The passing of knowledge through generations

In late 2019 Milingimbi artists were invited by curator, Nici Cumpston, to create new works that explored the theme of sharing between generations. The below text was written for the accompanying exhibition catalogue. 

It is not surprising that, in these times, we often focus on the passing of knowledge between generations. This is necessary as outside pressures continue to impact on the rich cultural, artistic and linguistic practices of Indigenous people.

Since time immemorial, intricate cultural knowledge has been passed between generations. Underpinning this passing of knowledge are systems embedded in relationship and clan obligation. While today at Milingimbi, we grapple with technology in attempts to capture something of the knowledge of elders who grew up with the old ways, we must acknowledge that the ingenious Yolŋu systems that have maintained this cultural legacy and memory have never stopped.

This system of relationship as memory repository is active in the artistic and cultural work of Susan Balbunga, Margaret Rarru, Helen Ganalmirriwuy, Ruth Nalmakarra, Mandy Batjula and Wilson Manydjarri. For example, djuŋgaya (mother / child – cultural caretaker), märi / gutharra (grandparent / grandchild) and yapa / wäwa (sister / brother) relationships function not only between people and clans but also between songs, country and objects. For example, a person might say about a particular place ‘Dhuwal wäŋa rraku Märi’, ‘This place is my grandmother’, or ‘Dhuwal bathi ŋarraku waku’, ‘This basket is my child’. Senior weaver and Warrawarra cultural leader Susan Balbunga sometimes starts her weaving process by talking to the leaders of the Gamalaŋga clan before creating Gamalaŋga ceremonial objects such as their ceremonial miṉḏirr (dillybag). The Gamalaŋga own the design but, as a Warrawarra woman, Balbunga is recognised as a mother of Gamalaŋga. Through this role, she assists with the maintenance of their clan ceremonial knowledge. Gamalaŋga leader Jason Mewala expresses his gratitude and respect for Balbunga as the single remaining elder of her generation. She has cared for and carried Gamalaŋga knowledge and ensured that this generation continues to practise and maintain its law and culture.

While assisting the Gamalaŋga clan by making their ceremonial miṉḏirr, Balbunga gets her grandsons to assist. Phillip Guyabaka, Arthur Bunduwabi and Matthew Djipurrtjun are the djuŋgaya, or cultural caretakers, for the Gamalaŋga, their mother’s clan. As djuŋgaya, they must develop an intimate understanding of Gamalaŋga ceremony. Guyabaka explains that when a Gamalaŋga ceremony or funeral takes place, he helps with applying the body paint to Gamalaŋga men and women and with making their body adornments from bush fibres and ochre. Bunduwabi and Djipurrtjun lead the Gamalaŋga in buŋgul (dance) and accompany them with yiḏaki (didgeridoo). By assisting Balbunga to make the Gamalaŋga ceremonial miṉḏirr, Guyabaka, Bunduwabi and Djipurrtjun are honouring their märi / gutharra (grandparent / grandchild) relationship with Balbunga and upholding their responsibility to care for and carry forward the knowledge and practices of their mother’s clan.

The weaving practice of Margaret Rarru, Helen Ganalmirriwuy and Ruth Nalmakarra expresses their patrilineal Liyagawumirr-Garrawurra clan identity as well as their connections to the Gorryindi, Mäḻarra and Gamalaŋga clans. Their Liyagawumirr-Garrawurra designs are limited to a palette of red, white and yellow and applied as stripes, circles and triangles. Their miṉḏirr adorned with these designs express their Liyagawumirr-Garrawurra identity, whereas other miṉḏirr with alternating colours running vertically through horizontal bands express their grandmother’s Gamalaŋga clan and the closely affiliated Mäḻarra and Gorryindi clans. Imbued in all these bold designs is an intricate knowledge of country, kinship and law.

Rarru, Ganalmirriwuy and Nalmakarra’s weaving practice exceeds the making of utilitarian or decorative objects. They have the authority and skill to make miṉḏirr, raki and djali (dillybags, string and armbands) for Ŋärra (cleansing ceremony). Their authority to make these objects has come to them because of their cultural seniority as well as their ancestral ties to the country of Gärriyak and the story of the Djaŋ’kawu sisters (creation spirits).

Weaving as a practice imbued with the energy of the Waŋarr, the creator ancestors, is also upheld through song. Wilson Manydjarri, a senior man of the Däṯiwuy clan, sings and maintains Gunga manikay, which tells of a mokuy or spirit, Dhanbuḻ, harvesting and preparing pandanus and weaving a basket. Manydjarri explains that Dhanbuḻ was the first being ever to weave pandanus. In the song, we are taught to observe: as Dhanbuḻ works, she says ‘Goŋ nhäŋu’ ‘Watch my hands’. We are taught about the co-occurence of species and their multiple names – the rock fig tree, rripipi or ḏawu-makarr, and Gould’s wattled bat, winyila, which wakes Dhanbuḻ from a deep sleep. Recorded also are the patterns of work and rest so familiar to weavers as she harvests, then weaves in the shade, and then lies down to sleep. Messages about what is of value are also recorded and passed on through this practice, such as when she holds up her basket and asks ‘Manymak ŋarraku bathi?’, ‘Is my basket a good one?’.

The song is sung in Manydjarri’s Ḏäṯiwuy language and, over time, during Dhapi (circumcision ceremonies) and Bäpurru (funeral ceremonies), young people come to learn and recognise the story through watching and participating. There is a fluidity between past and present as the dancers at a buŋgul embody and make new the spirits and ancestral beings of the manikay (song). That same fluidity exists when a weaver harvests the pandanus, and strips and weaves it under a tree, as Dhanbuḻ did.

Participants in ceremony learn the layers of meaning in the song as family members deem them ready. A senior custodian of this song, Wilson sings it for his own clan and other closely related Dhuwa clans, including the Garrawurra clan, which has a brother / sister relationship with the Ḏäṯiwuy. Through observation and carefully meted-out tutelage, the new generation learn their rights and responsibilities with regard to this song, and the knowledge is passed on.

At the art centre, the passing on of knowledge in many ways includes technology. Work has been under way for several years at Milingimbi Art and Culture to repatriate digital photos of historical and recent works. Photographs, stories and videos all go into a database – seemingly anathema to Yolŋu knowledge transmission systems. And yet, through all of this, relationships underpin everything: young people find photographs and go to their elders to learn the story. Yolŋu look at works of art together and discuss the relationship of everyone present to the works. Yolŋu seek the presence of a djuŋgaya (cultural caretaker) when they tell the story of their clan miny’tji (designs). A djuŋgaya – a person in the relationship of waku (woman’s child) to the speaker – is there to supervise and ensure it is told right.

In these ways, the veracity of the stories is ensured, the story is kept straight, the basket is woven right, and knowledge is passed through the cycle of generations.

Written by Phillip Guyabaka, Ruth Nalmakarra, Rosita Holmes and Salome Harris

Manikay translation by Wilson Manydjarri and Salome Harris

The above text was published in the TARNANTHI 2020: Open hands exhibition catalogue. To learn more about this exhibition see the Art Gallery of South Australia website.