Historical collections and contemporary art production in Milingimbi

Back to the Future – Historical collections and contemporary art production in Milingimbi
Ruth Nalmakarra and Rosita Holmes in conversation

In 2019 Rebecca Conway, Curator Ethnography, Macleay Collections, invited Ruth Nalmakarra and Rosita Holmes to make a contribution to the exhibition catalogue for the major exhibition Gululu dhuwala djalkiri that opened at the Chau Chak Wing Museum in November 2020. Gululu dhuwala djalkiri is an exhibition of artworks recently commissioned drawn from the University of Sydney’s collection’s. Below is Nalmakarra and Rosita’s response.

RH: You remember Rebecca Conway from the University of Sydney? We have been thinking with her about that exhibition with the old collection artworks and the makarrata; dupun?

RN: Yo. I know.

RH: She is making a book for the exhibition – she’s asked us to share some story about contemporary art practice in Milingimbi – why working with collections is an important part of Yolŋu.

making artwork today.

RN: Ma.

RH: I thought that we could start with you introducing yourself and sharing about how you became a person that researchers and academics look to when working with artworks from historical collections?

RN: Before I started to learn about collections I had to learn the stories for the different clans miny’tji (design). I knew the stories and could recognise the miny’tji of my mother, grandmother and yapa clans but I had to learn to understand the pattern and law of the other clans. I had to find the a strong (art centre) manager – we had many coming and staying for 6 months but I needed one that would stay and learn with me. I found Chris (Durkin). He came and I was teaching him, he was teaching me and the men were teaching us too. When they (the artists) tell us the story (for their painting) we also learn the law because we have to know which is the public story and which is the sacred (private) story. They had to trust Chris and tell the story to him so that he can keep it in his mind while he is doing all the different work at the art centre.

Chris and I were writing down the stories for every artwork and through that I learnt so many exciting things, so many interesting stories. Chris and I were learning to see the country, clan and law in the miny’tji for all the different clans.

RH: So you were working closely with Chris at the art centre and listening to the senior Yolngu  – when did you start working with historical collections and people from museums?

RN: That started to happen when I met Lindy (Allen,senior curator at Museum Victoria) and (Dr) Louise (Hamby, researcher fellow at Australian National University). They were visiting (Dr) Joe Gumbala at Galiwin’ku (Elcho Island). He was also travelling with them to the museums in the south. We made a project and invited them to my Gadiyak, my families country. The stories live in the country so we took the Donald Thomson Collection images to my country.

There were too many images – some of them were just the image and no story with it. So we had to sit and look at all the images and then ask other Yolngu to come and look and talk about them. That’s when we started to get the stories back.

That’s where I learnt that those old collections were there and that we needed to see them and put their stories back. This made me to understand why I had to look after the art centre and all of the artworks.

I can’t work by myself to do this I have to be talking to the community, the artists and the leaders who have a lot of knowledge both women and men. That’s how Chris learned, he was asking ‘who’s painting is this?’ ‘how am I related to this painting?’ He can ask ‘how am I related to this painting?’ because we adopted him. We had to adopt him so that he can be family with us and so that when he leaves he can think about his family and come back. It makes him feel comfortable working with the artworks and being in the building.

RH: Can I check, is part of the reason why Yolngu adoption of balanda (European people) is important in this conversation because it helps us to begin to understand the layers of relationship in Yolngu paintings? That by adopting someone you are giving that person a tool or a set of coordinates so that they can start to see the layers of relationship between self, family, clan, country, moiety, animals, song and all the elements like wind, water, rain?

RN: He (Chris) has to listen to his brothers, fathers and mothers, he has to know them and he has to learn from their djuŋgayi (people of his mother’s clan who are caretakers of his clan’s ceremonies). He also has to know who are the neighbours. Where do the songlines travel from and where are they going. Then he can start to think about the paintings and to hold them in his mind.

RH: Listening to you I am getting a sense that understanding and cultivating relationships is an important part of working with collections. You have talked about how when you are working with old artworks or photos it is important that you talk with other Yolŋu. You have also spoken about the importance of having an art centre manager that can work with you as well as your partnerships with museum curators and academics. Would you agree that, working with collections can teach us about working together, to understand artworks and Yolngu world view, and in a wider sense to see each other’s difference and to find paths that we can walk together?

RN: We have to keep the old artworks and the stories safe. We do that by working together, by listening and thinking together.

We have had managers here that have made big mistakes, they weren’t speaking to Yolngu and just wanted to work on their own – we asked them to leave because we don’t want the art centre to fall down. We have to work with people with the right heart.

RH: The art centre has had a lot of momentum and a focus on increasing its capacity to work with historical collections since 2016. One significant event was the Makarrata. Can you explain why the Makarrata was important?

RN: I stood up (during the Makarrata) and said that we want our work here at Milingimbi Community, Arnhem Land, on Yolngu country. We need the images and some of the old objects. Because this is where the people are and they need to see the old people, objects and artworks in the photos so that they can continue bringing that work into the future.

When all the images are here we will be happy because we need to look and remember the past and then to bring the memories back to the future.

This is happening already. We are putting the story with the images here at our art centre and the museum can call us up and ask us about artworks. We have to do this now because there might be a time when the songs are forgotten because the children and grandchildren aren’t sitting with their fathers and grandfathers (during ceremony).

My wawas (brothers), Micky and Johnny, when they were getting sick they said ‘yapas I’m thinking of passing the gamunuŋgu to the right person who can have the right heart and be strong for that painting, manikay (song) and buŋgul (ceremony).’

RH: And that person was you and your yapas?

RN: (laughs and smiles)

RH: Has your work as a director of ANKA* informed your understanding of historical collections?

RN: It helped me to look after all of the artworks. I have to look after the artworks and the collections because I am part of them and they are part of me. This is why we have to take care to know all of the artworks. It is important and it is part of us.

RH: What was it about working with ANKA that made that feeling so strong?

RN: When I was on the ANKA board I encouraged other art workers and people from other communities. I could talk to them because I was strong because my old people were strong and they helped me to be a strong person in the work that I did.

I was also hearing from the other (ANKA) directors what they were doing and I was sharing this with my community. We were encouraging each other to stand for our culture and values.

The AWEP** training helped us because we were learning and thinking in both ways. If we can think in both ways, balanda and Yol;ju, we can learn from each other and make a new path.

RH: During the time that you have been working with historical collections have you seen changes in how this work is done?

RN: Yolŋu have been travelling south to walk through the museums and visit the objects. Then we said ‘hey, you should come to us, to our country.’ Now Yolngu are all talking together, we are looking at the images on the computer and we are passing the message between us. When we work together we are looking closely at the image remembering the different design, talking to the clan for that design, and talking to the djuŋgayi clan. We will talk to the son, grandchildren or great grandchildren. The story comes in from different people – and then it goes out together. This is how we keep making the dhukarr (path) strong. I am feeling happy because now it is happening.

Many researchers have come, I was helping them and they were helping me. We were learning together. Through that I was feeling strong. There was a time when I was feeling in a nowhere place but our (Yolŋu) value comes back with the old artworks and the stories.

It was a long journey from the time I had that understanding of the story from my own clan, and then, it was getting bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger, I was catching up with the different clan groups.

RH: Following your travel to the Museum der Kulturen Basel and Musée d’ethnographie de Genève, Switzerland last year, Roberta Colombo (Curator Oceania, MdK) and Beatrice Voirol (Curator Oceania, MEG) visited Milingimbi with Lindy Allen and Louise Hamby. During an artist meeting with them present your sister Helen Ganalmirriwuy stood up and said ‘you are holding a big story in the museum in your country and when we work together we bring the stories back to Milingimbi.’ I understand that it is important to bring the stories back to Milingimbi, however I am wondering if you also feel that it is important that those stories are now all over the world?

RN: That is right, it is all over. The artworks have travelled all over the world and now we can take the stories to those places as well as bring them back. We want to share that knowledge not just keep it for ourselves on a small island.

We are happy when people contact our art centre on the email or phone and tell us we have this artwork here – we say ‘we want the images of it’ – so they send the images.

RH: Often when images are repatriated to the art centre Yolŋu will discuss the story and then someone with authority will make a new work with that story. The new artwork doesn’t look identical, it will show the hand of the contemporary artist however the law or songline will be the same. I am wondering if this is like when balanda go to university. At the university we learn about the ideas and philosophies of the past in order to understand the present and to create the future.

RN: We make the future by looking at our grandfathers painting and making it new. The law and story always is the same but we might put it on the dupun (hollow log) or mindirr (woven conical bag).

For me, I can use the 3 Garrawurra colours in stripe, cross, round or boarder.

RH: Anything else you want to say about why working with collections is important?

RN: Because we want to carry on going on and on. Because our feeling tells us to carry on that knowledge forever. We are doing this in partnership with balanda that have the right heart. It doesn’t matter that sometimes we have a problem. We have to break that problem apart and make the straight path. We have to keep going together. If there is something wrong we have to talk to each other.

* Association of Northern, Kimberly and Arnhem Aboriginal Artists, peak body of northern art centres
** The Art Worker Extension Program (AWEP) is delivered by ANKA

Ruth Nalmakarra is a senior Garrawurra women. She is an accomplished artist and cultural advisor at her art centre, Milingimbi Art and Culture. Ruth was also employed as assistant manager for many years and has served on the centre’s board of directors. She has contributed generously to the research of many curators and academics and has been a long- standing director and special advisor to, art centre peak body, ANKA.

Rosita Holmes has been an employee at Milingimbi Art and Culture since 2016. She began working with Aboriginal Art Centres in 2011.  

Image: Helen Ganalmirriwuy and Ruth Nalmakarra visiting the Museum der Kulturen stores, 2018.

The above interview was published in the exhibition catalogue Djalkiri; Yolŋu art, collaborations and collections. See the Chau Chak Wing Museum website to purchase a copy.