Mulkun Wirrpanda, recent bark and pole paintings
25 October to 8 December 2007
Dhakiyarr vs The King
The story reaches back to the early years of the 20th century. In 1933 in north East Arnhem Land, dhakiyarr Wirrpanda, a yolngu Elder, was found guilty of spearing a policeman, Constable McColl, who had chained up dhakiyarr’s wife. This was dhakiyarr’s land and that was his law.
Dhakiyarr went to Darwin to explain his actions and his people’s ways to the Northern Territory Supreme Court. For the first time in Australian history there was organised and vocal support for an Indigeous man, bringing the treatment of Aboriginal people to international attention. Dhakiyarr was sentenced to death.
It was the first meeting of these two laws, and they couldn’t recognise each other.(1)
An appeal to the High Court made this the first case of an Aboriginal Australian to be heard in that court. The Court’s decision overturning the jury’s verdict and the judge’s sentence, affirmed the right of Aboriginal people to a fair trial in Australian courts: an extraordinary event in 1934, and one that set a precedent that we are still struggling to uphold today. The case, however, ended in tragedy. Within 24-hours of his release, on return home from his seven-month incarceration in Fannie Bay Gaol, Dhakiyarr vanished.
Dhakiyarr’s descendents have taken steps to restore his honour. Seventy years after his disappearance, the Wirrpanda family held a Wukidi or burial ceremony in Darwin, a ceremony to resolve conflict between tribes that have wronged each other: liberating his spirit and cleansing those who were involved in his death. A majestic commemorative artwork was installed in the Darwin Supreme Court: a group of nine larrakitj, or ceremonial log coffins, presented by the Dhudi Djapu Clan of Dhuruputjpi at a reconciliation ceremony held at the court in 2003. The late Mulkun Wirrpanda was the daughter of Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda and painted Dhudi Djapu miny’tji (sacred clan design) depicting her land at Dhuruputjpi—continuing Dhakiyarr’s legacy.
The exhibition and accompanying seminar were set against the background of the Howard government’s abrupt ‘national emergency’ response to child abuse in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. The legislation included a ban on consideration of cultural background or customary law in sentencing. This exhibition takes up the struggle for equal justice.
The Intervention failed to redress the historic deficits in community development, health, housing, and education in communities and homelands. For 90 or so art centres representing some 6000 Indigenous artists, the sudden withdrawal of funding (initially from the Community Development Economic Program (CDEP)) had a catastrophic impact. Productive, economically viable jobs were transitioned into inappropriate welfare-based activities.
Mulkun Wirrpanda’s ongoing projects included Djalkiri: We Are Standing on Their Names (2013) and Midawarr/Harvest: The Art of Mulkun Wirrpanda and John Wolseley (2017)—both of which archive her stunning efforts as an advocate of her ancestral legacy.
1. Quote from Wuyal Wirrpanda, from the film Dhakiyarr vs the King (Film Australia, 2004).
About the Artist
The late Mulkun Wirrpanda was the daughter of the great Yolngu leader Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda. As the eldest and most knowledgeable for the Dhudi-Djapu clan from Dhuruputjpi, Mulkun Wirrpanda was acknowledged as a leader. Mulkun was one of the few Yolngu women to have this status. Dhakiyarr’s descendents have taken steps to restore his honour. Seventy years after his disappearance, the Wirrpanda family held a Wukidi or burial ceremony in Darwin, a ceremony to resolve a conflict between tribes that have wronged each other. A commemorative artwork was ceremonially installed in the Darwin Supreme Court.
Mulkun Wirrpanda painted Dhudi-djapu miny'tji (sacred clan design) that depicted her land at Dhuruputjpi. Mulkun was an early practitioner of works without figurative imagery within the miny'tji. Until recently the painting of this 'raw' miny'tji was restricted to ceremonial use. The work is always done using natural earth pigments (ochres). Mulkun usually painted in the Yalata and Dharrangi areas of her clan estate Dhuruputjpi. Mulkun painted on bark, larrakitj (memorial poles) and yidaki (didgeridoos) and was a talented carver, weaver and print maker. Her work has been exhibited throughout Australia and in Asia.
Mulkun Wirrpanda was widow to Wakuthi Marawili, a Madarrpa clan leader. She was also mother (by kinship) to senior artist Djambawa Marawili who chairs the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre and Museum.
Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre & Museum
This centre, situated in Yirkalla, a small Aboriginal community on the northeastern tip of the Top End, is one of Australia's premier art centres. Artist Djambawa Marawili chairs this culture stronghold. The centre’s primarily Yolngu (Aboriginal) staff of ten services Yirrkala and the twenty-five homeland centres in the radius of 200 km.
The museum houses the famous Yirrkala Church Panels 1962-63 produced to assert the authority of Yolngu power structures and to show Yolngu and Christian beliefs were compatible. They also reveal the designs which underpin Yolngu claim to land and sea.
Artists from the centre regularly participate in major national and international events like the national travelling exhibition Saltwater: Yirrkala Bark Paintings of the Sea Country, Recognising Indigenous Sea Rights (1999), in the Sydney Biennale and Musée du Quai Branly in Paris.
Djambawa Marawili, artist and chair of ANKAA (Association of Northern, Kimberly and Arnhem Land Aboriginal Artists) and Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre and Museum made this statement on the Intervention: 'CDEP is really important for our art centres. With CDEP we can have jobs for our people in art centres. They get skills and qualifications. Galleries in Australia and overseas have to remember Indigenous artists and seriously think. This intervention is going to affect them too.'
Cross Conversation: 27 October, 3–5pm
Sarah Pritchard, lawyer, on the human rights issues at stake in the Northern Territory intervention.
Chips MacKinolty, artist, on the impact of the Intervention on artists and art centres in the Top End.
Cross Conversation: 8 December, 3-5pm
Northern Territory Intervention