that control their destiny in Australia.

Applying the principle of spiritual and intellectual sharing, which the Yolngu have used throughout their resistance to colonial ethnocentrism, this article will describe the objects shown in Istanbul. We have not all had the opportunity to work side by side with these objects for decades, but may still benefit from the ideas they support without that privilege.

Yirrkala, bark painting
Djambawa Marawili, Contemporary Madarrpa, natural ochres on bark. Photo: David Silva Photographics

Måk, The Message Sticks

Bugis seafarers from south-western Sulawesi have visited the northern coastline of the continent they call Marege (land of the Black People) for centuries before the British launched an entire “Mars Mission” of a full colony of diseased desperate prisoners to Sydney Cove eighteen years after their one and only visit. From 1770, there had been no intervening reconnaissance, scoping, negotiation, enquiry, environmental impact statement, audit, interrogatory, surveillance or intelligence gathering. Nothing. And then, eighteen years later, motivated by overflowing human garbage bursting out of the hulks permanently moored in the Thames … Bang! The full catastrophe set off to claim a new continent in the name of good governance.

The Yolngu, who had been trading with the Bugis and the Gowan Empire for centuries and who had empathised with them when the Dutch destroyed their four-kilometre square palace in 1664, were spared any invasive contact with the English for another century or so after they had been “claimed” in 1788. But in 1903 a “Stop the Boats” policy was enforced which caused economic collapse in Arnhem Land. The South Australian Government would decide who harvested trepang and the circumstances under which that trepang would be harvested.

Effectively, this led to a vacuum that was filled in the period following World War One by aggressive and undiplomatic Japanese and itinerant Europeans who regularly conflicted with the Yolngu. Yolngu men defended themselves and their women and killed many of these transgressors. In 1933, when a white policeman was speared on Woodah Island by an enraged husband for allegedly attempting to rape a Yolngu woman, the situation came to a head. The Lyons Cabinet debated sending a “punitive expedition” to “teach the Blacks a lesson”.  The husband, Dhakiyarr, was sentenced to death by the Darwin Supreme Court. Subsequently, an appeal to the High Court of Australia[3] acquitted him, but he disappeared immediately upon his release from Fannie Bay Gaol, apparently murdered by the police.

The anthropologist Donald Thompson volunteered to assist in avoiding another sanctioned massacre of Indigenous Australians. He was unpopular within government for his recently filed report detailing “concentration camps” along the Queensland coast where people were being interred and starved to death. It has been suggested that senior bureaucrats in Native Affairs anticipated that the warlike “Balamumu” would execute the young idealist but agreed to his mission. Thompson was smart and somehow gained the trust of three Yolngu men, Natjiyalma, Larkaya and Måk, who were imprisoned in Fannie Bay Gaol for killing Japanese. He was able to learn enough language and manners to persuade them of his good intent. They gave him a Måk, or message stick, to take to their father, Wonggu, a senior elder of the Djapu clan of the Yolngu nation.

History tells us that Thompson and Wonggu developed a warm friendship and that, within days of receiving Thompson at Bayapula on Caledon Bay, Wonggu called Thompson to him and gave him another Måk. A message for those who had sent him that if the Yolngu would no longer be harassed they would cease to kill outsiders. The designs on the object show him sitting down peacefully in his mother’s country. They evoke the state of ecstatic harmony through just dispute resolution characteristic of the Makarratha ceremony.

History also tells us that this marked an end to the serial massacres of Indigenous Australians, which had prevailed since 1788. These two objects can be seen to constitute a Peace Treaty for the continent of Marege between the owners and the new outsiders.

Message sticks, Yirrkala
Yirrkala Message Sticks, 1935. Courtesy Djapu clan (Yothu Yindi), Yolngu nation

Yirrkala Drawings 

Eight years later, Thompson organised with Wonggu the Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit of the Australian Army, which consisted of fifty Yolngu ready to resist the full force of the imminent Japanese invasion. It was not until 1992 that this unit received any pay or recognition by which time all but two were deceased.

In 1947 anthropologist Ronald and Catherine Berndt visited Yirrkala to understand the Law of the Yolngu. Hundreds of bark paintings later, with no sign of the flow stemming, they worried that they would never be able to carry the volume of material being freely generated. Berndt’s father was asked to dispatch crayons and butchers paper as an alternative. He sent the full palette of colours rather than the ochre tones Berndt had intended. The result was 365 dazzling works of philosophy, law and religion made by people who had never held a pencil before nor used anything other than earth pigments. These remained largely hidden until the Art Gallery of NSW exhibition Yirrkala Drawings in late 2013.

Yirrkala Drawing
Dhalwangu freshwater at Gangan, 1947, lumber crayon and chalk on butchers paper. Berndt Collection, University of Western Australia

Yirrkala Church Panels

When the reverend C. F. Gribble lied to the Minister for Territories, Paul Hasluck, saying that he had attended a meeting of Yolngu at Yirrkala in 1963 where they had warmly welcomed the Swiss Bauxite mine being touted by the Government he could not have expected what happened next. The Reverend Edgar Wells, Superintendent of Yirrkala Mission, announced that not only was the matter never discussed at the meeting, but that he had been prohibited from telling the Yolngu of the plans to excise their traditional land from the Arnhem Land Reserve set up to protect them from just such interference.[4]

What resulted are two of the most important artworks in Australian art history: The Yirrkala Church Panels and the Yirrkala Bark Petition. The Panels are two four metre works on Masonite painted in earth pigments by eight artists from each of the two defining halves of Yolngu reality, Yirritja and Dhuwa, which reveal previously secret identities of land, people and spiritual realms. Made for the newly constructed Methodist church they were completed but not installed when Prime Minister Menzies announced the appropriation of Yolngu land for the Swiss mining company’s hundred-square-kilometre open cut mine. The Yirrkala Church Panels featured no Christian imagery and were an attempt to balance that spirituality with the Yolngu cosmology. They were discarded by the Church and left to rot sometime around 1974 but rescued and brought into the fledgling Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre in about 1978.

Yirrkala Church Panels
Yirrkala Church Panels. Photo: Howard Morphy, courtesy Buku Larrngay Mulka

Yirrkala Bark Petition

The angst and fear felt by senior Yolngu at the shock announcement of their dispossession expressed itself in a unique and telling way. They created a series of petitions typed by Wandjuk Marika on his Remington and affixed to pieces of bark, which were consecrated with miny’tji (sacred clan design). Two of these, one Dhuwa and one Yirritja, were sent to the Australian Parliament where their tender was rejected by the Government. The Mission hierarchy suggested that the signatories were unrepresentative and possibly underage troublemakers.

The Petition exhibited in Istanbul was one sent to Gordon Bryant MHR, a champion of the Yolngu, which is now held in the National Museum. The wording and signatories are identical to the two in Parliament House. The text of the Petition in Yolngu matha and English is so mild and deferential it is difficult to understand what an explosive effect it had on Australian democracy. In effect, it asks that, before they endure the fate of the other dispossessed Australian Indigenous groups that have had their land and sacred sites destroyed, they request that an enquiry be held with appropriate translators so that they may be heard and consulted about the fate of this special place.

Yirrkala Church Panels
Thumbprint Petitions, 1963. Courtesy the Department of the House of Representatives, Table Office, House of Representatives

Thumbprint Petition

Once the Government declined to table the Bark Petition in Parliament, the Yolngu created a second document. This document is known as the Thumbprint Petition. It directly led to the tabling of the Yirrkala Bark Petition but was never shown in public until it was exhibited in Istanbul. It comprises 33 thumbprints accompanied by crosses or other marks against the names of the full leadership of Yolngu Law, men and women. Each of these appears against the name of the signatory and is witnessed by a missionary or literate Yolngu. It reveals that the Bark Petition was indeed a corporate expression by the Yolngu nation and that the reason for the small number of signatories is that the leadership were unable to read and write.

The Government clearly understood that they could no longer deny the tabling of the Bark Petition but never tabled the Thumbprint Petition whose existence was forgotten in the files of the Office of the House of Parliament until rediscovered by that Office in the lead up to the fifty-year anniversary of the Bark Petition held in Yirrkala in 2013, which was attended by Prime Minister Rudd and the surviving signatories, now all deceased.

Saltwater Collection bark
Dhukal Wirrpanda, Gapuwarriku at Lutumba, natural ochres on bark. Photo: David Silva

Saltwater Collection

In 2008 the High Court of Australia recognised that Aboriginal ownership of land extended into the sea to the extent of the low tide mark. This decision, known as the Blue Mud Bay case, was initiated by the Yolngu in their Saltwater: Bark Paintings of Sea Country collection and national tour prompted in 1997 as a result of a desecration of a Madarrpa clan sacred site by illegal poachers that year. Fourty-seven artists created eighty paintings detailing the identity and ownership of marine areas along the entire coats of north-east Arnhem Land. This stunning legal victory overturned the English presumption that the sea cannot be owned and will be of immense economic, political and spiritual significance in the future. 

Northern Australia is characterised by huge tidal ranges, shallow seas and extensive Aboriginal coastal land holdings. Through this victory, countless, rivers, creeks, estuaries, floodplains and islands will be protected form the destruction which has been felt in almost all other areas of Australia. It also permits sustainable economic activity by the Yolngu, similar to that which prevailed prior to the cessation of trade with their Bugis kinsman.

Djambawa Marawili created a bark painting specifically for the Istanbul Biennial. Lorr’ (2015) depicts the patterns of five associated waters adjacent within Blue Mud Bay, to which has been added a sixth state of water – the Bosphorus – at the base of the painting, which is seen to wrap around the home of the lightning snake. Enmities, rivalries, disharmonies, hatreds and rank discord are consumed by Mundukul the Lightning Snake and “spat” across the fire-imbued seas of Yathikpa to the horizon. Incinerating and eliminating poisonous, historical grudges, it brought the cleansing powers of Mundukul to Istanbul in the form of Djambawa, further demonstrating that an act of beauty can be activism too.

In our ancestral law the area of Yathikpa (Grindall Bay within Blue Mud Bay) is affected by the sacred fire. Our ancestor Baru was a human who changed to crocodile form. He lit the fire that burns within the saltwater. That story has been given by our great grandfather to our grandfather and now is given to us. We do want to use these patterns which show the identity of our law which reaches out to other Madarrpa, to Gumatj and other clans.

And now the fire is reaching out to meet Turkey. So the patterns have come but not just the fire but the human person who made them is almost coming to Turkey too. I will be there. This is our spiritual way of reaching you. Two messages, the art and the person who made them, are coming too. It is with this faith and this confidence that I can come and meet you. It is in my soul and it is in my blood that I can come and meet you.

I have made a new work to reach out to a new world to go and cleanse the country and to go and stop what has happened before in that country in the first and second world wars. This is what the patterns and designs mean. 
I think by the art it is really reaching out to better healing the past and finding partnerships and relationships for a long term future. Finding a friendly way of meeting for you guys in Turkey. That’s what saltwater can do in our rituals.

Djambawa Marawili


  1. ^ Fiona Gruber, ‘Vernon Ah Kee explores racial brutality in the Istanbul Biennial', The Australian, 10 September 2015:
  2. ^ The meeting Hockey attended was the B20. The B20 leads engagement with G20 governments on behalf of the international business community.
  3. ^ Tuckiar v The King (1934) 52 CLR 335
  4. ^ Edgar Wells, Reward and Punishment in Arnhem Land, Aboriginal Studies Press: Canberra, 1982.
  5. ^ Djambawa Marawili, personal communication with the author. 

Will Stubbs worked as a criminal defence advocate in Sydney and the Top End for ten years. In 1995 he began working at the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre with Andrew Blake. After Andrew left in 2001, Will continued as the art centre co-ordinator. In 2015 he was awarded the Australia Council Visual Arts Award for advocacy.