Vanessa Dhathu is a Garrawurra Ḻiyagawumirr woman, who is Garrawurra through her father’s line, as well being related as granddaughter of the clan through her mother’s mother. Her country is Gärriyak, near Mäpuru Outstation, on the mainland south of Galiwin’ku (Elcho Island).
Dhathu’s mother’s mother (her märi) is internationally celebrated artist Helen Ganalmirriwuy Garrawurra. This relationship means Dhathu has certain responsibilities for the Garrawurra clan. This role is known as märi-waṯaŋu. Because of these relationships, Dhathu has the right to weave and paint her grandmother clan designs. Along with the other children and grandchildren of the Garrawurra, she is also responsible for knowing everything about the law and ceremony of the clan and must carry out certain work. At ceremonies, particularly Ŋärra (Cleansing Ceremony), the Garrawurra leaders delegate work to particular relatives – their waku and gutharra (children and grandchildren in the female line). As a gutharra or märi-waṯaŋu, Dhathu must ensure the Garrawurra ceremony is practiced correctly. She must support the ceremony logistically, making sure that the right people are there, and painting the body paint designs onto people. Other work a gutharra must do to support the ceremony includes cooking, cleaning and driving. As märi-waṯaŋu, Dhathu also wears the body paint design, performs in the ceremony, and teaches the ceremony to specific people.
Dhathu learned painting and weaving by sitting and observing her mother Susan Yirrawurr Gaykamaŋu, and her märi, Ganalmirriwuy. As part of teaching her her role, Ganalmirriwuy instructed Dhathu to make these works so that she can carry on the law and ceremony for future generations.
Ganalmirriwuy and her older sister, artist Margaret Rarru speak of the two strands of their art practice. One is the work they make for ceremony, and the other is the work they make ‘for the art centre’, for exhibition and commercial purposes. This latter strand is valued by them as well in that it brings them both income and recognition from the outside world. Through this project and others like it, they are working to pass on this livelihood to their children and grandchildren.