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Milŋiyawuy – River of Stars

Naminapu Maymuru-White

Earth pigments on Stringybark

36cm x 26cm


Here the daughter of Nanyin has painted mythologies of Maŋgalili foundation that founded Djarrakpi and events that gave cause to this clans mortuary ceremony.

It was in the wangarr, ancestral times, when the Guwak men, Munuminya and Yikawaŋa, sitting under the shade of the sacred Marawili tree, instructed the ancestral koel cuckoo Guwak to lead the Maŋgalili people to this new place they had established for them at Djarrakpi (Cape Shield- the easternmost promontory into Blue Mud bay at th efar south of the Miwatj region). Having seen the people settled in their new homeland they announced to the Maŋgalili their farewell, that they, the Guwak men were to travel out to sea, to a place in the sky and that they would become stars which would shine out of the night sky.

So a canoe and paddles were made and their journey began by paddling down the Milŋiya River which flows into the Blue Mud Bay to the West of Djarrakpi. In the bay, at a place of significance, strong winds developed and a wake from the ancestral turtle capsized the canoe – the men drowned. At this place is the site of Yiŋalpiya, the freshwater crocodile’s nesting place. This same place is the spirit source for Maŋgalili people. It is surmised by others that this event is either an ancestral tsunami or the inundation of the Gulf of Carpentaria at the end of the last Ice Age. The capsizing of this canoe and the death and metamorphosis of these ancestral spirits into another dimension founds mortuary practice for this clan. The basic narrative of a canoe capsized and resultant death is mirrored in companion clans the Maḏarrpa and Dhalwaŋu who also each occupy separate peninsulars which jut into Blue Mud Bay to the West.

Each of these clans inter their dead in a special ceremony based around a large sand sculpture called Yiŋapuŋapu. Whilst the songlines and stories and locations are different the form of the narrative is similar involving the inundation and death of canoe hunters. This ceremony commemorates this ancestral event and liberates the spirit from its earthly form and frees it to continue its infinite cyclical journey. In the case of the Maŋgalili the events of the incident are mapped in the voids of the Milky Way. The black shapes are more prominent to the naked eye in a clear Arnhem land night where the stars are a literal blanket in the absence of light pollution. The river of stars which is known by English speakers as the Milky Way is an analogue of the Milŋiyawuy River in an astral dimension. So the Guwak men are identifiable but also the other elements of the songs.

The Guwak sang in a tense which doesnt exist in English. In ‘everywhen’ contemporaneous past/present/future. The songs they sang are the songs that are sung now which describe them singing themselves as they were capsized. They sing of the elements of the environment which sought to save them and of the Guwak declining that help. They were acceptant of their transformation into spirit form. These events are recorded in the dark voids within the Milky Way and the spirits of Maŋgalili follow this pathway to the infinite.

A special log Milkamirri or Bandumul, containing mangrove worms offered itself as assistance. Ŋoykal the ancestral king fish is also manifest in this form. Even the rock cod they had caught for their journey offered assistance, as did Dhäla the sea creature. And mäṉa the shark. It was to no avail however as the men had destined themselves as offerings, to the night sky where they and subsequent Maŋgalili soles are seen today in the Milky Way. These Maŋgalili souls attain their celestial position by means of possum fur string Burrkun that connects Djarrakpi at the site of the Marawili tree to night sky. Milŋiyawuy or Milŋiya as the Milky Way is also looked upon.

Below is a transcription of what Naminapu offered which gives a simplified outside interpretation of teh songs.

The night bird Guwak became lonely so he set out to find his friend Marrŋu, the possum, to talk to. During the day he found him in several places but Marrŋu would not talk to him because it was daylight. Ever since the Guwak only calls at night as he knows that this is the only time that Marrŋu will answer him. During his travels that day, as he flew along the coast, he saw the king fish Ŋoykal and feeling hungry called out “Ŋoykal if you will jump out of the water onto the sand I will give you some land.” Ŋoykal did so and was gobbled up by the Guwak. At long last he came to Djarrakpi and in the moonlight he saw the sacred tree on the cliff. As he was very tired it was with great relief that he landed in the top of the tree and noticed the Gunyaṉ crabs playing in the sand at the foot of the cliff, running from their holes through the parallel lines of foam left by the ebbing tide. As he sat looking about, he heard a noise and realised Marrŋu was inside the hollow tree. He then sent Garanyirrnyirr, the cicada, down the tree with a message to Marrŋu who came up the tree to the Guwak and they spent the night talking about the sacred places of the Maŋgalili. They then sent garanyirrnyirr with a massage to Nyapaliŋu (Ancestral spirit woman) and asked her to come with them into the Maŋgalili country. The possum travelled ahead and left a path for them to follow. Before the Guwak and Nyapaliŋu came together at Djarrakpi, when they met at the sacred possum tree (Ganyawu, the wild cashew tree) Guwak had already travelled extensively with Garanyirryirr his messenger, and named sacred places for the Maŋgalili. (Nyapaliŋu is a somewhat mystical being hovering in the background of the mythology; information about her is very sparingly given and only after many years of contact.) She taught the Yolŋu women many things; how to look for wild bulb ‘yoku’ and prepare it for eating, how the make bark string and weave pandanus palm baskets. She came to the mainland from Groote Eylandt, travelling in a giant sized bark water container with a band of specially trained spirit women known as Wurrathilaku, who eventually split up to become the different language and clan groups of the Yirritja moiety, including the Maŋgalili. A more important part of Nyapaliŋu’s work was naming flora and fauna and making them Yirritja totems, naming sacred places and making maḏayin (Law). The digging stick (wapitja) which she made for stripping bark, is a very important symbol on the bark paintings as with this she made all the Yirritja waterholes.   

Naminapu is an embodiment of the spirit of this feminine knowledge. In 2019 Nami’s exhibition at Salon gallery in darwin was accompanied by this essay from Will Stubbs

A lot of effort has been invested in recent times in defining the differences between people. Strident assertions of division. Frantic attempts to exclude others from a specific identity. Dog whistling, name calling, a focus on religious difference, skin colour, dress codes, place of birth, language and customs. A frenzy of insecurity around who can, and should be allowed, to claim belonging to the rich nation states.

This is normal and human. It is natural for groups of humans to prize and value the things that capture their perceived group identity. This instinct is at the heart of culture and accordingly cultural difference. In the Yolŋu world immense energy has always been devoted to delineating the exact identity of every element of the Universe and its connections to one’s self or group. As every single thing in the world has a deep essence which correlates to a clan or group of clans this identity politics is the main game in town.

But the sense that everything is thus related militates against the use of these differences to exclude. Whomever is reading this is related to me genetically. Whether they like it or not. And I certainly can’t blame anyone who is underwhelmed at that notion. You cant chose your family.

Yolŋu feel the reality of this absurdity to the bone. They know that everyone is family because their culture demands it. They are resigned to being related to me. There is no other possible alternative. But this isn’t a bit of tribal mumbo jumbo. Or if it is our tribe has the self same mumbo jumbo. Except ours is good mumbo jumbo because we call it science.

The MRCA (most recent common ancestor) to all humans is estimated to have lived about 5000 years ago or as recently as 300 BCE. So whilst Yolŋu will argue and debate the minutiae of esoteric Rom (law) about the sacred essence of a particular valley or yam they would never use it to take the next step and deny another’s humanity or equality because it would be impossible to suggest that a family member was a lesser being.

Naminapu has spent her entire life as an artist working within the portfolio of the songs, essences and designs of her patrilineal clan, the Maŋgalili of the Yirritja moiety.

In the past/present/future the Guwak ancestral beings led the Mangalili people to their new home at Djarrakpi (Cape Shield). Having seen the people settled, the Guwak men (Koel Cuckoo brothers) sang their own journey, paddling out to sea along the Milŋiyawuy River where they were drowned by a huge tidal wave, to a place in the sky where they become stars which would shine out of the night sky. This River of Stars is the astral version of the Milŋiyawuy River and known in English as the Milky Way. From here the eternal spirit will one day return to the earthly dimension in a fresh body. It will gush forth from this water all soggy and sodden. It will slowly dry out and become corporeal like us. It will grow up and then grow once more into its spiritual form in the river of stars to return again for ever more ad infinitum.

As a multi-awarded artist she stands beside her siblings Baluka and Galuma Maymuru and their fathers Narritjin and Nanyin Maymuru as one of Australia’s first families of art.

This Maŋgalili portfolio is as infinite as the universe so her discipline is not a limitation. And her insistence on this canon is not an act of denial to those of us who do not share that identity. It is the opposite.

Because whilst it is natural and healthy to assert the sacred identity of the Maŋgalili or any other distinct cultural group there is another side to that coin. We are all, inescapably and irrevocably human. And any effort to explain, understand, interpret or manifest reality will inevitably be bounded by a simple fact. The parameters of humanity are universal. We live, we die, we love, we struggle, we survive, we grieve, we eat, we fight. No matter who we are or what philosophy we use to underpin those activities. And it is through this that we can glory in our different sameness. These paintings and ideas are for all of us. They share this with all good art. They reach for the shape of the universe. The questions they answer are the same ones that we face. And we all look up on the same stars and always have and always will.

Ref: BUKU2342-20



Buku-Larrnggay Mulka
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Buku-Larrnggay Mulka

Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre is the Indigenous community controlled art centre of Northeast Arnhem Land. Located in Yirrkala, a small Aboriginal community on the northeastern tip of the Top End of the Northern Territory, approximately 700km east of Darwin. Our primarily Yolŋu (Aboriginal) staff of around twenty services Yirrkala and the approximately twenty-five homeland centres in the radius of 200km.

Artists from Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka have won First Prize in the last two National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award and featured in many cutting edge contemporary fine art exhibitions and Biennale both in Australia and overseas. Recent solo retrospectives and high profile multi media installations confirm the Centre’s reputation as an innovative and important artist collective. But the history of the art from this region goes back a long way.

In the 1960’s, Narritjin Maymuru set up his own beachfront gallery from which he sold art that now graces many major museums and private collections. He is counted among the art centre’s main inspirations and founders, and his picture hangs in the museum. His vision of Yolŋu-owned business to sell Yolŋu art that started with a shelter on a beach has now grown into a thriving business that exhibits and sells globally.

Buku-Larrŋgay –  “the feeling on your face as it is struck by the first rays of the sun (i.e. facing East)

Mulka – “a sacred but public ceremony.”

In 1976, the Yolŋu artists established ‘Buku-Larrŋgay Arts’ in the old Mission health centre as an act of self-determination coinciding with the withdrawal of the Methodist Overseas Mission and the Land Rights and Homeland movements.

In 1988, a new museum was built with a Bicentennary grant and this houses a collection of works put together in the 1970s illustrating clan law and also the Message Sticks from 1935 and the Yirrkala Church Panels from 1963.

In 1996, a screen print workshop and extra gallery spaces was added to the space to provide a range of different mediums to explore. In 2007, The Mulka Project was added which houses and displays a collection of tens of thousands of historical images and films as well as creating new digital product.

Still on the same site but in a greatly expanded premises Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre now consists of two divisions; the Yirrkala Art Centre which represents Yolŋu artists exhibiting and selling contemporary art and The Mulka Project which acts as a digital production studio and archiving centre incorporating the museum.

The Centre recently opened an 8 unit accommodation and convention complex.

If you would like to visit our website it is at www.yirrkala.com

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