As well as being regarded as one of the “old masters” of Arnhem Land art, Peter Marralwanga (1917-1987) was a big family man. He was big — well over 6ft and powerfully built — and his family included five wives and thirty five children. In the top photo he’s been gathering Haemodorum (windilk/bloodroot) buds for his wives to boil up to make beautiful dyes for their superbly finished pandanus fibre baskets. In the bottom photo he’s not painting up for ceremony — just painting up with joy at finding a new supply of a brilliant yellow clay (Karlba) to use in his artwork. His paintings are to be found in most state and national galleries in Australia. This painting depicts Ngalyod, the rainbow serpent and protector of land, dealing with people who have transgressed a law of ritual behaviour. Many of his paintings relate to particular places and are accompanied by cautionary tales of how to behave appropriately in sites of spiritual power.

Billy Yaluwangka was born in 1952 and was one of 25 children whose father was the remarkable indigenous painter Mandark — a man who refused to be drawn off his country and into the assimilationist “settlements” of Arnhem Land. Billy drew from a deep well of indigenous knowledge of matters spiritual and physical, tutored by his father and the old man’s four wives. When I took these photos in 1979 the family was living in bark shelters south of Maningrida at a place called Birba. Billy and his wife Brenda followed tradition and the inside of their bark house was covered in simple but powerful paintings executed with white clay and charcoal on the stringybark sheets. Foolishly, at the time, I didn’t ask Billy to identify all the subjects in his paintings. However, when I look carefully at them now, I am sure one is of a wallaby that hasn’t been seen for several decades and may well be locally extinct. The wallaby is Wularla, the spectacled hare wallaby (Lagorchestes conspicullatus) which has a circle of orange fur around it’s eyes — a very clear diagnostic. The birdwatcher in the family (Jan) believes the bird at the bottom to be a peregrine falcon. Sadly, I can’t ask Billy. He died about 10 years ago.

Djurrih Kawokbebme is a most beautiful waterfall towards the headwaters of the Liverpool River in Western Arnhem Land. The name translates literally from the Kundedjnyenghmi language of the landowning clan, the Mok, as “Varied Lorikeet’s voice comes out” This photo was taken early in the dry season when the water flow had already slowed right down a month or so after the end of the wet season. At the peak of the wet these are mighty falls, but because of the rocky nature of catchment above, the falls wax and wane dramatically with rain events and the breaks between them. In a ledge under the eastern lip of the falls is the nest of a pair of Peregrine Falcons — residents of many years. On the morning I took this photo we also saw the elusive Black Wallaroo making spectacular leaping runs through the rugged rocks to the west of the falls. The falls are 60km from the nearest human habitation and more than 150km from the nearest small town. There are no roads. In 2005 we had organised a walk back into country for families of indigenous landowners during the mid-year school holidays — with elders brought along by helicopter to teach about traditional country, on country. There were nearly 100 people of all ages getting ready for the walk and as we were preparing the Government announced a snap federal election. People of Arnhem Land treasure their right to vote and the government organises mobile polling teams which travel to the remote “outstation” communities so everyone gets a chance to vote. We had about 35 eligible voters in our group and we were able to negotiate a special polling visit from the Electoral Commission which arrived by chopper and set up their booths and tables and got out the electoral rolls perched at the top of the waterfall. Democracy done, the Electoral Commission flew away and our walkers headed off to complete their 110km walk on country.

In this painting Jacky Green (centre, playing the didgeridoo) reflects on change and continuity in culture, against a background of strangers using country who don’t understand the meanings that lie in the landscape and the special relationship of indigenous people to their country.

The Land is our Life
Jacky Green, 2013, Private Collection
Like many of my paintings I’m looking at the time past and present. This painting is of the region now known as McArthur River Station. Before, when there wasn’t much white people in this country, the Gudanji could still live on their land. The place in the painting is where there is an important waterfall and billabong and where there used to be lots of kangaroos and goanna nearby. It was always good for hunting. It is also a really important ceremony ground. In the painting are Gudanji women singing and dancing. The song they are singing is associated with the waterfall. It’s a women’s song. The singers are sitting on white plastic chairs like so many of us do these days. The crocodile is from a time long ago, when he snuck up on a hunter bloke to eat him, but the hunter saw him and killed him. The kangaroos represent one of the song-lines in the country when the kangaroo was travelling through on his way to Kaiana. The song-line comes in over the escarpment. I’ve made some small arrow marks to represent his journey. The helicopter represents the present time when people fly in to take tourists; the tourist operators are always looking for good place to take tourists. Most of the time they don’t realise that the billabongs and waterfalls and other places are really important to us Aboriginal people and they shouldn’t be there without us to guide and protect them. The story I want people to take from this painting is when they see our country they remember that besides the trees, hills and waterways there are lots of important things that they can’t see. These are powerful things. Things that we know about from our songs and under our law we have to protect and care for them. No whitefellas can do this.

Another painting and story from Jacky Green, pictured a long way from home for a big city exhibition of his works in 2013.

Jacky Green, 2013, Private Collection
This painting is about Irinju one of the ancestral beings from a region that is now within Soudan Station in the Northern Territory. This is the place where I was born under a coolabah tree in one of the creek beds running out from the main creek at Soudan Station. The creek where I was born is in an old devil devil story for that country. We call the old devil devil Irinju. He lives under the ground and used to send his hand up out of the creek bed to pick wild oranges from a tree that grew on the hill, west of Soudan Station. When old devil devil was taking the oranges he was stealing them from another old fella from the area where the tree grew. He kept pinchin’ them. That old fella kept wondering why his wild oranges were going missing all the time. To find out what was going on he decided to watch the tree. He’d count the oranges and then go back and see that some more had
gone. He figured that old devil devil was pinchin’ them. So he went to the wild orange tree and waited. It wasn’t long until he saw old devil devil’s hand come up out of the earth and take the wild oranges from the tree. Right away, that old fella, he got his stone axe out and cut the hand off the
arm. The hand fell down and made a big hole, right there. When old devil devil pulled his arm back into the earth it was going everywhere, all over, waving back and forth. It was this action that made the creek bed and that’s right where I was born in the elbow of Irinju, right there, in Wakaya

In 1970 I went to an “open day” at Maningrida in Central Arnhem Land, which back then was a Government settlement established to facilitate policies of assimilation for indigenous people. Not all indigenous people were persuaded to leave their country and traditional lifestyles. Mandark, born around 1915, was one such man who stayed in his country with his four wives and twenty five children. The family did however trade with white people — the women made beautiful baskets and dillybags and Mandark and his sons painted on sheets of stringybark and made spears and didgeridoos. On this first trip to Maningrida I visited the community art centre and came away with the painting above. The description pencilled on the back was: Nawaran, snake of the rock country with its eggs. Artist: Mandark. Tribe: Dangbon. It was about six years later that scientists caught up with Mandark’s advanced taxonomy, and gave the scientific name Morelia oenpelliensis to this impressive creature. Because it is a creature endemic to the rugged and remote sandstone of West Arnhem Land, it wasn’t noticed by science until the 1970s. It grows to more than 4 metres and is a fairly slim snake but it can — in true python style — unhinge its jaws and swallow a wallaby. Nawaran is a stealth hunter and waits patiently for an opportunity to take warm blooded prey — possums and small macropods amongst the rocks and flying foxes high in paperbark trees. It holds its prey in its jaws while it squeezes with its coils and asphyxiates its prey. I’ll write more of Mandark — without doubt one of most extraordinary people I have ever met.

Heart of Country, 2013,
Jacky Green (centre above), Drill Hall Gallery, ANU
The heart represents the life of the country. It’s the heart of Aboriginal people and the country, together, as one. Through the heart runs a river. Rivers are important places for us Aboriginal people. They always have been. Country needs water. On the left-hand side at the top are four people. These figures represent the mining company and government. They work together to take what they want from us. Below them are the drilling rig, grader and dozer all belonging to the mining company who are comin’ into to our country and damaging it. In the middle of the heart are the four clan groups of the Borroloola region. The Garawa, Gudanji, Mara and Yanyuwa. The line with four people sittin’ down are the singers of the four clan groups. Yanyuwa in red, Mara black and red, Gadanji yellow one and Garawa brown. Above them in the heart are their dancers. It’s though our song and dance that we pass the knowledge and law of the country. Above the heart is what the country used to be like. Beautiful, with everything there for us, lots of bush-tucker and water. But when you got all this machinery comin’ into our country you start to get damage. People and bush-tucker pushed aside having to move somewhere else, sometimes dyin’. You can see the area around the miners is empty no bush-tucker and no Aboriginal people. This no good.

Desecrating the Rainbow Serpent: a painting by
Jacky Green (2014)
At the top of the painting, guarded by the Junggayi (Boss for Country) and Minggirringi (Owner of Country), are the eyes of The Rainbow Serpent. The Junggayi and Minggirringi are worried that The Snake is being desecrated. The Rainbow Serpent is one of our spiritually powerful ancestral beings. It rests under McArthur River in the southwest Gulf of Carpentaria. Under our law we hold responsibility for protecting its resting place from disturbance, and responsibility for nurturing its spirit with ceremony and song—just as our ancestors have done since the beginning. The left of the painting represents a time when we had authority over country. We lived on country, hunted, fished and gathered our food on country. We used fire to care for it, and most importantly, we protected our sacred places within it. By protecting and nurturing our sacred sites we protect and nurture our spirituality and our wellbeing as Gudanji, Garrwa, Mara and Yanayu peoples. The right of the painting represents the present time (2014) when we still have no authority over all of our ancestral country. The artwork illustrates how the resting place of The Rainbow Serpent looks now. It’s been smashed by McArthur River Mine. Country, torn open to make way for one of the largest lead, zinc and silver mines the the world has ever seen. To do this they cut the back of our ancestor—The Rainbow Serpent—by severing McArthur River and diverting it through a 5.5 kilometre diversion cut into our country.
A lot of people have died because of the desecration of our sacred places. Interfering with these powerful places, it pulls people down. The stress of seeing our land suffer means we suffer. Men tried to fight but got pulled down. I might be the next one, or the Junggayi will go down. The mining executive might go too. All this pressure, it’s no good.

Beauty and the beast. Cattle egrets (Ardea ibis) hanging out with their big ugly mate on the floodplains beside Yellow Waters in Kakadu. Pizzey and Knight tell us that the cattle egret colonised the Northern Territory (probably from Indonesia) sometime in the 1940s as part of a worldwide expansion of range. Today they are found throughout most of Australia including Tasmania but not usually in the driest parts of the inland. They have however been recorded in Alice Springs. The gorgeous flush of colour in plumage comes with onset of breeding season. They do like hanging out with cattle and, in the Top End, with the water buffalo (Bubalis bubalis) introduced with the earliest European settlements in the north, early in the 1800s. By the 1970s the feral buffalo population had trashed the seasonal wetlands of Kakadu and other parts of the North. A big campaign to eradicate tuberculosis and brucellosis in buffalo and cattle saw a huge reduction in numbers and in Kakadu a wonderful recovery on the flood plains. For Aboriginal people, buffalo had become a very important source of protein and thus the focus of a land management dilemma… how do you achieve a balance between the negative effects of buffalo on country and the value of a prime wild food source to a people with few jobs available where they live and very low incomes? Indigenous land management groups are grappling with that problem and searching for a “best fit solution”.