By the Stars Part I: Yolgnu / Makassan Crossings
Dhuwarrwarr Marika, Bulthirrirri Wununmurra & Nawurapu Wununmurra

Opening 30 November, 3 pm

23 November to 22 December 2019

By the Stars garners the notion of reciprocity inherent in the term ‘exchange’ or trade between the monsoon coast of northern Australia and the Indonesian archipelago. This is the first in a series of exhibitions to be held at The Cross Art Projects in 2020 about a counter-history of cultural exchanges by contemporary artist networks in the region.  

The ‘open archipelago’ has passed from living memory but memories of extended families, grave sites, rock art and ceremonies survive. Also helping to keep the flame burning are scholarly engagements in anthropology and archaeology and a few museum exhibitions and permanent exhibits. The standout exhibit is historian Peter Spillett’s epic counterpoint to the 1988 Bicentennial of British annexation: a prahau called Hati Marege / Heart of Arnhem Land from a re-created voyage from Makassar to make landfall at Galiwin’ku and Yirrkala, now in the Maritime Museum, Museum and Art Gallery Northern Territory.

Powerful prints, exhibitions and actions continue to draw attention to this history. To some including academic Regina Gantner, “The telling of the Macassan stories has become an act of resistance. It refuses to allow a government decision to sever the link to Macassar, Timor and Sama Bajo places.”  

Early relationships were forged by the dynamic sea passages sailed by Makassan (or Macassan) prahaus  to harvest trepang across the Indonesian Archipelago and along the northern Australian coastline.  Strategically located between western and eastern Indonesia, Makassar was the centre of Gowa Sultanate who adopted Islam (in 1605) with its sword belts and talismanic discs before the sultanate was conquered by the Portuguese.

Prahus with multi-cultural crews (Makassarese, Butonese, Bugis, Bajau, Madurese and ‘Koepangers’ from Dutch Timor)   sailed the seas and coast powered by the monsoon winds and currents and guided by the stars.  Many researchers now date the trade using the records of conquest by the Dutch East India Company (c. 1669). Australian writing relies on Matthew Flinders’ accounts. Flinders’ crew murdered two Yolgnu at Blue Mud Bay in 1803 then encountered a fleet of six prahaus near Nhulunbuy and called the passage a “Malay Road”.

At the onset of the northwest winds (December) a fleet of 50 or more left Makassar in South Sulawesi and made landfall on Marege the coast from Melville Island to Arnhem Land and down into Yanyuwa traditional country in the Gulf of Carpentaria—over 1000 kilometres. Or they turned towards Kayu Jawa (the Kimberley). All are lands and waters occupied by Aboriginal nations. The two groups entered into a series of reciprocal negotiations for the right to spend 4-5 months collecting and processing trepang. Local communities were linked to an international trading network. Trepang  fishers returned home again via Timor with the southeast trade winds.

Federation cut twentieth century Australia off from the world with taxes, charges and the Immigration Restriction Act (1901) that formed the basis of the White Australia Policy and an aggressive nation state. Makassan trepangers were outlawed at the urging of missionary groups and greed to establish a second Singapore.  The last voyage took place during the 1906–07 wet season and people who had sailed the waters for generations were summarily evicted.

Material items traded included dugout canoes, woven fibre sails, hooks, fishing lines, beads and metals. Amongst their valuable cargo of smoked trepang returning prahu included pearl and tortoise shell and artefacts. Academic Marcia Langton noted, “the trade was absorbed as innovations in philosophy and practice in the performing and visual arts”.  Woven cloth became a valued commodity and remains important in Yolgnu and Tiwi welcoming and mortuary ceremonies. Painting documented the connections. Darwin Festival has incubated links in music and theatre performance, but rarely in the visual arts.

Makassan and Malay influences live on in language, ceremonies, songs, dances and art works and museum objects. Makassan pidgin became a lingua franca along the north coast, not just between Makassan and Aboriginal people, but also between different Aboriginal groups.  Along the shore they left tamarind trees and lines of stone to support cooking pots to boil, smoke and cure the flesh to be used as a delicacy in a soup and considered by the Chinese an aphrodisiac.

Trepang fishing in some areas also led to the development of property rights which determined the right to capture trepang. Ancestral coastal estates extend well out into the sea and include the near-shore making trade history relevant to mounting legal arguments about native title. In 2008 the High Court made the Blue Mud Bay decision granting traditional Yolgnu owners exclusive native title rights to the intertidal zone. First Nations people once again control access to the waters of a major fishery. Indigenous art and exhibitions such as Saltwater (1999) and Dalkiri: Standing on their names (2010) have helped non-Indigenous people to understand how the law codifies and maps obligations to the land, sea and sky.

It is now time to survey the 250th anniversary of the landing of James Cook and crew at Botany Bay. The significance of the Hati Marege / Heart of Arnhem Land and the prahu’s subversive overturning of the foundational narrative of Captain Cook and the Endeavour and the unilateral British land claim has not been lost: from Johnny Bulun’bulun and Maningrida dancers in Makassar (1993) to the ongoing Makassar-Yirrkala Artist Exchange (2018) that looks to a poly-cultural future.  

By the Stars aims to look to all the seafaring comings and goings from the north through the straits between the islands of the Indonesian archipelago by representatives of all world civilisations. In a political region of closed borders and the parlous state of minorities can art continue to open up new routes for dialogue? By the Stars grafts an ancient trade route to offer another dimension of mercantile success and cultural complexity. The past retains an inevitable trajectory towards a closer relationship despite the militarisation of borders.

Art Exhibition at The Cross Art Projects. By the Stars: Dhuwarrwarr Marika, Bulthirrirri Wununmurra & Nawurapu Wununmurra. 2019

Dhuwarrwarr Marika, Gaṉ'kurr, noṉda, nukaliya, ochre on bark, 150 x 45 cm. (#1483-19)

Art Exhibition at The Cross Art Projects. By the Stars: Dhuwarrwarr Marika, Bulthirrirri Wununmurra & Nawurapu Wununmurra. 2019

Dhuwarrwarr Marika,  Makassan Swords and Long Knives, 56x76, ochre on paper. (#239-19)

Art Exhibition at The Cross Art Projects. By the Stars: Dhuwarrwarr Marika, Bulthirrirri Wununmurra & Nawurapu Wununmurra. 2019

Dhuwarrwarr Marika, Milnurr, ochre on bark, 77 x 62cm. (#3581A)

Art Exhibition at The Cross Art Projects. By the Stars: Dhuwarrwarr Marika, Bulthirrirri Wununmurra & Nawurapu Wununmurra. 2019

Dhuwarrwarr Marika, Makassan Prahu, etching on BFK Rives paper 40 x 40cm. (Prints 11-16-1/AP)

Art Exhibition at The Cross Art Projects. By the Stars: Dhuwarrwarr Marika, Bulthirrirri Wununmurra & Nawurapu Wununmurra. 2019

Dhuwarrwarr Marika,  Makassan Swords and Long Knives, etching on Hanhemuhle paper, 53 x 79cm (#3904-19-17/20)

Art Exhibition at The Cross Art Projects. By the Stars: Dhuwarrwarr Marika, Bulthirrirri Wununmurra & Nawurapu Wununmurra. 2019

Dhuwarrwarr Marika, Makassan Swords and Long Knives, 2019


Dhuwarrwarr Marika (born c.1946)
The Marika family are highly regarded as gifted artists and able educationalists, cultural ambassadors, environmentalists, and activists. Dhuwarrwarr is sister of Wandjuk, Baynul and Banduk Marika. Their father Mawalan was the Rirratjinu ceremonial leader who in 1935 welcomed anthropologist Donald Thompson followed by missionaries to set up on his land, creating the beginnings of modern day Yirrkala.

Dhuwarrwarr Marika is the first Yolnu woman authorised to paint sacred designs on her own. Dhuwarrwarr’s first career was in nursing (at Yirrkala, Darwin and then Sydney). On returning home she focused on her artistic gifts learning basketry from her mother and aunt and painting from her father Mawalan 1 who was steeped in in the mythology of his people.

Mawalan Marika painted about the Makassan people in the 1940s and spoke some Makassan language (Malay). In 1947, senior ceremonial leaders at Yirrkala produced hundreds of vibrant crayon drawings now held at the Berndt Museum of Anthropology at the University of Western Australia. Mawalan's 'Macassan Swords' are illustrated in Yirrkala Drawings (AGNSW exhibition catalogue, 2013.)

Mawalan worked with Europeans but never lost his fondness and respect for Makassans and stressed the importance of the relationship between Yolnu and these allies. Dhuwarrwarr Marika recounts, “… They invited the Makassan people to the camp and explained to them who they were and why they came because in their heart they were Yolgnu people. And the Makassan taught the Yolngu their song and traditions and the Yolngu taught the Makassan their culture and law and tradition.

Mawalan 1 and his brothers were all accomplished artists and passionate advocates of Indigenous rights. It was their involvement in the historic Gove Land Right Case that led to the passing of the first land rights legislation in Australia. Dhuwarrwarr Marika continues this work in education and on committees and as an executive member and women’s council representative for the Northern Land Council.

She says: I’m teaching my brother’s children for all the painting as well as my children. I used to ask them to come and watch me. I use my own colours from the shore - the yellow and the red, just a rock, and the black, bayanu (not) charcoal. Like my brother (Wandjuk), I sometimes mix yellow and black to make green. I used to go and get it in a bucket and mash it up and leave it in the sun to dry.”

Dhuwarrwarr Marika has participated in group shows since the late 1980s and is represented in most Australian state galleries. In 2010 the National Museum of Australia presented Yalangbara: Art of the Djang’kawu an exhibition of artworks by the Marika family exploring the journey of the Djang’kawu ancestors.

Bulthirrirri Wununmurra
Bulthirrirri is an emerging artist and the daughter of great painter and sculptor Nawurapu Wununmurra (dec). Under the guidance of her father (recently deceased) Bulthirrirri is following and maintain her family’s rich heritage through her own hand.

Visit the current show