Nanyin Maymuru (c. 1910–69) grew up in Yolngu country in Eastern Arnhem Land before the establishment of the first mission stations in the area. He was a member of the Manggalili clan of the Yirritja moiety and lived mainly in the region north of Blue Mud Bay. In 1933, he was at Caledon Bay with the great Yolngu leader Wonggu Mununggurr. He worked for Fred Gray, who had started an enterprise collecting pearl shell and bêche-de-mer (trepang). Nanyin was witness to the deaths of the crew of a Japanese pearling vessel, killed after a disagreement with Yolngu. This event triggered the establishment of Yirrkala mission station in 1935. Nanyin and his younger brother Narritjin played major roles in developing Yirrkala, becoming leading members of the community. Early on they worked closely with the mission to make gardens and to produce paintings and carvings to sell, and then worked with anthropologists Catherine and Ronald Berndt, and with members of the 1948 American–Australian Expedition to Arnhem Land. Their paintings are now in most major Australian galleries and in collections in the United States and Europe.
Nanyin and Narritjin engaged strongly with non-Yolngu in the struggle for their rights. They saw art as a way to persuade outsiders of the value of their culture. It was Narritjin who suggested to Reverend Edgar Wells in 1962 that Yolngu sacred art should be included in the new church at Yirrkala. Nanyin and Narritjin worked together on the Yirritja moiety panel, painting the top third with Manggalili designs. Their painting centred on the story of the ancestral Guwak, who takes the form of a bird, the Koel. The Guwak flew from inland to the Manggalili estate of Djarrakpi (Cape Shield). When he arrived, he perched on a treetop and instructed the possum Marrngu to spin its fur into lengths of ceremonial string, a medium connecting people together in ceremonies, marking the ancestral beings’ journeys along songlines across the land, linking people with the spirit world.
Nanyin’s painting is on a sheet of prepared stringybark (eucalyptus tetrodonta) using naturally occurring earth pigments. The lower half of the painting centres on Djarrakpi. The possums are shown running outside and inside the trunk of a hollow tree. The circle at the bottom represents both the place where they camped and the centre of the tree. The central column represents the tree trunk, with the possums both climbing and spinning lengths of fur string. The background pattern is a clan design representing the beach and sand dunes at Djarrakpi. The clan design in the painting’s top section is more important, associated with the flow of Manggalili waters from the inland out through the estuaries to the sea. It is referred to as the ngaraka (bone) of the clan. The central figure is transformational; its origins are in the shaft of a harpoon that two ancestral beings used in hunting dugong and whale. The harpoon broke free and, drifting in the tide, became the origin of the hollow-log coffin associated with the clan, in which the bones of the deceased would be laid to rest. The shape at the end of the coffin links it back to the dugong (and in some interpretations to a whale), the prey of the hunters – consumed and consuming.
Nanyin and Narritjin painted variations on the same themes and stories. In the church panels they painted together with a unity of purpose and their individual styles merged; but when they painted separately, their individuality emerged. Nanyin was less prolific than Narritjin and worked in a less exuberant, almost understated style, of which this painting is characteristic. We can feel the rhythmical, modulated nature of the surface and see the smooth transitions between the sequences of pigment across the bark. The black figures of the possum stand out boldly, while those in yellow ochre merge with the background pattern. Nanyin’s seriousness comes across, and yet so too does a sense of whimsy and playfulness as the tails of the possums in the bottom panels become entangled in the background pattern.
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.