When you travel to Yirrkala one of the first things you notice is the lack of division between the waters of the Arafura Sea and the vast blue sky. Indeed, the smooth, honey-coloured shore seems to blend in effortlessly with the liquid of the ocean as the water laps its edges. If you take the time to sit in the shallow water just near the beach, away from lurking crocodiles, it is warm and silky. Once immersed, you begin to understand how it is possible to feel a part of something much larger. Things slow down. Once I saw a mass of butterflies move as a soft group across the top of me as I sat in waist-deep water, and a stingray meandered past, not concerned with the human in the water. The clear air acts like a conduit. During times of tropical storms that lash the coast and send stabs of water shearing up the rocks on the edges and boundaries of this place it becomes electric, humming.
Noŋgirrŋa Marawili and Naminapu Maymuru-White know this country intimately. They know its waterways, its electrical currents and its stars. They are artists who draw upon their kinship relations and their encyclopaedic knowledge of the places and family systems to which they belong and have responsibilities to. Noŋgirrŋa is a highly respected senior in the Yirrkala community, knowledgeable in two education systems. She is the daughter of the Madarrpa warrior Mundukul (lightning snake) and Bulunguwuy, a Gålpu woman. Noŋgirrŋa’s husband was the painter Djutjadjutja Munungurr, who initially taught Noŋgirrŋa the cross-hatching style so prevalent in the region and involved his wife in painting his Djapu clan designs.
Mangalili woman Naminapu taught herself to paint, observing her father and well-known uncle Narritjin Maymuru creating miny’tji, sacred creation clan designs, one of the first Yolŋu women to do so. As an artist with skills in not only painting but carving, screenprinting, weaving, linocuts and batik work, Naminapu also completed teacher training and lived in Melbourne and Darwin. Her first exhibition, alongside Banduk Marika, was in Sydney in 1990. Importantly, Naminapu’s uncle Narritjin was a key part of the historic adaptations by Yolŋu Elders of encouraging previously restricted designs to be revealed to the wider Australian community in the pursuit of justice related to the land rights movement—including the now famous Bark Petitions and the Yirrkala Church Panels.
Naminapu and Noŋgirrŋa have always been code-switchers—people who understand how to communicate and transmit in multiple, competing spheres. Both artists are deeply knowledgeable about the ways in which Yolŋu people exist and move between the domains of land, sea and sky, both in their relationship to family traditions of practice and broader political concerns. The “organic geometry” of Noŋgirrŋa’s work is evocative of the natural rhythms of the places in and around Yirrkala, and in particular her own Madarrpa country.
Noŋgirrŋa’s work often references Yathikpa—a location within Blue Mud Bay and an important saltwater locale for Madarrpa people. In fact, her own name references the thick jungle found at this place. There is a story that talks about Bäru the crocodile diving into the sea here, his body aflame (a semiotic representative of knowledge) becoming the centre from which fire spread across the country and distributed learning to many clans. Fire and water intrinsically bound together create wisdom, without which all comprehension might cease to exist.
Naminapu often paints the Milky Way and other constellations important to her clan and more broadly the Yolŋu people. Naminapu has often painted the Guwak men—Ancestral beings who travelled out to sea from the Milngiya River, where they gave themselves as offerings to become stars. They can be seen today as the voids within the Milky Way, and this is depicted by Naminapu in sometimes aesthetically literal ways on ḻarrakitj poles and barks. But there is nothing literal about the esoteric narrative embedded within. For both artists, land, sea and sky are connected like parts of a human body that cannot exist or work without the other.
For those who decontextualise land through the lens of capitalism, the sky and the ocean can be an afterthought with the exception perhaps for when it comes to the resale value of a property with a view. But when the land begins to burn—when there are bushfires so destructive and so intense that their smoke obliterates a clear view of the sky—there begins to grow the seed of realisation that there is an interconnection between all things.
When the planet’s sea levels rise because the ice caps are melting due to climate change, and land is gradually being taken over by the water, where do we hold our stories? What happens to our repositories of knowledge? If the temperature of seawater changes so much that fish, seafood and other water-based resources, such as kelp, cannot breed and subsequently die out, how do we talk about the origin stories of how these things were made? What happens to these oral histories without the living touchstones of that narrative? How do we access our culture?
In Sydney right now, where I am writing this, the night sky has not been visible for over three months due to the intense, inescapable and “unprecedented” bushfires. The ability to see the stars, to connect those constellations and movements of the shifting aerial-scape to what is happening below is a way of facilitating the continuity of Indigenous culture, to maintain a holistic sense of a connected worldview that relies on these intersections and overlapping junctions to survive. The degradation of our country everywhere is a recolonisation of space.
Noŋgirrŋa and Naminapu speak about the critical importance of maintaining and refreshing these connective tissues of culture through artistic output. They are, in a very real political sense, explaining to a broader audience the urgency with which we need to change our thinking to reflect an ecologically partisan view that encompasses Country and kinship—the gamut of our human experience writ large in mark-making from a place where land, sea and sky meet.
Clothilde Bullen is a Wardandi (Nyoongar) and Badimaya (Yamatji) woman with English/French heritage and is the Senior Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Collections and Exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia.