Born around 1915, Wally Mandarrk grew up in south-central Arnhem Land and spent time at Marlkawo near Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek’s country of Kabulwarnamyo. He did not meet a European until 1946 when he began work at a sawmill in Maranboy. He remained by all accounts a private and traditional man, avoiding contact with Balanda (non-Indigenous people). Through the 1960s and 70s he lived at a number of bush camps including one at Mankorlod before establishing Yaymini outstation with his family in remote Arnhem escarpment country. He was a Barabba clan man of the Balang skin group.
His art and practice reflects his traditional character. He continued using orchid juice (djalamardi, Dendrobium sp. - orchid) as a binder for his ochres long after bark artists were introduced to PVA glue. One of his bark works in the National Museum of Australia collection, Borlung and Kangaroo (1972-73) was in fact painted for his family on the wall of their bark shelter in the Mankorlod estate. It was found there by Maningrida art centre manager Dan Gillespie in 1973. In the 1960s he worked with the anthropologist Eric Brandl, who documented a rock painting Mandarrk completed of Bolung (the Rainbow Serpent) in a cave in the Cadell River region around 1965.
Mandarrk's works that were painted for sale are distinctive for the simple, stocky outline of his figures, infilled with regular bands of red, white and yellow cross-hatching on a plain red background. This hatching infill is known as rarrk in the Kunwinjku language. His alignment of the diagonal bands of rarrk is often quite uni-directional and vertical, and the extremities of figures and other objects is often filled with more simple parallel rarrk without cross-hatching. Many of his works depict Wayarra (profane ghost or demon spirits) or Mimih (thin, mischevious spirits inhabiting the stone country). For Kunwinjku people, these spirits sometimes form the basis of morality stories, living as they do in a fashion not entirely different from Bininj (Aboriginal people). Mimih spirits in particular are thought to have originated many everyday bush skills which they then passed on to Aboriginal people. In Mandarrk’s work they are often seen gathering food in dilly bags, hunting and playing mako (didgeridoo). As well as appearing in many stories, the existence of these spirits is often the reason certain areas are not visited, usually regarded as dangerous places. Other works by Mandarrk depict animals such as crocodiles, kangaroos and birds as well as the Rainbow Serpent, with influence from rock art styles.
Mandarrk’s works were collected during the 1948 American-Australian scientific expedition to Arnhem Land, and were also bought by the Maningrida art centre in its early days. His works have been included in exhibitions such as Power of the Land: Masterpieces of Aboriginal Art at the National Gallery of Victoria (1994), the international touring exhibition Aratjara - Art of the First Australians (1993-4), Kunwinjku Bim at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1984-5 and Art of Aboriginal Australia which toured North America in 1974-76.
Wally Mandarrk passed away in 1987.
Profile author: Dan Kennedy