When I met Birrikitji Gumana (c. 1890–1982) in 1973 he was the leader of the Dhaḻwangu clan of the Yolngu people. He was close to ninety but still had a powerful, deep, resonant singing voice. Born nearly fifty years before the Yirrkala mission was established, he had lived through the history of European colonisation in Eastern Arnhem Land.
It was Birrikitji who, in 1911, was the first to arrive at Gäṉgaṉ following the European massacre of Yolngu who had gathered to perform a Ngärra ceremony, a ritual celebrating the ancestral (Wangarr) events that laid the foundation for Yolngu law and religion. He discovered the bodies of his relatives partly eaten by crocodiles and the remains of their ceremonial feather armbands strewn along the riverbank. He continued to live in his traditional country, but spent considerable time at the Yirrkala mission once it was established. Yolngu used art as a means of persuading Europeans of the value of their beliefs and way of life, and Birrikitji gained renown as an artist. He produced many paintings for anthropologists Catherine and Ronald Berndt, in the 1940s, and then worked closely with art dealer Jim Davidson, who visited Yirrkala each year. His paintings are today held in museums and art galleries across the world, and he was one of the major bark painters who had works included in the National Museum of Australia’s Old Masters exhibition in 2014.
Birrikitji played a key role in establishing relations with Europeans and in the struggle for land rights. In 1962, a new church was built at Yirrkala. Two large painted panels representing the Dhuwa and Yirritja moieties were placed either side of the altar, Birrikitji and his son Gawirriṉ having painted major sections of the Yirritja work. The panels portrayed the spiritual landscape of the region through ancestral designs associated with the different clans; they stated Yolngu ownership of the land and were precursors of the bark petition. Birrikitji’s son-in-law was Milirrpum Marika, in whose name Yolngu people from Yirrkala took the Commonwealth of Australia to court in the Gove land rights case of 1971. Birrikitji was one of the witnesses in the case and lived to see the passage of the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act in 1976, which enabled Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory to claim ownership of unalienated Crown land. He spent his final years living at Gäṉgaṉ.
Birrikitji was a djirrikay – a ceremonial leader of the Yirritja moiety – and a phenomenal artist. This painting in natural pigments on a sheet of stringybark is of the sacred billabong at Gäṉgaṉ, the same subject he painted on the church panels. It represents a foundational event in Yolngu life, when Barama, the great Yirritja moiety ancestral being, emerged from the spiritual depths of its waters. The background pattern of strings of interlocking diamonds evokes the region’s landscape, referencing the seasonal flow of floodwaters, plants in the waters, paperbark trees on the riverbank and the rich life beneath the waters. The painting shows Barama after he emerged from the depths of the billabong. Streamers of waterweeds hanging from his arms and the mud has left patterns on his body. He performed the first Ngärra ceremony, re-enacting the spiritual foundation of Yolngu life and establishing the rules that people should follow. The streamers became the feather-string armbands that people use in ceremonies, and the patterns are those painted on bark and the body. In each hand Barama holds a ceremonial staff, his mark of authority, as he addresses the assembled company. Barama sent emissaries to neighbouring Yolngu clans to teach them the songs and dances that people continue to perform. In Birrikitji’s paintings of this subject the geometric and figurative elements combine to create an overall design. The diamond design flows into and out of the legs and arms of the participants; in ceremony as, like Barama before them, they merge with and emerge from the landscape that is their spiritual footprint – their djalkiri place.
Through his hand and mind, Birrikitji allows people in distant places to apprehend the spirit of his country embodied in ancestral designs.
Howard Morphy is an Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the Australian National University, Canberra; he has worked with Yolngu artists since 1973 and his general book on Aboriginal art is a standard work on the subject.