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Top End, Arnhem Land and Tiwi Islands – Connecting to Country, From our Home to Yours

Jul 6, 2020

Image: Artist Joe Dhamanydji. Photo courtesy the Artist and Milingimbi Art and Culture.

Connecting to Country, From our Home to Yours is your region-by-region guide to some of the most dynamic Art Centres and incredible artists working in Indigenous communities across the country.

Today, we are in the Northern Territory’s Top End, Arnhem Land and Tiwi Islands.

By Camilla Wagstaff

Where are we?

Head as north as the vast Northern Territory will take you and you’ll find yourself in the flourishing Top End. Here you’ll find the Northern Territory’s capital, Darwin (also home to DAAF!). To the east is spectacular Arnhem Land, one of Australia’s last true Aboriginal owned wilderness areas comprising 90,000 square kilometres of reserve. Off the coast lie a number of islands hosting dynamic artistic and cultural communities, including the Tiwi Islands (Bathurst Island and Melville Island), Elcho Island, Goulburn Islands, Milingimbi Island and Groote Eylandt.

Stunning scenery, rugged coastlines, remote tropical paradises, rivers and oceans teeming with wildlife, rainforest, savannah floodplains and woodlands make up this vast and diverse land. In western Arnhem Land a high rugged sandstone plateau is cut through with gorges, much of which is in the World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park.

The geographical diversity of the Top End, Arnhem Land and Tiwi Islands is reflected in the cultural diversity of the myriad remote Indigenous communities that call it home. At broadest strokes, Top End artists are well regarded for woodcarving, weaving, printmaking and painting techniques, their art often characterised by finely linear, cross hatching. This cross hatching technique is called raark, and  emulates a shimmering effect, demonstrating the power of the artist’s story. This geometric abstraction is painted with the use of natural ochres and bark. The region is also famous for its vibrant silk-screen printed textile designs.

There is a significant number of Art Centres (well over 20!) that operate in this area, each with an established reputation for high quality craftsmanship and strong community outcomes. Traditional practice, language, and ceremony is still incredibly strong and at the forefront of life in this region. 

Art Centres are remarkable places that commemorate community, culture and Country. Not only do these professional art making studios empower and support Indigenous practitioners, they become a vital part of community life, fostering Aboriginal identity, encouraging artistic practice, and providing a place where younger generations can work and learn from their elders. 

Perhaps most importantly, Art Centres provide a gateway to explore, understand, buy, share and exhibit Indigenous art. When you buy an artwork from a reputable Art Centre, you know those funds going back to the artist, with a small portion is invested back into the Centre for operational costs and community programs.


Art Centres to explore…


Anindilyakwa Arts


Nestled on the Groote Archipelago in the Gulf of Carpenteria, Anindilyakwa Arts is known for its female-led initiative of bush-dyed silks. The Art Centre’s extensive range also includes ghost net baskets made from discarded fishermen’s nets that wash up on beaches, lino prints, screen prints, textiles, homewares and jewellery. The Anindilyakwa Arts men’s art program commenced at the start of 2019, and has further extended Anindilyakwa‘s art practice to include didgeridoos, paintings and carvings.

Image: Tommy Ngarralja May, Wurna Jawal, Acrylic paint pens on canvas, 60cm x 60cm, 2020, Photo credit Mangkaja Arts.


Buku Larrŋgay Mulka


Buku-Larrnggay Mulka has a long and proud history as one of the most revered Art Centres in the country. Buku-Larrnggay translates to the feeling on your face as it is struck by the first rays of sun – a fitting name to fit the many shining stars that create here. Nestled in the most easterly part of the Top End, Buku artists are renowned for their exquisite works on bark and innovative use of new and different mediums to tell traditional stories. They continue to take out many of the major Indigenous and contemporary art prizes in Australia each year.

Rerrkirrwaŋa Munuŋgurr, Gurtha – Gumatj Fire, Earth pigments on Stringybark, 2019, Photo courtesy Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre.


Durrmu Arts


Durrmu artists are renowned for their woven pandanus and sand-palm fibre works and highly detailed paintings. Esteemed senior artist Regina Pilawuk Wilson leads a team of talented emerging and established artists who create using traditional weaving and durrmu (dot body painting) designs. The results are paintings of intricate, abstract mark-making; some clearly representing syaw (fishnet) and wupun (basket weaving) through their layered textures, others resembling fine tapestries. The mens’ art lies in the production of body paint designs and cultural articles.

Image: Margaret Kundu, Body paint design, Work on Paper, 380mm x 280mm, 2019. Image courtesy of Durrmu Arts Aboriginal Corporation.


Gapuwiyak Culture and Arts


Gapuwiyak is a small Yolŋu town in the middle of Miyarrka, a region around Arnhem Bay. Its remote Art Centre assists artists to collect and prepare materials to explore artistic ideas and develop the knowledge and skills to exhibit, market and sell their work. Artists have become highly regarded for their intricately woven Dilly and String Bags, as well as their paintings, wood carvings and contemporary larrakitj (ceremonial poles). The Art Centre also operates tourism, cultural programs and artist workshops, providing a wonderful place to learn about Yolŋu culture and art.

Image: Gapuwiyak Culture and Arts Artists Lucy, Anna and Norene collecting art materials. Photo courtesy Trevor van Weeren


Artists to look for at DAAF 2020…


Michelle Woody

Showing with: Jilamara Arts and Crafts

Since joining Jilamara Arts and Crafts Association in 2012, Michelle Woody has become a significant member of the association, contributing as a president, long standing executive committee member, arts worker and ANKA committee member. In 2019 she completed the Wesfarmers Indigenous Leaders program and was awarded a specialist certificate in conservation from the Grimwade Centre at Melbourne University. Michelle’s paintings of her Country, depicting the estuarine spaces where fresh and saltwater meet, are gaining traction, casting her as a significant emerging artist on the Tiwi Islands.

Image: Artist Michelle Woody painting Milikapiti. Photo Hannah Raisin, Courtesy of the artist and Jilamara Arts.


David Brian

Showing with: Maningrida Arts and Culture

Rembarrnga and Kune man Balang David Brian lives and works at Ankabarrbirri, an outstation close to Maningrida in the heart of the Arnhem Land. A skilled painter and sculptor, David learned under the guidance of his parents, renowned artists Kamarrang Bob Burruwal and Godjan Lena Yarinkura. David specialises in mako (didjeridu) and more recently has explored paintings on bark. Whilst the artist has developed his own approach and distinct style, the influence of his father and uncle, Les Mirrikkyriya, is evident in his refined colour palette and design motifs.

Image: David Brian, Maningrida Arts. Photo courtesy of Maningrida Arts.


Shaun Namarnyilk

Showing with: Injalak Arts

Shaun Namarnyilk, alongside fellow artist Owen Naborlhborlh, is emerging as one of the next generation leaders for Injalak Arts. Shaun takes important ancient stories and gives them new life, experimenting with mixing new and traditional mediums that defy creative expectations of paintings from Arnhem Land. Shaun studies the rock surface on Injalak Hill and mixes coloured pigments with ochre to create backgrounds that reflect the surface of the rock. He’ll often leave his multi-layered paintings out in the rain, the uniquely textured results mimicking the ancient rock art on the hill.

Image: Artists Shaun Namarnyilk & Owen Naborlhborlh on Injalak Hill. Photo Kerri Meehan on behalf of Injalak Arts.


Joe Dhamanydji

Showing with: Milingimbi Art and Culture

Joe Dhamanydji is the youngest son of renowned artist and Gupapuyŋu cultural leader Tom Djäwa. Dhamanydji was taught to paint his Gupapuyŋu clan miny’tji (designs) by his older brother, Dr. Joe Gumbula, he also has permission to paint some designs belonging to other clans. Dhamanydji is well respected for his extensive knowledge of local miny’tji.  He has contributed this much valued cultural knowledge to a number of national collections, including the Art Gallery of NSW (Sydney), Museum Victoria (Melbourne) and the National Museum of Australia (Canberra).

Image: Artist Joe Dhamanydji of Milingimbi Art and Culture. Photo courtesy of Milingimbi Art and Culture.