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Fire and water

The work of Djambawa Marawili

Published 1 November 2013

The RA’s Australia show has three rooms dedicated to Aboriginal art. Wally Caruna celebrates this rich vein of indigenous culture by exploring a key work in the show that evokes the ancestral origins of the great bush fire.

  • From the Winter 2013 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    At the opening of the exhibition of his work at the Annandale Galleries in Sydney in 2003, Djambawa Marawili described looking at his bark paintings as though he was ‘looking into a body of water’. Those who know the water can see the currents and read the winds, the geography of the seabed, and even the sea creatures that swim within it. Those who do not know the water are simply dazzled by sunlight reflecting off the surface.

    Source of Fire (2005), a bark painting by Marawili in the RA’s Australia exhibition, is an allegorical painting. In the words of the anthropologist and Aboriginal art historian Howard Morphy, it is ‘a meditation on ancestral events’ – a meditation on the activities of the original creator beings and the genesis of the world.

    The narrative dimension of the painting describes the creation of the ancestral great bush fire as a consequence of conflict between a man called Baru and his wife Dhamalingu, who belong to the Madarrpa clan in Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory. As the fight rages at Yathikpa, a promontory on Blue Mud Bay on the eastern Arnhem Land coast, a domestic camp fire flares up, burning the skin of Baru, who becomes the ancestral crocodile and immerses himself in the waters of the bay to quench the flames, leaving diamond-shaped scars on his back. Baru’s wife is metamorphosed into the blue-tongued lizard. In the climax of the cataclysm, Baru throws the fire out to sea to a place called Dhakalmayi, which becomes a sacred site.

    Source of Fire reflects knowledge of a vast span of history, going back to a time towards the end of the last Ice Age when the sacred fire site at Dhakalmayi existed above what is now the sea level. It is said that the fire burns there to this day. The interpretations of Marawili’s painting are multivalent and layered. On one level, the painting may be read as a map of the coastal region of Yathikpa. Reading the picture at the very top, the semi-circle of the crocodile’s nest is surrounded by swathes of linked diamonds, the Madarrpa clan’s pattern for freshwater. This is inland from the scene of the domestic drama at Yathikpa, depicted in the centre left. Images of quails that spread the fire inland are buried within the clan design in the upper corners.

    From Yathikpa, the diamond pattern is extruded to indicate the churning of freshwater meeting salt water and the surge of the waves bearing fire to Dhakalmayi, encircled in the lower left of the picture. A partly submerged dugong (sea cow) in the lower right alludes to the alliance between Marawili’s Madarrpa clan and the Gumatj clan, who share the ancestral fire story as well as an associated dugong hunting story.

    The subject of the painting also relates to the practice of land management through the use of fire: the regular burning off of tracts of country to encourage regrowth or corral game. Source of Fire functions too as a statement of the law and culture of the Yolngu, the Aboriginal people of eastern Arnhem Land to whom the Madarrpa and Gumatj clans belong. The metaphor of the meeting of inland freshwater and the sea is potent and loaded: it encompasses the exchange of ideas, gender politics, sexual relationships, fecundity and more besides. And through the optical shimmer of the cross-atched clan patterns or miny’tji – the equivalent of gold leaf for bark painting – the work radiates the ancestral powers present in the earth and sea.

    The painting also carries an autobiographical dimension, being a self-portrait of the artist’s identity rather than of his physical features. It declares Marawili as a descendant of his ancestors and the embodiment of Baru, and his ritual authority through the symbol of spiritual revelation – fire. Marawili has painted the Madarrpa clan patterns onto eucalyptus bark with earth pigments in the same way as they might be painted onto his body in ceremonies.

    Moreover, the painting is emblematic of a sense of renewed confidence in the viability of Yolngu culture. Djambawa’s father and mentor, Wakuthi Marawili (1921-2005), had experienced the trauma of European ideals invading Yolngu life. From the mid-1930s, Christianity posed a threat to Yolngu systems of belief, official government policies impacted on their daily lives, and by the 1960s large-scale mining interests were desecrating the land itself.

    Faced with an uncertain future, Djambawa’s father’s generation turned to art as a powerful and eloquent means to bridge the yawning gap between cultures. Bark paintings became political tools as much as artistic expressions of Yolngu culture and aspirations.

    Djambawa’s generation has continued to engage directly with broader society. Among his peers are politicians, rock musicians, academics and cultural advocates. They have met white society face to face. Their confidence in the maintenance of cultural practice in the contemporary world continues to find its expression in art: Djambawa pushes the boundaries of artistic tradition – never a static entity anyway – to create a new vision. In Source of Fire, he has opened a window onto the Yolngu’s ancient past, their modern history and their contemporary world. And he invites us to bask in the dazzle of the sacred ancestral forces that imbue his land, and emanate from his painting.

    Australia is at the RA until 8 December 2013.

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