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Introduction

Detailed view of north-east Arnhem Land showing Yirrkala and other locations where artists in the Yirrkala drawings exhibition have lived and worked. Click on the map for a larger version.

In 1946 the anthropologists Ronald and Catherine Berndt travelled to north-east Arnhem Land and spent seven months living with Yolngu people at the mission settlement at Yirrkala. During that time they commissioned senior men in the community to create bark paintings as part of their research.

As there was then no jetty at Yirrkala, and the barks had to be carried out through the shallow water to be loaded onto the boat for transport back to Sydney, there was some concern for the safety of these artworks. Ronald Berndt asked his father to send him sheets of brown butchers paper and wax crayons and commissioned the artists to make a set of supplementary drawings.

Although these materials were new to the artists, they quickly responded by producing hundreds of vibrant drawings in a brilliant palette of red, blue, yellow, green and black. They depict in exquisite detail the complexities of Yolngu life and cultural inheritance and are now held at the Berndt Museum of Anthropology at the University of Western Australia.

For Yolngu artists, these drawings, and the accompanying bark paintings, were a means of educating the anthropologists, and through them the wider community, about Yolngu law, knowledge, connection to country and way of life. They are part of a long and continuing tradition of interaction and exchange with outsiders that includes trade with Macassan people, working with the anthropologist Donald Thomson in the 1930s and 40s, the creation in 1962 of the Yirrkala Church Panels and the Yirrkala Bark Petitions in 1963.

The exhibition Yirrkala drawings presents 81 of the 365 drawings produced and is the first time that a significant selection of the Yirrkala drawings collection has been displayed. It includes works by men who became leading artists, including Mawalan and Wandjuk Marika, Munggurrawuy Yunupingu, Narritjin Maymuru and Wonggu Mununggurr.

The descendants of these artists continue to produce artworks today, and a selection of their ḻarrakitj (hollow logs) from the Gallery’s collection is exhibited alongside the drawings.

Questions and activities

  • Locate Yirrkala on the map. Find out about the landscape, seasons and flora and fauna in this region. Visit the Buku-Larrngay Mulka Art Centre website and learn about the different clans, their country and related designs. Collect photos to create a visual presentation and give a talk to your class.
  • Choose a drawing from the exhibition and analyse it in terms of materials, colour, composition, designs and symbols. Is it representational or abstract? In class, discuss the reasons why these artists may have chosen to work with the Berndts, producing such quantities of beautifully made artwork. What important ideas did they intend to communicate about themselves?
  • Watch the video 'Macassan influences’ and investigate the history of contact between Indonesia and Australia. Research cultural relations between Macassan and Aboriginal people and list Indonesian words still found in the languages of Arnhem Land. Find images of Macassan praus by artists such as Wongu Mununggurr, Dhuwarrwarr Marika, Selina Galalanga and Sam Baramba Wurramara.

Map of Australia showing the location of north-east Arnhem Land and the Yirrkala region.