Dhomola Dhäwu / Makassan Sail Story – Ipeh Nur & Margaret Rarru

The exhibition Dhomola Dhäwu / Makassan Sail Story crosses the centuries of contact between sea-farers and traders of the great Indonesian archipelago and saltwater people of northern Aboriginal nations. Dhomala is a Djambarpuyŋu word adapted from the Makassan word dumala, both of which have the dual meaning of sail and cloth.

Drawing on research describing Makassan voyages, the exhibition presents a poetic dimension of cultural contact between great civilisations. The focus is on maritime heritage, specifically wooden boat building and sea-farers’ customs. Through the intimate and reflective work of weaving and drawing and startling contemporary forms and installations, Ipeh Nur and Margaret Rarru revise and revisit ancient practices, many in use today: rock paintings for example, show mindirr / bags in use up to 20,000 years ago.

Ipeh Nur’s sketch-book scale drawings show the rituals of the Makassan and Bugis boatbuilders (once two rival but interlocked kingdoms) and find a way to unlock the complexity of historical narration. For the project Rhizomatic Archipelago (Cemeti Institute for Art and Society with the Biennale Equator, Yogyakarta, 2019), Ipeh participated in the Kelana Laut Residence Program at Pambusuang, a fishing village in South Sulawesi. There she observed, photographed and sketched the building of a perahu padewakang which ultimately sailed to Yirkalla in north east Arnhem Land.

Ipeh observed that, “Various types of rites and traditions are passed down from generation to generation, including rites in treating the products or technologies they create, in this case houses and boats. The house and the boat are believed to have a spirit or soul symbolised by posiq (navel).” Remarkably boatbuilders don’t use plans as the shell construction doesn’t conform to a “design type”, the building is itself an artwork. Ipeh’s drawings and etchings mix ethnography, historic narrative and personal observation into strange and wonderous mise-en-scène for an imaginary theatre. (Full statement below.)Dhomala ga lipalipa (woven sails and dugout canoes) are two of many technologies, traditions and skills that were passed between Yolŋu and Makassans and remain in the memories and everyday lives of Rarru and her extended family. Rarru is one of few people who continue the labour-intensive work of making spectacular dhomala from locally-sourced twined pandanus and hand spun kurrajong fibres and balgurr (bark for making string), work requiring deep understanding of aesthetics, ecology and culture. Rig for perahu (known now as pinisi) or lipa-lipa / lepa-lepa, a dugout canoe made using steel tools, seating up to 10 people, is ratan or plastic with coir or plastic lanyards. The dhomola is braced on a distinctive triangular rig comprising a wooden or bamboo mast and two stays that enabled easy rolling and unrolling, like a bamboo blind, and agility on water. In 2020, approaching her 80th year, Rarru began a series of drawings inspired by the woven dhomala and lipa-lipa. These ink drawings are her first on paper and speak to the enduring connection between Makassar and Arnhem Land and the Yolŋu value of relationships. Rarru’s works are profoundly experimental combinations of the wisdom of history and of those who came before her and pioneer new ways of working interculturally. In some measure they are a response to work by Ipeh, her young contemporary, whose work she has studied. Rarru states that, ‘making baskets makes me happy’, a modesty that denies her work’s sophistication. Mindirr are ancient basket forms carried by the ancestral Djan’kawu sisters on their creative journeys across Arnhem Land. Rarru tightly weaves pandanus leaf strands into monochrome or black fields of subtly graded shades of colour. Her twined strands can create a matt, textured surface, highlighted with slight irregularities due to changes in the spacing and tension of the weave or are startling when she uses mol (black) dye, a recipe she refined and whose use she strictly authorises.

Rarru now works mostly at Yurrwi on her mother’s country, an island in the Crocodile Islands where Milingimbi community is located. The island has a major archaeological site where trepang were processed. Here Makassan and Yolŋu workers dried, boiled then dyed the catch with mangrove bark (Rhizophora or bakau used as a reddish dye in batik) or root bark from the cheesefruit tree (also a red dye), a useful preservative also used on ropes, for the long voyage. Dyes today are likely to be tuber and fruit from shrubs from the genus Haemodorum and/or Pogonolobus reticulatus and black from stringy bark or Eucalyptus tetrodontus says ethno-botanist Glenn Wightman.

The artists’ works meet on a symbolic perahu padewakang, the type of boat used in the trepang trade, now UNESCO world cultural heritage: a site of power issues but also a site of exchanges and crossovers on the ‘Malay Road’. Traders voyaged with the monsoon winds to the coasts of the Kimberley / Kayu Jawa and Arnhem Land / Marege’. Other voyagers such as the Bajo / Bajau visited even earlier. Today’s pinisi are descendants of these magnificent trading vessels.

During their visits, the Makassans and Yolŋu developed social and economic ties, though the extent of these relationships is still being debated by pre-historians and rock art experts, linguists and cultural historians. ‘Makassan’ or a mixture of the trade languages of Malay, Bugis and Makassarese, was once a lingua franca to interact with outsiders and Yolŋu dialects today contain many hundreds of these words. Little is known about pre-Makassan visitors (Baijini people) who settled. The growing set of open questions includes some Yolŋu religious ceremonies strongly inflected with Makassan influences.

In the wake of the Northern Territory Land Rights Act 1976, a strong sense of Indigenous ownership emerged over languages and histories. Makassan contact before the Immigration Restriction Act forced the end of trepang collecting (after the 1906-7 season) is viewed by Yolŋu as a paradigm of co-operative race relations rather than colonial or conflicting relations. Muslim organisations in Australia also recognise and commemorate the long genealogy of contact—the most recent example being the project Before 1770, initiated by a Sydney youth centre and the second re-construction of the voyage of a perahu padewakang. Both perahu sailed from Makassar to Yirkalla (December to January 1988 and 2020 respectively) as symbolic counter-colonial narratives, the first being the Hati Marege now in MAGNT’s Maritime Collection followed by Nur Al Marege (in Arabic, Nur Al means ‘light of’ and Marege’, ‘land of the black people’). Both times the voyagers received a traditional welcome.

Relations between European and Japanese trepangers who followed were deeply troubled. Most flouted the territorial boundary and subsequently ignored the declaration of an “inviolate” Aboriginal Reservation in Arnhem Land. In South Sulawesi and its environs coastal fishing continues in earnest as communities survive on primarily artisanal fisheries and trepang fishers despite decreasing catch sizes. The art of wooden boatbuilding continues.

– Jo Holder, The Cross Art Projects. 2021About Margaret Rarru

Margaret Rarru Garrawurra and her sister Helen Ganalmirriwuy Garrawurra were taught important Liyagawumirr clan designs by their father, and to understand the deep, poetic meanings of ancient creation narratives. The women, led by Ruth Nalmakarra (their sister in Yolngu kinship, or father’s brother’s daughter or cousin in balanda kinship) have forged a revival and reinterpretation of their cultural heritage with great creativity. This includes the right inherited from her brother, Mickey Durrng Garrawurra to paint elegant Liyagawumirr sacred geometry (miny’tji) after his death in 2006. The next year Rarru won the bark painting category at the National Aboriginal and Islander Art Awards, MAGNT.

Garrawurra women from farthest northern Arnhem Land, are central to ceremonial songs and dances that retell the Djan’kawu sisters’ story. The sisters wore beautiful and deeply significant objects and spilled the Dhuwa moiety clans, languages, names and ceremonies from their woven baskets and mats throughout the land. Garrawurra women today honour this heritage in their art through replicating the Djan’kawu regalia and imbue their work, both sacred and secular, with spirit and intensity.

Rarru says, ‘making baskets makes me happy’. Rarru’s formidable weaving practice crosses traditional and cross-cultural knowledge. The mindirr (mol) are ancient basket forms carried by the ancestral Djan’kawu sisters on their creative journeys across Arnhem Land. Mindirr (dilly bags) are used for ceremony and the everyday. Women from the mission at Galawin’ku taught balanda (white) weaving to create the beautiful coil baskets sold to museums and private collectors. Rarru collects gunga (pandanus) and balgurr (bark for making string). The gunga is stripped of its spines, peeled in half, dried in the sun and dyed in a pot over a fire with roots, leaves and other natural materials depending on what colour is being created. Once dyed the gunga is dried again before it is then used for weaving. Rarru also paints with ochre harvested from the rocky areas along the beach on bark and hollow logs and at times, canvas and paper. Rarru also paints women’s bush stories and scenes that capture moments of her life growing up between the islands of Galiwin’ku, Laŋarra and Yurrwi (Milingimbi). Artist Statement, Ipeh Nur

Ipeh Nur, in her artist statement says: I had the opportunity to take part in the Sea Kelana Residency program in Pambusuang Village, Polewali Mandar Regency, West Sulawesi. During the residency process, I examined the traditions or rites of the people related to the sea. Belief in the occult / mystical, palace of the sea, sea ghosts, Prophet Khaidir as the ruler of the sea, and pemali become a form of respect as well as an effort to protect the sea as a source of livelihood. Various types of rites and traditions are passed down from generation to generation, including rites in treating the products or technologies they create, in this case houses and boats. The house and the boat are believed to have a spirit or soul symbolised by posiq (navel). In making a boat, for example a shaman boat is invited to perform the mapposiq (giving a navel) ritual. The navel on the boat presupposes an expectation of salvation and abundance of fortune while at sea. Likewise navel house (posiq boyang), which became a place of ritual to ask for safety and blessing for their relatives who were at sea.

Ipeh Nur lives and works in Yogyakarta. She graduated from the Graphic Arts Department, Indonesian Art Institute. Most of her works are black and white illustrations on paper. Ipeh also works by using techniques and other media, such as screen printing, etching, murals, and sculpture from resin. In 2018, Ipeh held two solo exhibitions each titled Salimah at REDBASE and Banda at Kedai Kebun Forum. Group Exhibitions include: 80 nan Ampuh, Bentara Budaya Yogyakarta (2019), Waktu dan Ingatan Tak Pernah Diam, IVAA, Yogyakarta, Pressing Matters, Framer Framed, Amsterdam (2018).

Special thanks to the artists and Rosita Holmes, Milingimbi Arts and Culture. Video: Salome Harris, Jack Minmiḏi, Margaret Gamuti and Edwina Murphy for translations and sub-titles and editing by Kim Scott at Moon Cube Design. Australia Indonesia Art Forum and Greg Doyle who drew my attention to Ipeh Nur’s work. To Maritime advisors John Waigt and Matt Poll. At Cross Art Projects: Belle Blau, catalogue design, Simon Blau, installation and Susan Gilligan and Phillip Boulten.


Rosita Holmes, Milingimbi Art and Culture, 2021.
Interview with Margaret Rarru Garrawurra, November 2020.
Film stills and studio photographs taken at Langarra homeland, Arnhem Land. Film Translation and subtitles: Salome Harris, Jack Minmiḏi and Edwina Murphy. Courtesy Milingimbi Art and Culture.
Glenn Wightman, Ethno-botany vegetation and flouristics of Milingimbi, 1981 (reprinted 1991), Conservation Commission NT.
Exhibition catalogues
APT9, 2019. Dianne Moon for Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane.
Long water; fibre stories, 2020, Freja Carmichael for Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane.
Ḻiyagawumirr miny’tji, Helen Ganalmirriwuy and Margaret Rarru, 2021, Outstation Gallery, Darwin.
Gululu dhuwala djalkiri: welcome to the Yolŋu foundations, essays by curators Matt Poll and Rebecca Conway for Chau Chak Wing Museum, Sydney University, 2020. Also see ‘Linework’, Power Institute online event series on the histories of making, collecting and Indigenous Art in Australia.
Nick Burningham, ‘Reconstruction of a 19th century Makassan Perahu’, 1988. The Beagle, Records of the Northern Territory Museum of Arts and Sciences, 4(1): 103:128 and 5(1), 155-161.
Regina Ganter, Mixed Relations: Asian/Aboriginal contact in north Australia, 2006. University of Western Australia Press.
Murray Garde, The Marayarr Murrkundja Ceremony Goes to Makassar, 1993. Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation, Maningrida, NT.
Louise Hamby, ed., Twined Together, 2005. Injalak Arts and Crafts, NT. Reprinted Museum Victoria.
C. C. Macknight, The Voyage to Marege’: Macassan Trepangers in northern Australia, 1976. Melbourne University Press.
C. C. Macknight, ‘Harvesting the memory: open beaches in Makassar and Arnhem Land’, in P. Veth, P. Sutton and M. Neale (eds), Strangers on the Shore: Early coastal contacts in Australia, 2008. National Museum of Australia.

Presented by The Cross Art Projects and Milingimbi Art Centre.