AA mysterious bark painting and the Djang'kawu sisters

by: Dan Kennedy   published: 11th March 2017

Little did we know where this one enquiry would lead us. On a warm morning in Bondi with the humidity building up like an Arnhem Land wet season outside the office window, an email had arrived in in Adrian’s inbox. It was asking about bark paintings by Wandjuk Marika, the late Rirratjingu clan elder from East Arnhem Land. Perhaps something about the Djang’kawu sisters, the writer wondered. Have you got anything about them?

These two sisters emerged from the sea onto the pure white sand of Marika’s country of Yalangbara, already pregnant with the first people of the Dhuwa moiety who they gave birth to in the sandhills of the beach. The salt water on their skin dried in the sun, forming brilliant white crystalline patterns on their bodies which became a clan design for the Rirratjingu people. The fantastic shimmering designs from this area reflect the shining salt, the white sands, the sunrise over the water and the light of the Morning Star (Venus), which guided the Djang’kawu over the water to the beach.

What works about these eternal, progenital, self-existent sisters did we have hiding in our cupboards, we wondered? We could think of a couple, but these sisters travelled almost the breadth of Arnhem Land from east to west, creating the land everywhere, leaving traces of their power, singing the names of animals and plants. Who knew what they had touched in our own collection?

The first bark painting that came to mind was Banambuna Burarrwana’s Djanda (1999). A beautiful bark of totemic simplicity, depicting Djanda the Goanna. “What is blocking us? It is a Djanda Goanna”, recites one Yolngu song in which the Djang’kawu sisters sing: “It has made tracks on the sandhills, crawling and making country… We put it in the well! It splashed in the well, making foam like the foam on the sea”. The white “rarrk” crosshatching surrounding this goanna really does recall foam on the sea. The wells dug in the white sand of Yalangbara beach reveal fresh water, and the goanna is often seen as a manifestation of the Djang’kawu themselves. But in this painting we have already moved from Rirratjingu to Datiwuy country, and different sacred wells the sisters dug as they began to travel.


Another bark was more mysterious. Titled only “Fish, Catfish and Goanna”, we received it as a bark by an unknown artist. But those goannas, those circles like water wells - surely it could only be one thing? An email to Will Stubbs at Buku-Larrnggay Mulka art centre in Yirrkala gave us some clues. It was probably another Datiwuy painting, perhaps by Guluwu or Yalkundi Ganambarr, sons of the great Datiwuy patriach Mowarra. But it wasn’t painted in Yirrkala. Amazingly an email to Milingimbi art centre turned up the man himself. Wilson (Guluwu) Manydjarri Ganambarr, now an elder song man, is “still making beautiful works occasionally”. He explained his work (which he says he actually painted at Elcho Island in the 80s or 90s) to Chris Durkin at the desk there.  

“The name of the country is Barnbarrdji which is close to Rorruwuy on the eastern side of Arnhem Bay.”, he told him. The work depicts two djanda (goannas), however they represent a singular djanda as it goes in and comes out of Gapu Milminydjarrk (sacred waterholes which the Djan’kawu sisters dug). “Traditionally, and still today, this design is painted onto the chest of young boys going into Dhapi (coming of age) ceremony… The roundel at the centre of the work represents Gawl (fish trap) placed by the Djang’kawu and blocking a creek at the site.”








Yet other works were only found with some difficulty, because of the spelling of “Djang’kawu”. A beautiful pair of barks from Elcho Island on the north coast of Arnhem Land mention the “Djanggawul Sisters”, the same spelling used by Ronald Berndt in the 1950s when he documented the Djanda song mentioned above. The works’ documentation explains: “In the Dreamtime the Djanggawul Sisters came and thrust sacred ranga [sacred object] sticks into ground to make sacred life giving water holes. The women saw the mangrove shells and named them Noondah. In the painting the circles are sacred water holes. The cross hatching is the flowing water, when all the creatures are on the move to mate and perpetuate life for their species.” The whole Djang’kawu story, in fact, is one of fertility and creation. But also of death and the life thereafter.

Morning Star poles for example, from Elcho Island, are also connected to the Djang’kawu sisters. There is a beautiful collection of them in Cooee’s front upstairs window, and now their connection to this Djang’kawu trail becomes palpable. It was after all the morning star which guided the sisters to Yalangbara, and now the souls of all their their Dhuwa children are believed to find their final resting place in the Morning Star after death. The top feathers are the star itself, while the bands are different facets of the light. The feathered tassels often hanging from them are the rays of light which gather up and envelop the souls of the deceased in their embrace.





Elcho Island is already over a hundred kilometres from the sister’s starting point in Yalangbara, but the sisters travelled much further than that. Artists such as Susan Marawarr and Terry Ngamandara paint for Maningrida Arts in central Arnhem Land, a 500 kilometre drive away. And yet they paint the same sisters, albeit by a different name. In the Gun-nartpa language they are called Murlurlu. Marawarr for example paints a waterhole at a place called Burlupurr A-yurra, close to the large swamp Barlparnarra. Burlupurr A-yurra means 'where the dilly bag lies’ a reference to the dillybags carried by the Murlurlu they traversed the swamp country. The iconography of the Goannas and the waterhole is carried through in Ngamandara’s work.

But fate has a way of grouping its coincidences together, and there was one more twist to our Djan’kawu story. Just the other week we received a stunning work by the late master David Malangi himself. It depicts a section of the Djang’kawu story from near Ramingining in central Arnhem Land. Malangi was well known for what have been called his "Djang’kawu icon paintings”. The Djang’kawu created the waterhole at Milminydjarrk, known as Mirrmirrngurr. In the monograph 'No ordinary place: the art of David Malangi', Susan Jenkins states "The radiating motif is the signature of the Djang’kawu… It signals a number of associations including the rays of the sun with which they travelled, the tracing of the journey or tracks between waterholes and sites created by them with the plunge of their digging sticks, and the design of the woven nganmarra, the conical mat used to give birth to the Dhuwa people, and this is synonymous with the womb and the procreative powers of the women"

Here we are back where we started: the waterholes, the digging sticks, the endless procreative powers of the Djang’kawu sisters. It is an epic tale. I’m quite glad that enquiry came in after all. Sitting here now, I can almost imagine an invisible thread joining all these works and many others sitting in our storerooms. A whole Dreaming track of hundreds of kilometres, dozens of paintings like little snapshots rendered in brilliant ochres, evoking salt,

stars, sunrise and light on the water.


Margie West (ed.), Yalangbara : Art of the Djang'kawu, produced in partnership with Banduk Marika and other members of the Rirratjingu clan, north-east Arnhem Land, Darwin, N.T. : Charles Darwin University Press, 2008.

National Gallery of Australia, No ordinary place : the art of David Malangi : a National Gallery of Australia travelling exhibition, Canberra ; National Gallery of Australia, 2006

Waterhole at Barlparnarra by Susan Marruwarr
Waterhole at Barlparnarra - 2012
Susan Marruwarr 2

51 x 35 cm

Djanggawul Sisters - Mangrove shells and sacred Waterholes by  Borbobani
Djanggawul Sisters - Mangrove shells and sacred Waterholes - 1965
Borbobani 2

80 x 23 cm
#14834 LOCATION: Bondi Beach

Djanggawul Sisters - Mangrove shells and sacred Waterhole by  Borbobani
Djanggawul Sisters - Mangrove shells and sacred Waterhole - 1965
Borbobani 2

78 x 25 cm
#14835 LOCATION: Bondi Beach

Pandanus Mat by Unknown Artist
Pandanus Mat -
Unknown Artist 20


Milminydjarrk by David Malangi
Milminydjarrk - 1992
David Malangi 2

75 x 95 cm

Djanda by Banambuna Burarrwana
Djanda - 1999
Banambuna Burarrwana 1

145 x 40cm
#717 LOCATION: Bondi Beach

Fish, Catfish and Goanna by Wilson Ganambarr Manydjarri
Fish, Catfish and Goanna
Wilson Ganambarr Manydjarri 2

123 x 52 cm
#827 LOCATION: Bondi Beach

Morning Star Pole by Henry Nupurra
Morning Star Pole
Henry Nupurra

230 x 0.0 cm

Goannas at Waterhole by Terry Ngamandarra
Goannas at Waterhole
Terry Ngamandarra 1

56.0 x 76.0 cm
#953 LOCATION: Bondi Beach