Monday, 24 February 2014

Frizzy Hair and Foggy Glasses

Yep, it’s a wee bit warm up here…and steamy; curls love it, glasses hate it. But, hey, it sure is beautiful and nothing more so than the culture of Yolngu people.

Right, week one was pretty overwhelming and we didn't stop, so this blog is a summary of induction events—I promise move detailed little episodes as this week progresses. Also check out the gallery tab and you will find many, many pictures.

Day One felt like we were dumped in the middle of an encyclopaedia series and told to swim our way clear of a new world. You cannot understand the context of North East Arnhem Land until you have seen it—and we’re still learning to walk it. Information overload it may have been, but there really was no other way and within a few days of talking and just being here it all starts to make sense. You can see the overlap of the different organisations and understand what they are working toward—and what each are working against.

Timber work from local Yolngu timber mill: traditional hunting tools, dolphin sculpture & xylophone

Australia has a long history of <cough> poor <cough> decision making, in regards to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and the consequences are often unseen by the greater population—a bubble makes a happy house in this nation….until someone bursts it…and it’s long past popping time.

(Reseach time, kids. I’ll make it easy-ish, watch First Australians, the SBS doco series and then do some reading on the Northern Territory intervention)

Day Two was a bumpy ride, geddit? Off-road defensive/safe 4WD course. Noel, like all good drill sergeants, whipped us into shape with some kindly placed teasing.
And, more importantly, I also learned that ‘I am not Claire’ and returned with the car in one piece.

Day Three was designed to embody us with a greater understanding of Yolngu culture and what a treat it was. Djawa (Timmy) Barrarwunga led us a through a discussion of Yolngu clan and moiety structure and through this we learned where in Yolngu’s incredible sense of balance we fit.

moiety  [moI I ti] — noun 
1. a half 
2. an indefinite portion, part , or share
3. Anthropology. one of two units into which a tribe or community is divided on the basis of unlineal descent

To understand moieties in terms of Yolngu social structure is to think of Ying and Yang—balance.
For Yolngu there is always a balance between Dhuwa and Yirritja; from the landscape to plants to animals to the elements to people, everything is either Dhuwa or Yirritja—they live in harmony, in balance.

I am Dhuwa.

When you hear this explanation from a Yolngu man (or woman) you can feel how reconciliation is possible and how focused this region is on creating a shared space for both balanda (white) and Yolngu people. Click here to gain a greater understanding of Yolngu moieties.

Traditional art: ochre paint
Day Four, our first day of work.
I am at Buku Larrngay Mulka, the art centre exhibiting an extraordinary number of artworks as well as the greatest archive of Yolngu history. And what exactly am I doing whilst here? Helping artists apply for passports, and any other form od identification, plus taking portraits of the artists and their families and anyone else who comes through the door and is interested. They key is to document Yolngu history and this means people.

I may well have hit the jackpot in terms of office spaces in being given Buku. I sit at a desk and no matter which way I face I look at art, buckets and buckets of art.

The Yolngu region is known for bark painting. The artists use peeled back bark that is flattened under weight and ochre paints. All materials are sourced locally and authentic—there is no acrylic paint to be seen. The designs themselves are painted with an incredibly fine brush made of hair.

I can't share the artwork, but Buku sure can: here.


  1. Hi Mel - This was so interesting! Thrilled you took the time to put it together.
    Would love to know more about the particular hunting tools in the first photo and what kind of wood is on the floor of the photos w Dolphin sculpture and the xylophone?
    I read the extra piece on Yolngu moieties but am still not sure what you mean when you said you were Dhuwa - how did you determine that?
    And I LOVE your photo of the artist mixing paint - yellow ochre?
    Wonderful job Mel! Look forward to your next post.

    1. Heya Cat,
      I am Dhuwa because it was the imagery of Dhuwa that I most identified with. Djawa asked us to walk through the gallery and find a painting that appealed to us (I did this without thinking) and I ended up looking a set of totems painted with stars and divided by ribbons/rivers. Once we found the painting we had to tell Djawa what we thought it meant and from that description he knew which moiety we belonged in. I am Dhuwa. Now, for the skeptics out there, he took us to see the Church Panels; two panels, one painted by Yirritja and the other Dhuwa and they encompass the lore/history of each moiety and each moiety is represented differently-- the style of art is different. The Dhuwa painting was the only one to have stars painted on it...

      The timber is Stringy Bark -- the same wood is used as the 'canvas' for bark paintings. And, yep, ochre paints.

  2. Hey Mel !!

    Fascinating - and of course you need to see stars. Makes total sense.

    Have to google Stringy Bark. The floor looks to have so many knots - would never have guessed it's the same wood used for the Bark paintings.

    Very much look forward to your next post, Mel.