Peter Marralwanga resided for most of his life at the remote outstation of Marrkolidjban, in Western Arnhem Land. Although he moved to the nearby government settlement at Maningrida to lobby for formal recognition of his outstation in the 1960's, he soon returned to country, driven by a dislike of the lifestyle and concerns of foraging mining companies on Kunwinjku lands. Bark painter Yirawala shared Maralwanga’s desire for an outstation at Marrkolidjban as his clan lands lay in the surrounding country. The two forged a close friendship and it was under Yirawala’s tutelage that, around 1970, Maralwanga began to transfer his great ceremonial knowledge onto barks that were sold for an income that proved vital for the economic viability of their outstation.
Naturally, Marralwanga was greatly influenced by Yirawala, particularly in the use of cross-hatching or rarrk in-fill, derived from the designs of the Mardayin ceremony. Yirawala has been attributed as the first Kunwinjku artist to adopt these designs into their bark paintings. There was a marked stylistic difference between these and barks created earlier, which imitated the x-ray manner of rock painting without a great deal of decorative in-fill. Maralwanga was innovative with his rarrk techniques and empowered many of the next generation of artists, such as John Mawurndjul and his own sons Ivan Namirrkki and Samuel Namunjdja to continue experimentation and invention in their works. However, Maralwanga differed from these younger artists, particularly Mawurndjul, who allows rarrk designs to drive his work into pure abstraction. In contrast, Marralwanga’s compositions always centered upon the figurative, to which the rarrk designs remained subservient while altering the formal convention of the rarrk’s colour sequencing and orientation in order to illuminate, to its utmost, the flow and movement of the figure.
Marralwanga explained the interplay in his work, between stylistic conventions and his own personal interpretation, as being ‘half secret one, half ordinary one' (cited in Taylor 2004: 123); one half being determined by Marralwanga’s own emotional response to every day life on the land and the other half by the more formalised spiritual connotations of that same land. Thus Marralwanga’s work carries layers of meaning. At one level, that of his distinct visual aesthetic and interpretation, but always underneath remains a link to deeper spiritual meaning.
In his rendition of the giant creator spirit Luma Luma, complex rarrk designs adorn this central figure of the Mardayin ceremony to evoke its power to transform upon death into the sacred objects, which the ceremony centers upon. While in Mimi Spirit Dancing at Catfish Ceremony 1979 he portrays a large catfish of the type caught in fish-traps during the run-off of the rivers at the end of the wet season. The scale of the fish allowed him to explore the subtleties of rarrk and contrast these with the bold colours and shapes of the fish's tail and backbone. A Mimi spirit dances to the lower right to indicate that it was the Mimi who taught Marralwanga’s ancestors to hunt and fish and who gave this power totem to them. And in his depiction of Yingara, the Rainbow serpent, the weed in the waterholes is the hair of his second born daughter, the mermaid-like Ngalkunburruyayami, while the vines growing in the nearby trees are the feathered strings she and his son, Ngalod, carried.
Marralwanga’s scope of subjects was diverse and revealed a profound and deeply spiritual knowledge. As Luke Taylor lamented during a conversation with Marralwanga about the mermaid-like Yawk Yawk spirits, while ‘we can begin to learn the outside aspects of spirituality in these works, I don’t believe that non-Aboriginal people can progress to feeling this spirituality in exactly the same way as the artist' (1991: 26).
Peter Marralwanga was a truly great painter who lived and died before Aboriginal art gained its current national and International prominence. In 1981 and 1983 he had solo exhibitions with Mary Macha at Aboriginal Traditional Arts in Perth and at the time was second only in recognition to his lifelong friend and countryman Yirawala as the most influential Kunwinjku artists of their generation. His works were included in the important landmark exhibitions; A Myriad of Dreaming: Twentieth Century Aboriginal Art in 1989, Aboriginal Art and Spirituality in 1991 and Crossing Country - the Alchemy of Western Arnhem Land Art in 2004 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.