Ngarra law designs at Aboriginal & Pacific Art

Aboriginal & Pacific Art in association with Milingimbi Art  and Cultural Centre, Milingimbi, NT.
12 – 30 November 2016

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, 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.

Milingimbi, a small island off the Arnhem coast was also the site of the first mission in Arnhem Land, and became a focal point for cross cultural and artistic contact and research. Anthropologist Donald Thompson, Hungarian artist Karel Kupka and seminal Australian author Xavier Herbert’s were inspired by contact with Milingimbi and its melting pot of Yolngu cultures. In the mid 20th century the name Milingimbi was synonymous with Arnhem Land painting. Later, the Voyager space mission of the 1970’s set off with manikay (ceremonial song) recordings from senior Yolngu elders Djawa, Mudpo and Waliparu to neighbouring galaxies.

Over the years various Arnhem centres have gained momentum and dominated in output and visibility in the fine art market. Community life here is underpinned by cultural practice of which ‘art making’ is key to identity and ‘artistic practice’ inhabits a core place in Yolngu society. Stories and clan designs are essential to a sense of place and self. The creation of these 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 works you see here are all traditional designs painted on the body at Ngarra law ceremonies, painted on bark and passed on without significant alteration through generations. However variation in these designs and ‘new works’ may seem to evolve, often from obscurity. Raymond Bulambula has revived a Wobulkara ‘Dhukurruru’ design that has not been made for decades and is the first of many rarely made works Milingimbi Art Centre will focus on producing on bark in 2017. The ‘Bowarta’ white field painting by Helen Ganalmirriwuy has never before been made on a flat surface. It is a body paint design, signifying seniority in the Garrawurra clan during Ngarra ceremony, that made its way to Larrakitj via now deceased artist Lena Walitjulnalil about eight years ago. The Gupapuyngu ‘Guku’ body paint designs by Dhangi seem to be lifted straight from the body and retain the textural quality and feel of semi permanence of active ceremonial paint, which is marked by sweat and washed off in the salt water.

Joe Dhamanydji, Djawa’s youngest son, is represented by a number of works which pay tribute to a rich cultural heritage drawn from both his father’s legacy and that of his Garrawurra mother, yet only brush the surface of his ceremonial knowledge and painting repertoire. The yellow, red and white ochre fields of colour and striped designs associated with the Djankawu Sisters that boldly identify Garrawurra 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 maintaining a deep rooted cultural integrity.

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 and involve constant ceremonial practice, and the 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 honoured.