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.



































Milingimbi Art and Culture Aboriginal Corporation

The Milingimbi Art and Culture Aboriginal Corporation is a community owned Art Centre that maintains an important position in the national art and cultural arena. Milingimbi Art and Culture has a long history of producing works steeped in active cultural practice such as barks, ceremonial poles, carvings and weavings. Works from Milingimbi are integral to important collections in many National and International institutions.



Gululu dhuwala Djalkiri: welcome to the Yolŋu FoundationsChau Chak Wing Museum, Sydney University. 18 Nov 2020 to August 2021.   Representing more than 20 Yolŋu clan groups and 100 artists from eastern Arnhem Land, Gululu dhuwala djalkiri: welcome to the Yolŋu foundations (18 Nov 2020 – August 2021) is one of the major exhibitions for the opening of the University of Sydney’s new Chau Chak Wing Museum. The 350 artworks in Gululu dhuwala djalkiri represent generations of Yolŋu artists and include pieces dating back to the period following the establishment of Methodist missions in Milingimbi and Yirrkala, the late 1920s and 1940s. There anthropologists from the University acquired artworks and objects and took photographs in consultation with Yolŋu as an integral part of their researches. The exhibition also features new work, including a series of hollow logs made by artists of Milingimbi Art and Culture which were a centrepiece of the 2016 Milingimbi Makarraṯa.




Gularri: Yothu yindi. Water Scapes from northern Australia, 22 July to 26 September 2021. Musée du Quai Branly, Paris.

Margaret Rarru and Helen Ganalmirriwuy at Outstation Gallery, Darwin. Opening 20 March 2021.

Cross Art Projects, Sydney. 2021. Renown Milingimbi artist Margaret Rarru will exhibit a selection of weavings and drawings inspired by Macassan /Yolŋu trade alngside artworks by Indonesian artist Ipeh Nur.    

Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair, Darwin Convention Centre, 6 to 8 August 2021.

Tarnanthi Art Fair, Adelaide. October 2021.




Bäpurru ga Bäpurru, 26 August 2020 to 10 January 2021, Kluge Ruhe, USA.  An exhibition of recent print works from Milingimbi and Yirrkala. Works from Milingimbi will include the Bäpurru Memorial suite created in honour of the late Mrs Gorriyindi who passed sudden shortly after working as follow with the Kluge Ruhe in 2018.

Long Water: fibre stories, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 5 September–19 December 2020. A survey exhibition of Indigenous weavers curated by Freja Carmichael. Susan Balbunga, Ruth Nalmakarra, Helen Ganalmirriwuy and Mandy Batjula have created a series of pieces that express the artists connection to water through their weaving practice.

Tarnanthi: Open Hands 16 Oct 2020 – 31 Jan 2021. Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. Milingimbi artists; Susan Balbunga,Wilson Manydjarri, Helen Ganalmirriwuy, Margaret Rarru, Mandy Batjula, Ruth Nalmakarra, Paddy Mugabi, Matthew Djipurrtjun, Samual Wumulul and Jacob Ganambarr have created an installation of mindirr, miny'tji, ḏupun ga manikay (weaving, painting, memorial poles and song) that explores the interconnection of these art forms, and the märi gutharra (grandparent and grandchild) relationship of the Garrawurra and Gamalaŋga clans. 

Tarnanthi Art Fair, at Lot fourteen, 4 to 6 December 2020. This year’s Art Fair features a curated display of selected works for sale, handpicked by community-run art centres to highlight established and next-generation artists. It also includes shop-style sales of countless works by artists from across Australia. In addition, a program of digital presentations will show artists making their work and discussing their motivations, traditions and environment.

Piinpi: Contemporary Indigenous Fashion, Bendigo Art Gallery. 31 October to 29 November 2020. Brings together a selection of garments and textiles by First Nations designers and artists from around Australia including Margaret Rarru's woven pandanus Madonna Bra and Bathi.

Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair, Darwin Convention Centre, August 2020. (This will be an online event)

Wrapped, Woven & Wound, JamFactory, Adelaide. 15 May to 12 July 2020. Presents work from eight female artists, including a mix of sculptural, decorative and functional pieces that explore the use of interlaced or wrapped components. Including works by Mandy Batjula.

The Magic of Black and White, Siemenstraße 40, 71735 Eberdingen-Nussdorf, 19 January 2019 to 1 March 2020. A group exhibition featuring artworks by Australian and Papua New Guinean First Nations People. With a focus on the reduced palette of 'black and white' this exhibition features Helen Ganalmirriwuy's stunning Mol (black) weaving.

The Alchemists: Weaving Knowledge, The Goods Shed, Perth,  4 October 2019. A survey of recent contemporary fibre art from Aboriginal artists and art centres across the country.

Pandanus Noir; Margaret Rarru and Helen Ganalmirriwuy selected weavings, RAFT Artspace, Alice Springs, 2 October 2019. An exbibition featuring a selection of Margaret Rarru and Helen Ganalmirriwuy's Mol (black) woven artworks and several other monochrome pieces.

Ngalya (Together), Koskela, Sydney,  28 August to 22 September 2019. The collection of collaborative lighting designs between designers Koskela and six Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art centres – Bula’Bula Arts, Durrmu Arts, Milingimbi Art and Culture, Moa Arts, Ngarrindjeri Weavers, and Tjanpi Desert Weavers – highlights the innovation and contemporary transformations taking place in Indigenous fibre arts and cultures across Australia. Also on exhibition at Tarnanthi Festival, from 18 October 2019

Contemporary Art from Asia, Australia and the Pacific: A Selection of works from QAGOMA’s Asia Pacific Triennial’ is at Centro Cultural La Moneda in Santiago, Chile from 22 August – 8 December 2019 Including artworks (paintings on bark, memorial poles and weavings) by Margaret Rarru and Helen Ganalmirriwuy.

The Inside World: Contemporary Aboriginal Memorial Poles, Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit, United States of America, 31 July 2019. A survey of contemporary memorial poles from Arnhem Land collected by Debra and Denis Scholl.

GOMA Asia Pacific Triennial, 24 Nov 2018 – 28 Apr 2019 . The Asia Pacific Triennial brings significant art from across the Asia Pacific and Australia to GOMA Brisbane. This exhibition includes Margaret Rarru and Helen Ganalmirriwuy master weavers who also paint their clan body designs in minimalist patterns on barks and poles.

ArtKelch, Freiburg, Germany. Exhibition opening 14th September

Local Colour: experiments with nature, University of New South Wales Gallery, 28 July, 2018  15 September. As the world has become more globalised, people are seeking meaning, connection and everyday solutions in their local communities and environments. Local Colour explores recent art and design practice premised on a concern for environmental sustainability and the conservation of natural resources.

National Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Art Awards. Museum and Gallery Northern Territory, 11 August - 11 November 2018

Gapu Moṉuk, Animal Logic, Ground Floor, 1632 Abbot Kinney Blvd, Venice, CA 90291, USA, 3-20 May 2018, Gallery Hours 11am – 5pm, Thursday through Sunday

Earth Matters at Form Gallery, Perth.  29 September – 28 February 2018
This exhibition explores the enigmatic qualities and materiality of white earth pigments in Aboriginal artwork from the Kimberley (WA), Arnhem Land (NT) and Tiwi Islands (NT) in paintings, and three dimensional works.

Berndt Museum of Anthropology, University of Western Australia at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, Perth, 26th July - 16th December, 2017. Brinning together artworks from the museums historical collection and recently commissioned memorial poles. 

Milingimbi Art and Culture: Gapu Moṉuk, Embassy of Australia, Washington D.C, USA, 3 October, 2017

Gapu ga Rangithirri ga Ngurruthirri ga: the water is coming up, the water is going away at Woolloongabba Art Gallery, Brisbane 613 Stanley St, Woolloongabba, Qld, 26 September - 22 October, 2017

Walma / Moon Rising, Koskela Gallery, Sydney, 29 July - 27 August, 2017

Art from Milingimbi: Taking Memories Back, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 12 November, 2016 - 29 January, 2017. This exhibition provides a snapshot of the artistic excellence evident in the community in the 1950s, celebrating the work of Binyinyuwuy, Buranday, Dayngangan, Dawidi, Djäwa, Djimbarrdjimbarrwuy, Lipundja and Makani, alongside the wider artistic practices in the community at the time.

Yolngu'yulnguy Ngayatham Miny'tji Danydjay Romdhu (Everyone, past present future, we all hold and look after our sacred designs in the depth of the law), Aboriginal and Pacific Art, Sydney, 12 - 30 November, 2016

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