Yirawala
Kuninjku (Eastern Kunwinjku) people
'Maralaitj, mother of the tribes' c.1965

Purchased 1976
Collected by Sandra Le Brun Holmes, Sydney
© the estate of the artist licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency

The acknowledged master of western Arnhem Land bark painting is Yirawala, who belonged to the Naborn clan of the Marrkolidjban region on the Liverpool River. A strong advocate for the rights and aspirations of Aboriginal people in the face of threats to culture and land through missions, mining and Western materialism, Yirawala used his art to preserve and continue traditions, and to open the eyes of the settler population to the richness, sophistication and contemporary relevance of Aboriginal society, culture and law.
Yirawala grew up learning the traditional ways of his culture. His father, Nowaritj—a significant spiritual leader of his clan—taught him his people's songs, stories, designs and the meanings of the dynamic rock paintings in the western Arnhem Land rock escarpment galleries. By the 1950s Yirawala was living on Minjilang (Croker Island) and was already an acknowledged senior ceremonial leader, a law and medicine man, and a leading creator of bark paintings. His earliest bark paintings were collected by Karel Kupka in the early 1960s. However it was through his association with Sandra Le Brun Homes that his art practice entered the public arena on a grand scale. He had his first solo exhibition at the University of Sydney in 1971 and the exhibition then toured throughout Australia. That same year he was awarded a MBE [1] and received an International Co-operation Art Prize. [2]
Yirawala's early bark paintings were directly connected to the rock art of the western Arnhem escarpment, and included images of elongated animated spirit figures: mimih, sorcery figures and ancestors in human and animal form. As he grew in ceremonial status, Yirawala began to paint detailed renditions of sacred body designs from ceremonies such as the Mardayin, Lorrkon and Wubarr. When he became a ceremonial leader, he had the authority to not only replicate these powerful ancestral designs but also to elaborate, re-compose and innovate upon this significant visual repertoire.
Among the Kuninjku and some related groups in Arnhem Land, Maralaitj, also known as Warramurrungunjdji, is considered to be the first mother who gave birth to the ancestors of the peoples living in the region today. She possessed supernatural powers and in some versions of her story she did not require a man to conceive children. In other versions, she is said to have had two husbands. Maralaitj came from over the sea in the north-west, from the direction of present-day Indonesia. Yirawala depicts her giving birth to the clans who now inhabit the area at the mouth of the Liverpool River.
While Maralaitj, mother of the tribes c 1965 relates to rock paintings, the clan designs in Namanjwarre, the Mardayin crocodile c 1973 originate in body paintings from the Mardayin ceremony. Here, Yirawala is exercising his infinite creativity: Namanjwarre is depicted in x-ray style to show his backbone and tailbone. On either side are variations of the Mardayin designs. The sections of diagonal rarrk patterns create a tension within the figure, as though the coiled crocodile is about to pounce.
Mimih spirits c 1963 depicts a group of women and two men dressed in ceremonial regalia: they wear feathers in their hair and feathered string pendants around their waists; the figures in the lower half of the painting have clan designs painted on their torsos.
Another painting collected by Kupka is an image of sorcery. Depicting this subject in art was discouraged by missionaries in Arnhem Land, but collectors and anthropologists asked a number of artists to create such paintings. Sorcery images, whether on rock walls or on bark, were painted to inflict suffering on a perceived offender. As shown here, the figure's limbs are contorted and stingray barbs protrude from its joints.
The National Gallery of Australia owns 143 bark paintings by Yirawala dating from the last two decades of his life. He was the first Indigenous artist to be collected by the National Gallery as part of a policy to represent in depth the most significant figures in Australian art.
Franchesca Cubillo

[1] Member of the British Empire, in recognition of Yirawala's services to Aboriginal art.

[2] The International Cooperation Art Award was an Australian award made by artists to an artist whose work and influence had made an outstanding contribution to international understanding.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Franchesca Cubillo and Wally Caruana (eds) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art: collection highlights National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010

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