Milingimbi: A Living Culture at Berndt Museum

Presented by the Berndt Museum, Milingimbi: A Living Culture is a selection of works from the school of art from Milingimbi Island just off the north-east coast of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory that date from the 1940s until today.

Milingimbi is a small island off the Arnhem coast and was the site of the first mission in Arnhem Land which was founded 100 years ago. It quickly became a focal point for cross cultural and artistic contact and research. Community life here is underpinned by cultural practice of which art making is key. Artistic practice inhabits a core place in Yolngu society; it is not a peripheral, unimportant, hobbyist pursuit as often perceived in the non Indigenous world. It is core to governance and title, to county and ceremony, unity and identity.

Stories and clan designs are essential to a sense of place and self. Yolngu, after hundreds of years of contact with outsiders, have a sophisticated relationship with ‘the other’ and its integration into their own cultural practice and world view. Foreign concepts, animals and materials are often integrated in to cultural systems and ceremonial practice over time, as is evident in the Yicky (knife) ceremony, a familiarity with Rupiya (money) and the mention of Alah in ceremonial Manikay (songs) after the hundreds of years of commerce with Macassan people. Yolngu do not necessarily engage in purely creative artistic processes (as non Indigenous artists do) and if they do, there is a clearly stated delineation between traditional and creative practice. The creation of new works are central to life. They are a key to binding language, country and ceremonial identity together. This is extremely important on a community that is home to around 15 – 20 language groups, where access to traditional country can be limited.

The Dhapi or ‘making young man’ ceremony involves the painting of intricate clan designs on the chest of the young initiates. In early mission times as now, these same designs were painted on a bark skin and collected by missionaries, anthropologists and collectors, and distributed to museums and art galleries worldwide. Works from Milingimbi comprise a large portion of their foundational collections.

The works you see here are passed through generations without significant alteration. However, variation in these designs and ‘new works’ may evolve over time. Milingimbi Art Centre staff and artists are currently engaged in dialogue about making sure old designs are kept in circulation while working on the variation and reworking of common design themes that will freshen art making and result in the continued creation of dynamic new works. There continues to be an interesting discussion that brings to light differing economic and cultural priorities and systems often at odds with each other. The non Indigenous lust for aesthetic appeal vs Yolngu cultural systems generations old, that is framed by a changing economy that presents significant challenges to the often culturally conservative law holders of Milingimbi.

It is important to contemporary cultural practitioners from Milingimbi that they are viewed as more than painters or artists. Their works are steeped in living traditions that require constant ceremonial practice, the maintenance of an encyclopedic knowledge base and the deft navigation of two worlds. There is an ongoing negotiation with change through population movement, density and diversity to ensure their designs; their traditions are distinct, living and honored. Passing intricate knowledge to new generations is a core priority that is becoming infinitely more challenging as Yolngu are pressed into welfare and work for the dole programs that often result in disempowerment, boredom and confusion that monopolises their time and limits geographical movement crucial to ceremonial practice. There are very few jobs on the community. There is not enough housing and many families have resorted to living in tents that are perched under awnings and now line the beach front. People often go hungry.

Art Centres continue to navigate a unique set of challenges and taking on a variety of roles within communities. We are cultural hubs, employers, trainers, studios and social workers. MACAC is the only functioning Aboriginal Corporation on the community that is Milingimbi centric. We are a sales point and a not for profit, a registered charity that is often mistaken for a non Indigenous gallery. The Centre is challenged to continually self assess and bring balance to our delivery of services to the community. We are the only culturally driven organisation on the community governed by a Yolngu board. We are here to create culturally based employment, incomes for cultural practitioners, a voice and vehicle for traditional knowledge.

The Makarrata event held in Milingimbi 2016 attempted to take steps towards rectifying the imbalance between institutions, collectors and the community. Milingimbi people wish to have continued access to their cultural heritage stored in large collections interstate and overseas. The current generation of community elders are sometimes treated as the ‘poor cousins’ of the previous generations. Their knowledge and time is often taken for granted by researchers and collecting institutions, with payment for their significant cultural knowledge and time often an afterthought. Post Makarrata there is evidence of real understanding between the participants from institutions and the Milingimbi Community.

Joe Dhamanydji, renowned Yolngu artist Djawa’s son, is represented by a work, which pays tribute to a rich cultural heritage, yet only brushes the surface of his ceremonial knowledge and painting repertoire. Guku Galinyan or ‘the nose of the bee hive’ protrudes from the hollow tree, hiding the rich, sweet bush honey. Guku (bush honey) is central to Gupapuyngu ceremonial practice.

The yellow, red and white ochre colour stripes associated with the Djankawu Sisters that boldly identify Garrawurra body paint design works are in a state of flux after the deaths of senior law men Mickey Durrng and Tony Dhanyala in the last ten or so years. The daughters and younger sisters of these artists have brought great dynamism and variation to a seemingly limited palette that is continually freshened while a deep rooted cultural integrity is maintained. This work by Helen Ganalmirriwuy is crowned with the Bowarta (bush turkey) design that adorns the body of senior elders during Ngarra law ceremony.

Wobulkarra elder Raymond Bulambula has created a rarely seen ‘Marradjiri’ with assistance from his wife Joyce Nalyabu to whose Gurriyindi clan the design belongs. This majestic piece with bold ochre work and delicate, cascading feathers refers to Rapuma Island in the Crocodile Island group, north of Milingimbi. It is traditionally a ceremonial gift made and given in acknowledgement of service and or friendship with other clans. This work sits along side the work of his son Daryl Yatjany, a small Larrakitj depicting Latjin (mangrove tree and worms) and salt water currents flowing past their homeland, Langarra Island.

See more at Lawrence Wilson Gallery