Sacred Arnhem Land art showcased in Sydney

An art exhibition showing how the Yolŋu people of northeast Arnhem Land fought for and won their case for Indigenous sea rights will be showcased at the  Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney. 

The exhibition will feature the historic collection of Yirrkala Bark Paintings of Sea Country. 

Opening November 9, Gapu-Monuk Saltwater features up to 40 of the stunning paintings from the Saltwater Collection.

It also uses oral histories, aerial photography and traditional and contemporary indigenous objects to delve deeper into the stories of the communities who created the paintings, giving visitors a richer understanding of their connection to sea country.

Museum director Kevin Sumption said he was “delighted to fly the Blue Mud Bay flag representing this landmark decision and event for Yolŋu and the wider Australian community”.

“The museum is honoured to be the caretakers of the 80 bark paintings that assisted in highlighting the ownership of Sea Country for the Yolŋu,” Mr Sumption said. 

“We hope that through this exhibition we can immerse visitors in the important stories of the communities behind the paintings.”

Yolŋu artists from 15 clans and eighteen homeland communities in east Arnhem Land created the sacred paintings in 1997. 

They were created in a response initiated by Madarrpa clan leader Djambawa Marawili following the discovery of illegal fishing on a sacred site in his clan estate. 

Djambawa Marawili AM said in 1999, “It is time for non-Aboriginal people to learn about this land, learn about the waters. So if we are living the way of reconciliation, you must learn about Native Title and Sea Right”.

The paintings were deemed the equivalent of title deeds to the sea rights of coastal waters. And almost a decade later, in July 2008, the High Court of Australia confirmed that traditional owners of the Blue Mud Bay region in North-East Arnhem Land, together with traditional owners of almost the entire Northern Territory coastline, have exclusive access rights to tidal waters overlying Aboriginal land.

The Yirrkala Bark Paintings of Sea Country map hundreds of kilometres of the coast, showing physical and social features throughout the region.

Visitors will see a host of vibrant images including ancestral beings, ancient mariners, symbolic icons and a host of spiritual creatures including snakes, crocodiles, fish, turtles and birds, all set against traditional sacred designs representing fresh, tidal and salt water.

Indigenous objects include Mokuy (spirit) carvings and Larrakitj (mortuary pole paintings on hollowed trees) which are combined with interactives, maps and video footage to give visitors an insight into the beliefs, languages and traditions of the communities as well as the unique landscape of north-east Arnhem Land.