‘The painting I do is not sacred – it is my own designs from the outside.’
This seems to be the essence of Noŋgirrŋa Marawili’s uniqueness amongst Arnhemland’s bark artists. As her brother, the artist and cultural leader Djambawa Marawili points out, ‘I can only operate within the strict rules of our clan designs that have been passed on to me. She is much freer’. And that spontaneity allows his sister, ‘to cry for the land; while my job is to speak for it,’ as Djambawa distinguishes their work, almost jealously.
The siblings grew up in an extraordinary family in which their father Mundukul Marawili, a famed leader/warrior who had ‘uncountable wives of the Marrakulu, Djapu and Galpu clans’, according to Will Stubbs, the long-term art coordinator at both artists’ Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre in North East Arnhemland. The family group was 50-strong, and they lived nomadically, moving on both land and the waters of the Gulf of Carpentaria by canoe as food sources, ceremonial responsibilities and climate demanded. In all three, Noŋgirrŋa experienced the Madarrpa clan estates and sacred sites that would become the subject of her later paintings, prints and bone coffins/larrakitj. But Mundukul died in 1950 when she was just 11, so was unable to pass on to her permission to paint those Madarrpa clan designs.
But paint she was determined to do – at first with husband Djutadjuta, who acknowledged her assistance on a two metre bark of ‘Mana’ The Sacred Shark in 1994 which required a mass of cross-hatching and outlining by her which Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) curator Cara Pinchbeck says gave ‘depth and movement to the sacred waters in this work.’ By 1996, she was collaborating with their daughters Rerrkiwanga and Marrnayula on an even larger, three metre bark. In 1997, Djutadjuta would take out Best Bark at that year’s National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA).
It’s interesting how blinkered the NATSIAA judges can be. For Rerrkiwanga Munungurr won Best Bark in 2009, but it took until 2015 for Noŋgirrŋa to be recognised.
Her ‘problem’ is an inability to make neat straight lines! Or as Stubbs put it to me, ‘She is untainted by the linear/hierarchical judgemental handicap of Western artists! She simply lives in the moment – the past and the future are now.’
Perhaps it didn’t help that Noŋgirrŋa was supposed to be painting the familiar grid of small squares that represent the fish trap (Dhawurr) created in mythical times by two spirit men on the Gurriyalayala River at Waṉḏawuy. As the Buku-Larrnggay website describes it, ‘The fish trap was made of upright posts forked at the top with a long crosspiece sitting in the forks. The space between was filled in with more upright sticks interwoven with horizontal sticks’; ie. it should only consist of straight lines. But Noŋgirrŋa’s Waṉḏawuy (2012) has both the randomness of a child’s noughts-and-crosses board stretched almost to infinity – a ‘random form of geometry’ – and different colour tones to represent different states of the water in a way that experts compare to Noŋgirrŋa’s father-in-law, Wonggu Munungurr, a major contributor to the legendary drawings commissioned in 1947 by anthropologists, Ronald and Catherine Berndt.
Her sensitivity to water lead Noŋgirrŋa naturally downstream from Waṉḏawuy to Yathikpa, a point of land in Blue Mud Bay and the heart of Madarrpa clan culture. It’s here the fresh meets the salt water, it’s from here that Baralt’ja the sacred rock that stands strong against the forces of the sea and storm can be seen, it’s on that rock that Mundukul the Lightning Snake senses the arrival of fresh, monsoonal waters from inland and fires off his electric curses into the sky in the form of lightning, and it’s at the base of that rock that Baru, the sacred crocodile dived but the fire continued to burn on his back beneath the water. Waving sea-grasses reflect that fire today.
And so do the diamond shapes – not always perfectly formed – in Noŋgirrŋa’s barks which have flowed at a rate of a bark a day recently as she prepares for a show at Alcaston Gallery in Melbourne that coincides with the AGNSW’s career-spanning exhibition. In that, as Elina Spilia recognises in the catalogue for the Scholl Collection exhibition currently touring the USA, you’ll experience ‘Seaspray crashing on rock, the dance of flames, the flicker of the snake’s tongue and lightning flashing across the sky – the elemental substances and transformative forces of the Yolngu world.’ According to Stubbs, this is all achieved despite pain that forces Noŋgirrŋa to use two hands to hold her brushes.
Cara Pinchbeck sums up, ‘Marawili does not simply document sites in country, she captures the dynamism of a living landscape, radically re-imagined to realise a very personal artistic vision.’
Art Gallery of New South Wales
3 November, 2018 to 24 February, 2019