Djambawa Marawili: An agent for change - Art Collector

Issue 64, April - June 2013

Djambawa Marawili is both an artist and a leader. His work is the voice of his homeland and the sacred secret traditions of his clan writes Timothy Morrell.

Yvette Coppersmith, Paul with Carlos, 2011. Oil on linen, 102 x 107cm. Courtesy: the artist and Dianne Tanzer Gallery + Projects, Melbourne

Djambawa Marawili, both as an artist and as a public figure, provides an exceptional insight into the way indigenous traditions can be maintained and strengthened while adeptly coming to terms with the outside world. In keeping with community lore, his importance as an artist is directly related to his authority as leader of the Madarrpa, one of the clans of the Yolngu people of East Arnhem Land. He inherited this role from his father Wakuthi Marawili, also an artist. The cultural and political roles imparted to him by his father are combined in his paintings. In the words of Will Stubbs, co- ordinator of the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre at Yirrkala, “the force of the law radiates from each piece.”

In Arnhem Land, painting for outside visitors on portable surfaces (flattened sheets of eucalyptus bark) dates from about the middle of the last century. It is a carefully devised means of communicating with foreigners. The knowledge required for a complete reading of these diplomatic works is beyond the casual observer, and the full meaning of Marawili’s imagery is not entirely accessible to its viewers. Producing paintings for sale implies a degree of openness in cultural (and financial) exchange, but at the same time it’s a way of resisting cultural intrusion. Although his works are eventually sold their production and content are without any compromise in Yolngu law. Stubbs says that “Djambawa paints, sings and lives in his homeland to enrich and renew the chance for future generations to do likewise.”

Djambawa Marawili instigated the production of the Saltwater Collection of Yirrkala Bark Paintings of Sea Country in 1997. A group of 47 Yolngu artists made 80 bark paintings, now in the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney, to demonstrate their rights and obligations over the coast and sea of their country that was being threatened by outsiders. The collection was used as evidence in the Yolngu’s legal case for recognition of these rights, in which they were ultimately successful in 2008, at the High Court.

The seemingly abstract character of Marawili’s work is both deeply appealing to global tastes in contemporary art and discreetly protective of content that is secret sacred in his community. His abstract painting style embodies the principle of Buwayak, the suppression of figurative imagery, which was developed largely for the creation of the Saltwater Collection. This philosophy continues to affect almost all artists working in North East Arnhem land today.

He is a thoroughly suave and accomplished painter who uses a great deal of white, generally restricting his designs to a pale, almost monochromatic appearance. The illusion of a rippling surface created by his expert use of a dense geometric grid strikes an immediate chord with admirers keen on a minimalist aesthetic. It also conveys the magic and power of water, which is fundamental to the meaning of his works and gives them their religious and mythological significance. The white, red and black symbolise water, blood and the Madarrpa people. The network created by these colours is a distilled picture of the Madarrpa world.

The patterns of linked diamond or lozenge shapes with which he subtly manipulates pictorial space are essential Arnhem Land imagery. Outsiders can easily recognise the similarity to crocodile skin, which they partly represent, but the full meaning is far more elaborate. Baru the crocodile dived into the water carrying fire on his back, and the diamond grid is simultaneously about crocodile, fire and water. All three of these are potentially threatening and demand respect. Marawili’s work deals with awe- inspiring forces in the world. The elegant restraint immediately obvious in his art is a long way from the elemental turmoil it actually depicts.

His art practice encompasses sculpture, bark painting, linocuts and screenprints. He has an extensive history of exhibiting nationally and internationally and is represented in the collections of Australia’s national and state galleries. In 1996 at the 13th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards he won Best Bark Painting. Djambawa Marawili was born in 1953 and lives at Yilpara, about three hours drive from Yirrkala in the Northern Territory. His work is distributed through the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre.

Co-ordinator of the art centre Will Stubbs collaborated with the artist to record the following explanation of his work: “The land has everything it needs. But it couldn’t speak. It couldn’t express itself. Tell its identity. And so it grew a tongue. That is the Yolngu. That is me. We are the tongue of the land. Grown by the land so it can sing who it is. We exist so we can paint the land. That’s our job. Paint and sing and dance. So it can feel good to express its true identity. Without us it cannot talk. But it is still there. Only silent.”

Share this page: