About this artwork
Ṉoŋgirrŋa started life as one of the numerous children of Mundukul the Madarrpa warrior (c.1890-c.1950). He was a famed leader/warrior with uncountable wives of the Marrakulu, Dhudi Djapu and Gälpu clans. She was a child of one of the four Gälpu wives, Buluŋguwuy. Life was a bountiful but disciplined subsistence amongst a working family group of closely related mothers, brothers and sisters. This was over fifty people! She was born on the beach at Darrpirra north of Cape Shield on the oceanside. But they were Wakir’ – camping- moving around. They went to Yilpara. They went to Djarrakpi. But their special place was Guwaŋarripa (Woodah Island). They were a fleet of canoes travelling all the way to Groote Island and back and forth from the mainland. They lived in this rich place. Their special spot on the mainland was Baratjala. A place to which she only returned after the creation of these paintings.
Baratjala is a Madarrpa clan estate adjacent to Cape Shield where the artist camped with her father and his many wives as a young girl. It is of the essence of Madarrpa but does not hold the high order sites that Yathikpa does. She lived nomadically as part of a clan group with a flotilla of canoes between Groote Eyelandt and the mainland. Her father’s name was Mundukul (Lightning Snake) and this is also the name of the serpent (also known as Water Python, Burrut’tji or Liasis Fuscus), which lives deep beneath the sea here. These are cyclonic, crocodile infested waters with huge tides and ripping currents and she is part of them.
Some of the designs show the rock set in deep water between the electric ‘curse’ that the snake spits into the sky in the form of lightning, and the spray of the sea trying to shift the immovable rock foundation of the Madarrpa. Sometimes depicted are duŋgurŋaniny, barnacles that grow on the rock. Yurr’yunna is the word used to describe the rough waves overtopping the rock and the spray flying into the sky. It is said that the serpents ‘spit’ lightning- ‘guykthun’. The extended meaning of ‘guykthun’ though includes “make something sacred or taboo through saying magic words’. In our language we ‘swear’ an ‘oath’ which sanctifies the speech but both words can also mean to utter profanities. We also understand that ‘curse’ can mean bad language but also a spell. The Top End has one of the world’s greatest number of lightning strikes at this time of year. These works show the sanctifying words being spat across the sky in lightning form. The lightning’s sacred power hits the seaspray rising from where it has just smashed into the rock. The energies captured in this painting are almost a match for those in the real life of a Top End Wet Season.
This journey from the sacred to the descriptive shifts in these works. She has reduced the Law to its elements unclothed in sacred design. Her identity cannot be separated from her art and so although she disavows any sacred intent, the echo of miny’tji persists.
About Mrs N Marawili (c1939-2023)
Marawili was a Maḏarrpa /Galpu woman from Baniyala in north-east Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. As a teenager, Marawili moved to the community of Yirrkala with her sisters, where she lived and worked. There she met her husband, the late Djutadjuta Mununggurr, who was a leader of the Djapu clan and painted his clan’s themes. He gave cultural permission for Marawili to produce works depicting these themes independently. She initially worked predominantly as a printmaker, depicting the fauna of her Country such as Baru (crocodile). At this time, Marawili produced works pertaining to the Djapu clan as well as works that celebrated the natural environment. From 2011 onwards Marawili embraced painting as her main art form. She translated features from her printmaking practice to her paintings, such as dynamic contrasting colour palettes. She developed a distinctive visual style consisting of organic arrangements of fine lines and dots set against rich, even backgrounds. Her bold and resolved designs are distinct from the dominant Yolngu bark painting style which often features dense crosshatching. Marawili’s dramatic paintings on bark and larrakitj (funerary poles) are elemental and reference natural occurrences of lightning, wind, rain and sunlight. Marawili’s work has been shown in group and solo exhibitions held nationally including the 2017 Indigenous Art Triennial, Defying Empire at the National Gallery of Australia, and the 2018 Art Gallery of New South Wales exhibition from my heart and mind, which brought together works from across her career. She has received awards including the Telstra Bark Painting Award, which she won in both 2015 and 2019, and the Roberts Family Prize in association with the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ Wynne Prize, which she won in 2019. BIOGRAPHY WRITTEN BY YVETTE DAL POZZO IN COLLABORATION WITH NGA CURATORIAL AND RESEARCH STAFF AND EDITED BY DR NICOLA TEFFER AND WILL STUBBS, BUKU-LARRNGGAY MULKA CENTRE