1930 - 1987
Wondjuk, Wanjug, Wondjug, Djuakan, Wandjuk Djuwakan Marika,
Wanjuk Marika, the eldest son of Mawalan Marika, was motivated throughout his life by an interest in, and understanding towards others along with a determination to use this understanding to fight for and protect his land. The Yolngu people of North-East Arnhem Land had a centuries old tradition of mutually beneficial trade with their Maccasan neighbours who regularly visited from Indonesia. Foreign influence was incorporated into their world-view, as often articulated in their art and mythology. As a young man Wandjuk was one of the first to learn English amongst his Rirratjingu clan, acting as an interpreter between his people and visiting missionaries, anthropologists and explorers. Arnhem Land had been proclaimed an Aboriginal Reserve in 1931, the year of Wandjuk’s birth, and was already studded with mission stations that were drawing Aboriginal people away from their traditional lands and encouraging them to live a sedentary existence. In the North East, the mission at Yirrkala was established in 1935 and within a year Rev. W.S. Chaseling began encouraging the local the Aborigines to create cultural material, including bark paintings, in exchange for tobacco and other trade goods. The mission authorities actively consulted in commissioning art and artefacts on behalf of visiting anthropologists and collectors, and dispatched these works to museums and marketing outlets in the southern states. As Wandjuk grew up it seemed to him that the value Europeans attributed to his people’s art indicated that they were concerned for the Rirratjingu’s survival and wellbeing. As a young man he provided a great deal of artwork and knowledge that was to become the material for many influential publications. He took explorers out to remote areas of interest, including the red bauxite sands that later became the centre of the most potent and contentious land rights issue in the Australia’s North East. He thought he was ‘helping out’ but in actual fact, no one gave anything substantial to him or his community. On the contrary, the often exploitative motives of the white ‘Balanda’ soon resulted in very unsatisfactory outcomes for his people indeed. 'I was sort of the leading man‘ he said of these times, ‘because I knew how to operate about the Balanda and talk to them‘ (Isaacs, 1995: 72). Realising his lands were under threat however, Wandjuk turned to fight for them, playing a leading role against the mining giant Nabalco. His understanding of the powerful connection between art and advocacy, by now well developed, became the means of defending his people and striving to keep their culture intact. He played a leading role in the creation of the Bark Petition of 1963, which brought, for the first time in Australia’s history, sacred paintings and ceremonial objects as evidence before the courts to demonstrate ancient and vital connections to the land. During the long struggle for land rights Wandjuk was the main conduit of communication between the elders of the different clans, including his father Mawalan, and the Balanda world. Destined for leadership of the Rirratjingu, art and ceremony were all-important elements of his life from an early age. His father Mawalan, senior custodian and tribal leader, passed on the sacred knowledge of their lands and religious ceremonies to Wandjuk. The important role of reaffirming cultural tradition and spiritual belief, as well as asserting his people’s fundamental connection to land increasingly under threat from European development, became his driving motivation. Wandjuk Marika was the custodian of Yalan'bara, the sacred Arnhem Land beach at which the Djan'kawu (Creator Ancestors) first stepped ashore and gave birth to the first people. The Djan'kawu are a brother and two sisters, creators of all Yolngu life, from whom Wandjuk claimed direct lineal descent over many generations as the eldest son of the eldest son. All Yolngu are divided into two groups, Dhua and Yirritja, who intermarry. All Dhua clans throughout Eastern Arnhem Land are descended from the original procreative acts of the Djan'kawu. In his paintings Wandjuk placed figures that elaborated mythological themes amongst the lines and patterns that provided the structure and identified them with a particular place and clan. The Rirratjingu clan design depicts the sun's rays shimmering over the sea, as this is the origin of their ancestral forefathers, the Djankawu. They came by canoe with the rising sun, two sisters and a brother, landing on the beach at Yalangbarra where digging sticks plunged into the sand brought forth springs of freshwater. They traveled across the land creating and naming its features and inhabitants and the two women, already pregnant, gave birth to the original people. Wandjuk painted this story in detail, demonstrating his clan’s ownership of, and connections to, the land at Yelangbarra. Another major epic he painted was the Wagilak Sisters, a moral tale of behavior and its consequences, inscribed in the features of the landscape and the creatures that live there. These creation stories were central themes in his paintings along with those that linked the Munyuku and the Marrakulu clans with the Rirratjingu. Wandjuk had rights to paint certain aspects of Marrakulu imagery, including the use of the clan's design. In 1975, Wandjuk became chairman of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council. Shocked by secret, sacred designs on tea towels and t-shirts, Wandjuk worked towards and brought in legal recognition of Aboriginal copyright. Regularly called upon to assist in seeking official protection of sacred sites, he was often moved to tears by the loss of acknowledgement and the silencing of ‘the voices’ belonging to the area. ‘The land is full of knowledge‘ he said, grieving that’s its power and story were being too easily forgotten (Isaacs 1995: 142-147). Wandjuk was awarded an OBE by the Australian government and travelled the world as a cultural ambassador, contributing and advising on many projects to do with Indigenous affairs. During his later years, his busy public life began to deplete his energy which he felt still derived power from his spiritual source at Yalangbarra. In 1982, the National Gallery purchased most of the works from an important solo show in Sydney that traced the sacred endowment of his homelands. The proceeds financed his family’s move away from the distracting influences of the township at Yirrkala and back to the sacred beaches of the Djankawu ancestors. Houses were built, freshwater bores were sunk and Wandjuk relished life in the bush once again. He felt there was much learning to pass on to his many children. Although European influence has brought many adaptations and developments to bark painting, the essential designs remain consistent and still serve to teach deeper levels of meaning to his family and people. Wandjuk took ill and died suddenly in 1987. True to his lifelong negotiating role, his works, that grace many galleries and collections all over the world, still speak of his envisioned dialogue between changing worlds.
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