The land and sea can't talk; We have to talk for them

Djambawa Marawili AM, Yilpara Homeland, Blue Mud Bay, 2015. Photo courtesy Creative Cowboy Films
Djambawa Marawili AM, Yilpara Homeland, Blue Mud Bay, 2015. Photo courtesy Creative Cowboy Films

Through the decade from 1997 to 2009 major collective painting projects played pivotal roles in two of Northern Australia’s largest land and sea rights claims. This conversation recalls and celebrates the Saltwater Collection, now held by the National Maritime Museum, Sydney, and Ngurrara II, “The Great Sandy Desert Canvas”, held at Mangkaja Arts, Fitzroy Crossing.

The Saltwater Collection includes eighty bark paintings by 47 Yolngu artists and the accompanying book, now in its second edition (2004).[1] This extensive collaboration of artists from fifteen clans and eighteen homeland communities in east Arnhem Land was initiated by Madarrpa clan leader Djambawa Marawili in 1997, following his indignation at discovering illegal fishing on a sacred site in his clan estate. The 80 paintings jointly form a comprehensive map of saltwater country from Wessel Island in the north to Blue Mud Bay in the South, with barks displaying sacred clan designs demonstrating enduring connection to specific sea country. Saltwater was a key catalyst and evidence base for the landmark Blue Mud Bay Federal High Court sea rights claim, successfully concluded in July 2008.

The High Court of Australia in the 2008 Blue Mud Bay case confirmed that traditional owners of over 85% of the Northern Territory coast have exclusive rights over the intertidal zone (between high and low water mark) and tidal rivers to the extent of the tidal-influence.[2] This effectively confirmed that the intertidal zone is Aboriginal land pursuant to the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976, giving traditional owners the rights to care for and manage the area, and to control access, including for fishing.

Yolngu in front of the High Court
As many Yolngu people as possible who were connected with the sea rights struggle travelled to the High Court in Canberra to stand as witnesses to this historic occasion. Photo courtesy Buku Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre

Around the same time, Ngurrara people[3] in Western Australia were fighting the Ngurrara claim, the largest native title claim in the Kimberley, extending over a vast area of the southern desert. Wangkajunga and Walmajarri elder Ngarralja Tommy May came up with the idea to make a collective canvas.

To start the land claim work we went to Kurtal.[4] We went twice. The first time we cleaned out the jila and two women were the only ones who painted. Later, we were wondering how to tell the court about our country. I said then, “If Kartiya [Europeans] can’t believe our word, they can look at our painting, it all says the same thing.” We got the idea of using our paintings in the court as evidence.[5]

Ngarralja Tommy May

The Ngurrara Canvas II was painted in 1997 at Pirnini outstation during the first Ngurrara Native Title Tribunal hearing. The collaborative work of 43 Walmajarri, Wangkajunga, Mangala and Juwaliny artist claimants, the immense canvas, produced over ten days, maps all the living water, the sacred jila (water holes) and juma (soaks) across the regions of the claim.

Nyilpirr Spider Snell dancing Kurtal (snake dreaming) on the Ngurrura Canvas in Canberra in 1977 to remind those sitting on the High Court of the depth of his people's claim.
Nyilpirr Spider Snell dancing Kurtal (snake dreaming) on the Ngurrura Canvas in Canberra in 1977 to remind those sitting on the High Court of the depth of his people's claim.

The major victory of the Ngurrara claim was determined at Pirnini outstation in November 2009, encompassing nearly 80,000 square kilometres of desert country, which the claimants had been driven off in the 1950s and 60s. The 1997 big canvas which evidenced enduring and specific relationship to ancestral country, was displayed on site. After the 2007 victory the Ngurrara immediately introduced formal care for country provisions. Further small claims were determined in 2012, however Kurtal, the key sacred waterhole for renowned artists Spider and Dolly Snell and Ngarralja Tommy May, is still concluding determination. The artists’ quarter-century quest to regain full custodianship of Kurtal is the moving central theme of director Nicole Ma’s 2015 award-winning documentary Putuparri and the Rainmakers.

Saltwater (2007) and Ngurrura Canvas II (2007) are remarkable efforts of artistic leadership and collective intervention. Both toured nationally to museums and galleries during the claim periods; and entered Australian art and legal history. These are activist artworks  which continue to work in multiple worlds. Their acceptance as “title deeds” for country, recognises traditional Indigenous as well as mainstream Australian law. They bring sacred (previously closed) knowledge into a new open world and their content guides landcare. As such, they actualise, in a very different context, the dream of the 20th-century European avant-garde “to re-organise a new life praxis from a basis in art”[6], and in doing so to make art practical again.

Djambawa Marawili: The Saltwater Collection and the Blue Mud Bay Case

Saltwater Collection, Australian National Maritime Museum
Saltwater Collection, Australian National Maritime Museum

It is important to keep talking about the land and the sea. The message went cold and hidden away recently. Government people say we respect you for your country and your leaders. You know they always say this. But whether they are really sure? Whether they are respecting the land? Whether they are respecting the elders? Whether they are respecting the culture? For us, it is really important to continue to express ourselves and share what we have done for our people through the land and sea rights. This is still one of the very important things.

We need to put that message out there: that Aboriginal people are really connected with those countries by inherited title (given to us Yolngu by Barama, for Yirritja people, and Ganguwu, for Dhuwa people and by the ancestral beings).[7] We really want to run our own affairs in our own tribal countries. The Saltwater paintings and book, are telling us this. There are patterns and designs and stories beyond: as sand sculpture, sacred dilly bags, song, dancing and culture. These are our Rom (law).

Some people are saying that now the culture is different. The law and the country are different. Or the sea is different. But in those areas along the coast of Arnhem Land and the Northern Territory the patterns are there, and the stories and songs are there, where they were laid by the ancestral beings. Those paintings are documenting and telling people that we really do have our rights to maintain and manage the land, and that whenever big things come into our lives, like mining or other big things, we need to write, to paint, to speak up.  So that people can see that we own those places. It is for everyone. For whitefella and blackfella. We have totally a right to manage and speak for those areas, and to share our knowledge and wisdom about the country. And when new jobs are being built up on country, the mainstream needs to look to the owners of that river and that bay. The clan groups who are connected to it by title. They are the right people. It is not enough just to talk about Aborigines. 

Victory Celebrations
Sea Rights Victory Celebrations, Yilpara Homeland, Blue Mud Bay, 2009. Photo: Isaiah Balcombe Ehrlich

In the early days people were painting for pleasure, or to show who they are. They did not know how to speak English or to write. But they made objects with their own hands, to tell those early missionaries and visitors who they are.  They were describing themselves in those objects.  Saying – I am Yirritja, I have songs, I have names, I have the patterns and designs for this country. This is what they were showing through those patterns. 

But when my time came from the 1970s, when I became an artist.  I wanted to do something to turn things around and make sure everyone understands what I am trying to tell all Australians. To start with, I was speaking in English and not allowing people to go around fishing in my bay without permission.[8] But they still did not understand what I was saying. So I had to do it another way. I turned it around and put the message into art with the Saltwater project.  The art was coming from those individual bays – from the important places. The bays have patterns and designs and stories – in the bay and on the sea and the land – those designs are titles for the Country. We got together will all the clans and put the patterns and designs on the art, because I knew they were a document of those countries and for individual clan groups. My father [artist Wakuthi Marawili] taught me. In the balanda world I think we can say they are documents: a message to the world, and also to Australia, and to the younger generation, our grandsons and granddaughters.

You know that was one of the big things we did with Saltwater.  To put our soul out in public. To share our patterns and designs – our souls. Some of our families – Yirritja and Dhuwa – said to me: Why are you digging our minds? Why are you digging our souls? Why are you draining our knowledge?  You are killing us.  And I wanted to answer them back. You know – we are not talking about you now. We are talking about the generations who are coming behind us. And that imagination and that vision is what is happening today in 2016 and 2017.

Djambawa Marawili, Contemporary Madarrpa, natural ochres on bark. Saltwater Collection. Photo: David Silva Photographics
Djambawa Marawili, Contemporary Madarrpa, natural ochres on bark. Saltwater Collection. Photo: David Silva Photographics

So now, when everybody says “Oh they have culture”, the story is like this: the land is there, but the land cannot talk. The people who are living on that country, or who are connected to that country – they will talk. They will describe in two ways: by talking in languages [Indigenous languages and English]; and by demonstrating, by singing and dancing and, if they cannot understand that, through patterns and designs. If they cannot read the patterns and designs by connection or cannot listen to the story, then there is sand sculpture. The sand sculpture is really connected onto the country. Every bay has stories and patterns and designs and the sand sculptures are connected onto the country, like a stamp. You know. You go and put a stamp on paper or whatever. This is a stamp. That is what sand sculpture means to me. But to other blackfella and whitefella, they have to realise and know and understand about their own significant sacred sites and sacred areas.

People should listen and learn and understand, because this is what Australia means. Australia has patterns and designs and stories, and objects beyond that. Australia has a culture, a significant culture for both worlds. For blackfella and whitefella to know about and to understand. What is the meaning of blue white water in the sea?  And the green ferrying water running from the inland? And also the aggy baggy blue water inland? It is all meaningful, and they all have stories. And this is what I say; this knowledge is a document for the country. Of course it is.

Mud flats at Yathikpa, still from Let's Care for Country (Dir. Marcus Barber and Djambawa Marawili). Courtesy The Mulka Project
Mud flats at Yathikpa, still from Let’s Care for Country (Dir. Marcus Barber and Djambawa Marawili). Courtesy The Mulka Project

But we are on a different territory today when new things are coming into out lives, like mining and money affairs, and sometimes Yolngu people don’t care about what belongs to us. But if we do care for those bays and rivers, and the water holes and rocks, it is a very powerful part of our connections and titles that we remain to care for those countries. In the old times, in Arnhem Land countries, people were living and doing their art. They were putting it in the church. We used to call it Ngarra. Ngarra people ran the significant sacred ceremonies. They put their patterns and designs on their chests like we still do – to tell that the pattern came from their country. This was Yirritja and Dhuwa all telling each other. There was also a mark – shapes: like diamonds, or curly marks, or stripy ones. The patterns belonged to the different clan groups and they were like titles.

Yolngu people of knowledge don’t need to dig. I have knowledge written by my grandfather and my fathers. I don’t have to go to initiation any more. I went through all those laws. When I was born, then as a young adolescent, then progressing to being the highest ceremonial leader (in Yolngu systems) as a Djirrikay. It’s like you progress though university and become a doctor and a professor. In the beginning it was about things like dancing, singing, making yidaki [didgeridoo] and picking up bilma [clapping sticks]. Then about going back over again and again.

Then I have to be a leader, a spokesman, a warrior. To come to that stage where you have to be peaceful and practice humbleness and kindness, before you come down further and have to be a hunter, then you become a worker. You go from on high and down again to be a spokesman or worker. You have to listen to all the people, listen to the community, be a leader. That Saltwater Collection shows that we are the artists. We are archaeologists. We are the anthropologists. We have this knowledge in our own right and choose to share it through our art. We bring it into the stage where people can see and learn how to read and understand the country.

Annette Kogolo: The Great Sandy Desert Canvas and the Ngurra native title claim

Annette Kogolo speaking at the World Indigenous Network Conference (WIN), Darwin, 2013
Annette Kogolo speaking at the World Indigenous Network Conference (WIN), Darwin, 2013

I believe that [native title] is about blackfella law. The painting is only for proof. When I go to court to tell my story, I must listen very carefully before I open my mouth. Maybe the kartiya will say, “We don’t believe you” … That’s why we made this panting, for evidence. We have painted our story for native title people, as proof. We want them to understand, so that they know about our painting, our country, our ngurrar. They are all the same thing.

Ngarralja Tommy May[9]

The Ngurrara Canvas II is our heritage. It is the map of our country. It tells about the strong lines of our traditional knowledge. It tells us the important places that we need to manage. And it tells the rangers what they need to do on country to keep country healthy. Our caring for country activities need to be linked to this important knowledge. It is a very, very large canvas (about 10 x 8 metres). At the moment, it is being kept at our Mangkaja art centre at Fitzroy Crossing. The Ngurrara Canvas Mangkaja Group was formed in 2015 to manage the canvas and to make sure it is shared with the next generations.

The canvas gives us a map made by our elders. Because they don’t understand English and they don’t understand how to read and write, they came together and talked about how we are we going to tell government that we are the bosses of our land. We are the owners and the keepers of our land. And the important way they thought about it was for the four language groups – the Walmajarri, Wangkajunga, Mangala and Juwaliny people – to come together and decide to paint together and tell their stories through their art. This was actually a really good way: a picture, to show people where their country is. So they painted from the top and to the bottom and right across, on our country. When we had the people from the native title and the government coming to talk to us about country, the elders came up and stood on their painting and said this is my place. This is where I was born. This is where I once lived, hunted and gathered. It is a very important place. And we very much know that we strongly are the owners of our land.

One of the most important things is that, when we got our native title, our land back from 2007, we said, look what are we going to do about looking after our country?  The first thing was to think about employing and encouraging our young people to come back onto country and to learn how to look after it. For the elders to pass on the traditional knowledge, so we can look after the country and work in a better way, and keep things going how it used to be, a long time ago. Since our elders and our families had to leave the land through to the late 1950s, everything wasn’t maintained properly. Our jila [water holes]. We are the jila people. In the desert we have to dig for our jila and the water comes up to the surface. It is always important to protect and look after them. We share them with our animals, and we look after the plants, and everything that lives on the land. So everything has been shared.  Making sure that everything is good on country.

Our IPA [Warlu Jilajaa Jumu Indigenous Protected Area] tells us the protocols to look after country.[10] It was declared on the day of our native title. It was determined in that year [2007]. But it is not only the area of the IPA that needs to be protected. It is everywhere that needs to be protected. That is the most important thing we think of every day, caring for and sharing that knowledge of country. Visting this very large country, where we work together with the other language groups to make sure these places are being worked on and cared for.

Ngurrara Canvas II produced by 43 artists and claimants in 1997 in support of the Ngurrara people’s land claims. Photographed here in 2015 after the inaugural meeting of the Ngurrara Canvas Management Group that was established to direct its future care and use. © Mangkaja Arts Resources Agency
Ngurrara Canvas II produced by 43 artists and claimants in 1997 in support of the Ngurrara people’s land claims. Photographed here in 2015 after the inaugural meeting of the Ngurrara Canvas Management Group that was established to direct its future care and use. © Mangkaja Arts Resources Agency



  1. ^ Saltwater Paintings of Sea Country: The Recognition of Indigenous Sea Rights, second edition, Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre in association with Jennifer Isaacs & Associates, 2014.
  2. ^ See Ron Levy, ‘The Legal Battle’, ibid, p. 115.
  3. ^ Ngurrurara means home, the place that they “have feeling for” from The Ngurrarawarnto Wulya Martarnupurru: Ngurrara Healthy Country Plan 2012–2022.
  4. ^ Kurtal is the sacred jila (water hole) which Ngarralja Tommy May, and artists Dolly (deceased) and Spider Snell are connected to. 
  5. ^ Ngurrara: The Great Sandy Desert Canvas, A South Australian Museum travelling exhibition, catalogue, 2007. Unpaginated.
  6. ^ Peter Bürger (trans. Michael Shaw), Theory of the Avant-Garde, Manchester University Press, 1974, p. 49.
  7. ^ Everything in the Yolngu worldview (including people and everything that is part of the land) is made up of two moieties, Yirritja and Dhuwa. 
  8. ^ The Garranali sacred site near the homeland community of Yilpara/Baniyala. 
  9. ^ Quoted in Kirsten Anker, ‘The Truth in Painting: cultural artefacts as proof of native title’, Law Text, Culture, vol. 9: Legal Spaces, Article 5, 2005, p. 145. 
  10. ^ The Warlu Jilajaa Jumu Indigenous Protected Area:  'covers an incredible 1.6 million hectares of arid scrub and desert wetlands in the north-west of Western Australia’s Great Sandy Desert. Cared for by its traditional owners, the Ngurrara, the area is named after the fire they use to keep the land healthy (warlu) and the permanent waterholes (jila or ‘living water’) and seasonal soaks (jumu) that are their key source of water.’  

This article builds on a session with the same title by the authors at the World Indigenous Network Connference (WIN), Darwin, 2013.

Djambawa Marawili AM is Yolngu Madarrpa clan leader from Yilpara/Baniyala Homeland in Blue Mud Bay, Arnhem Land. In the 1970s, during the homeland movement he returned with his father Wukuthil Marawili to Yilpara the area where his ancestors had been buried for time immemorial. Djambawa was Chairman of his art centre, Buku Larrngay Mulka 1994–2000, and of the Arnhem Land and Kimberley Artists (ANKA) Aboriginal Corporation, 2000–16. He has sat on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board of the Australia Council and is currently a member of the Prime Ministers Indigenous Advisory Council. Mr Marawili is a Djirrikay, the highest level of Yolngu ceremonial leadership.

Annette Puruta Wayawu Kogolo is a senior Walmajarri woman and traditional owner. Annette is an active member of her art centre Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency and a cultural advisor for the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre and was ANKA Deputy chair 2011–12. She was a claimant and interpreted for the Ngurrara Native Title Determination in 2007 (Justice Gilmore and Mr Dan O’Dea, Member National Native Title Tribunal).