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Yolngu art practice

Men painting barks at Yirrkala 1959, RM and CH Berndt Collection, Berndt Museum of Anthropology, University of WA, Perth, WU/P34819

The painting that you see today in the bark paintings or whatever, we have it all the time. It is in our body. Whatever we do the painting is there. That represents who you are and what we are and what clan we come from… That’s my painting and it represents my land at Waṉḏawuy. It talks about the river, the land, the nature and it’s really important. I have that painting all the time in me wherever I go, I can’t lose it. I can’t lose that one. – Wäka Munungurr, Yirrkala, 2013

The designs used by Yolngu artists, whether on paper, bark, ḻarrakitj (hollow logs) or on the body for ceremony, reflect each artist’s clan and country. They are an expression of connection to family, country and to the Wangarr or period of ancestral creativity.

For Yolngu people the country is an embodiment of ancestral actions, the result of epic journeys by ancestors who gave shape and substance to the land as they travelled, before settling to rest in the country where their presence continues today. The land still bears the physical evidence of these journeys and the painted designs represent and embody these ancestral actions. Diamond designs, for instance, are associated with clans that have Baru the ancestral crocodile, Birrkuda (wild honey) and Gurtha (fire) as their Wangarr, and are associated with a particular area of country. The designs may also be read as title deeds to country, representing generations of intimate and deep connection to, and care for, particular areas.

Questions and activities

  • In 1963 senior Yolngu artists including Munggurrawuy Yunupingu and Mawalan Marika created the Yirrkala Bark Petitions. These founding documents of the Land Rights movement in Australia, were painted with sacred designs that embodied and demonstrated their connection to country. Research the Yirrkala Bark Petition and discuss the role played by art in achieving Indigenous self-determination. Create an artwork that asserts you belong to a particular place. Consider how you will communicate your connection to this place.
  • With a partner, research and discuss bark painting styles across Arnhem Land. Find examples of work by Mawalan Marika, Wonggu Mununggurr, John Mawurdjul and David Malangi. Identify and list stylistic features of art from the north-east, central and western Arnhem Land regions. Write a short newspaper article describing and comparing these regional variations and locating work by artists from Yirrkala within them.
  • Find out about the tools and materials used by Yolngu artists such as bark, ochre and the marwat, a thin hair brush. Design and make your own painting or stamping tool using materials from your environment such as scrunched up paper or a ruler’s edge. Collect other materials from your classroom to paint onto. Present your works to the class and talk about how the materials reflect your environment.


  • clan – an extended family group sharing a common line of ancestors. Each clan is linked to a specific estate that can be on land and in the sea and to a single major ancestral being or set of ancestors.
  • Wangarr – a term used by Yolngu people to describe the creative era when ancestral beings created the cultural, social and physical landscape of Aboriginal Australia. This period continues to influence the spiritual beliefs and cultural practices of Aboriginal people today.
  • Yolgnu – the term used by Aboriginal people of central and eastern Arnhem Land to describe themselves