Images and annotations exploring the nature and culture of Australia's tropical deep north
The last known Thylacine died in Beaumaris Zoo Tasmania on 7 September 1936. It is believed that it became extinct much earlier on the mainland and its extinction has been linked with the arrival of placental dogs (Canis lupus dingo) on the Australian continent about 5000 years ago. Wiki says intensive hunting encouraged by bounties is generally blamed for its extinction in Tasmania, but other contributing factors may have been disease, the introduction of dogs to Tasmania and human encroachment into its habitat.
In Arnhem Land the Thylacine is gone, but not forgotten. There are countless rock art images of the Thylacine in the rock shelters of Western Arnhem Land and it still has a name in the Bininj Kunwok dialects (including Kundedjnyenghmi). It is known as Djarnkerrk (or Djankerr) and now has a mythic role as the travelling companion of Ngalyod, the great creator rainbow serpent being.
We have no way of knowing when this life-sized rock art image of Djarnkerrk from the Liverpool River was painted but the doyen of Arnhem Land rock art, George Chaloupka, exclaimed in awe when he first saw this image “I have seen many, and this is the best”.
Another eminence, also deceased, Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek, recalls that as a child he gave his personal companion and hunting dog the name Djarnkerrk.
Wakkewakken ‘legless honey spirit being’ (aka ngorrkdawh ‘cut off at waist’)
Ngalmangeyi kure wayuk ‘long-neck turtles in waterlilies’
Bininj ka-djangkan barrk ‘man hunting black wallaroo (Macropus bernadus)’
(Kundedjnjenghmi language of western Arnhem Land, Australia)
Mermaids, defined as having the upper body of a human woman and the tail of a fish, are perhaps best known through the Hans Christian Andersen story of the Little Mermaid. But mermaid stories are to be found all around the globe in more than a dozen cultures from the Near East, Europe, Africa, North America through to Asia. To that list, you can add Aboriginal Australia. In Western Arnhem Land there are two names that are used for these water spirit women — Yawkyawk and Ngalkunburriyaymi. There are mermaids in a general sense and there are particular mermaid spirits that may live at a particular sacred site or be the principal totem of creator being for certain clans. Yawkyawk spirits were a repeated theme for master painter Peter Marralwanga. The word Yawkyawk is also used to refer to the larval and nymph forms of insects like dragonflies and also to girls on the cusp of womanhood.
Europeans seem also to have drawn a similar semantic link with nymphs referring to insect larvae and young women. The linking concept here is metamorphosis — girls changing physically to become women, Yawkyawk larvae changing physically to emerge from the water as dragonflies, mayflies and other insects. There are linked mermaid metaphors — long water grasses or algal masses waving in a stream may be the hair of Yawkyawk. In some stories the Yawkyawk are daughters of the great female creator and rainbow serpent Yingarna. They are said to live in caves and under ledges beside pools of water and may come out on the bank at night. As in European stories, some clever men have been said to have taken Yawkyawk as wives, but as in stories from other cultures the Yawkyawk eventually returns to her family underwater. Wikipedia says the first mermaid stories originated in Assyria about 1000BC. Aboriginal Australians may indeed have been dreaming of mermaids for a lot longer.
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.
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.
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.
Today another painting by Jack Green, artist and activist from Borroloola in the Gulf Country of Australia’s Northern Territory. Jack explains the message:
Jacky Green 2012, Private Collection
These are the four clan or language groups around Borroloola. On the left in white and black at the top are the Yanyuwa. To the right of them are the Mara. Underneath in yellow and black are Gudanji, with Garawa on the right in black and white. While we are four different groups we are all related through ceremony, culture, land and marriage. The circle represents the ceremony that ties us together. The boat in the centre represents a prau that the Macassans used to sail from Indonesia to the Gulf of Carpentaria. My great-grandfather saw one of these and he went and painted it on his country at a cave at Spring Creek. The Macassans are part of our history; they came long before white people. We traded with them.
In the box at the top of the painting are three groups of people. On the left are Aboriginal people wondering what’s going on. In the middle are pastoralists. On the right are government people. This represents us as separate groups, not working together. On the right are four boxes. At the top is a government man. The man with white hair represents the boss of the mine, not caring about what happens to our country. Below him are miners. At the bottom are two miners standing in front of some rock art. They don’t care about the rock art or our sacred sites. They go looking for them,
taking pictures, or they ignore them when the mines go in.
Another powerful picture and story from artist and activist Jack Green in Borroloola. Traditional owners in the Borroloola area are struggling against the powerful alliance of government and big business. They say Xstra’s mine and disregard for the environment is killing country and culture.
Read what Jack has to say…
FIFO —Jacky Green, 2012, Private Collection
I call this painting Fly In and Fuck Off. It tells the story how the government mob and mining mob fly into our country to talk at us. They fly in and tell us one thing and then they say they will be comin’ back but we never see them again. They fly in, use complicated words and then fly right back out,
real quick. The people sitting on the ground in the painting are us Aboriginal people. We all focused on the government people standing with their whiteboard. The bring ladies in sometimes who do all the talkin’. But we not really understandin’ what they sayin’. Many of us don’t read and write so the words on the board mean nothing. It’s really hard, getting our heads around what it really means.
That’s why some of them just sittin’, scratchin’ their heads and others they got their hands up wantin’ to ask questions. Why they here in our country? The government story doesn’t go through to us properly. Their paperwork and their story always two different things. They just put something
in front of us and when they think they got it right they outta here real quick and we don’t know what they really meant. This top-down way of talking with us been going on too long. Things gotta change. We want things to be explained to us proper way so we can sit and talk about it amongst
ourselves. We’ll be switched on then and make our own decision to say yes or no. None of this “gotta
hurry up ‘cos our aeroplane is leavin”. They gotta give us time. No more of this Fly In and Fuck Off stuff!