The University of Sydney holds close to 1,000 items of Yolŋu cultural heritage. Most recently we acquired an award-winning video work for the current exhibition. Other works were created and brought here, some nearly 100 years ago. Together, they represent three major centres of Yolŋu settlement and art-production – generations of art and artists from Milingimbi/Yurrwi Island, Ramingining, and Yirrkala in eastern Arnhem Land.
Through these collections we see the concerns, politics, key players and artists who were actively engaging with balanda (non-Indigenous) academics in order to make them understand the veracity of their culture. We also see glimpses back millennia, to creation times and waŋarr (ancestral beings), the influences that shaped the Yolŋu people, their land and waters. Proudly, Yolŋu continue to develop within this deep inheritance.
Indigenous art historian, Stephen Gilchrist in his introduction for the book, Djalkiri: Yolŋu art, collaborations and collections (to be launched in conjunction with the exhibition) comments that, “…working with either historical collections or contemporary objects demands a commitment to the unvoiced dimensions of works of art, their cultural signification, biographical elements and political potency. Indigenous curation is premised on this cultural mandate to speak with and listen to the objects.”
How do you honour this, especially when one is a non-Indigenous curator working with Indigenous collections? We need to think deeply about who can speak most meaningfully for collections, who most needs to listen, and how such conversations and interactions can be facilitated in present circumstances.
I have been privileged to have been mentored by several Yolŋu Elders and academics. One of my most influential was Gupapuyŋu clan leader and honorary doctorate of the university, Dr Joe Neparrŋa Gumbula (1954–2015) who I worked with at the university from 2009. He urged me and others like me, “… to start digging into that whole historical message”. He said, “It isn’t just for balanda anthropologists [or curators] to find and give the information, there should be a mixture. We are all brought up in this world, we all have different cultures to be respected.”
“It isn’t just for balanda anthropologists [or curators] to find and give the information, there should be a mixture. We are all brought up in this world, we all have different cultures to be respected.”
Flash forward to 2018, when a group of six Elders, representatives of the three Yolŋu communities we hold work from, came to Sydney to view the collections and advise and direct us how to develop the exhibition from their perspective. In a presentation to university alumni, Rirratjiŋu clan leader and artist, Wanyubi Marika, stated, “We are being taught in our own professional manner to become a professor or doctor or whatever. We sit it in that ‘lab’, that dalkarra [knowledge base of Yolŋu law, songs, sacred business]. First, you have to be an artist … then you are going into another level of qualification, you are qualified to go step by step. In a similar way that you are learning in universities, we have the same thing.”
There are more than 40 clans and many Yolŋu matha (languages). Yolŋu miny’tji (clan designs) as represented through their art are core aspects of their intellectual property. Rich with metaphor and complex interrelationships, they signal and protect deeper meanings. Visually striking, the exhibition we have developed collaboratively over the last two years, showcases the miny’tji of more than 20 Yolŋu clan groups and over 100 artists. More than 350 works have been grouped to represent the artists’ clan inheritances and estates and to loosely map from east to west the geographical and cultural landscape of much of eastern Arnhem Land.
The title of the exhibition developed by the Yolŋu project team is an invitation, Gululu dhuwala djalkiri: welcome to the Yolŋu foundations.
Rebecca Conway is Curator, Ethnography, Macleay Collections, Chau Chak Wing Museum. She co-curated the exhibition with Matt Poll, Assistant Curator, Indigenous Heritage and Repatriation, and representatives of Milingimbi Art and Culture, Yurrwi Island, Bula’bula Arts, Ramingining, and Bukularrŋgay Mulka, Yirrkala Art Centre.
This article was first published in Issue 26 of Muse Magazine, November 2020.