by: Dan Kennedy published: 11th March 2017
Little did we know where this one enquiry would lead us. On a warm morning in Bondi with the humidity building up like an Arnhem Land wet season outside the office window, an email had arrived in in Adrian’s inbox. It was asking about bark paintings by Wandjuk Marika, the late Rirratjingu clan elder from East Arnhem Land. Perhaps something about the Djang’kawu sisters, the writer wondered. Have you got anything about them?
What works about these eternal, progenital, self-existent sisters did we have hiding in our cupboards, we wondered? We could think of a couple, but these sisters travelled almost the breadth of Arnhem Land from east to west, creating the land everywhere, leaving traces of their power, singing the names of animals and plants. Who knew what they had touched in our own collection?
The first bark painting that came to mind was Banambuna Burarrwana’s Djanda (1999). A beautiful bark of totemic simplicity, depicting Djanda the Goanna. “What is blocking us? It is a Djanda Goanna”, recites one Yolngu song in which the Djang’kawu sisters sing: “It has made tracks on the sandhills, crawling and making country… We put it in the well! It splashed in the well, making foam like the foam on the sea”. The white “rarrk” crosshatching surrounding this goanna really does recall foam on the sea. The wells dug in the white sand of Yalangbara beach reveal fresh water, and the goanna is often seen as a manifestation of the Djang’kawu themselves. But in this painting we have already moved from Rirratjingu to Datiwuy country, and different sacred wells the sisters dug as they began to travel.
“The name of the country is Barnbarrdji which is close to Rorruwuy on the eastern side of Arnhem Bay.”, he told him. The work depicts two djanda (goannas), however they represent a singular djanda as it goes in and comes out of Gapu Milminydjarrk (sacred waterholes which the Djan’kawu sisters dug). “Traditionally, and still today, this design is painted onto the chest of young boys going into Dhapi (coming of age) ceremony… The roundel at the centre of the work represents Gawl (fish trap) placed by the Djang’kawu and blocking a creek at the site.”
Yet other works were only found with some difficulty, because of the spelling of “Djang’kawu”. A beautiful pair of barks from Elcho Island on the north coast of Arnhem Land mention the “Djanggawul Sisters”, the same spelling used by Ronald Berndt in the 1950s when he documented the Djanda song mentioned above. The works’ documentation explains: “In the Dreamtime the Djanggawul Sisters came and thrust sacred ranga [sacred object] sticks into ground to make sacred life giving water holes. The women saw the mangrove shells and named them Noondah. In the painting the circles are sacred water holes. The cross hatching is the flowing water, when all the creatures are on the move to mate and perpetuate life for their species.” The whole Djang’kawu story, in fact, is one of fertility and creation. But also of death and the life thereafter.
Morning Star poles for example, from Elcho Island, are also connected to the Djang’kawu sisters. There is a beautiful collection of them in Cooee’s front upstairs window, and now their connection to this Djang’kawu trail becomes palpable. It was after all the morning star which guided the sisters to Yalangbara, and now the souls of all their their Dhuwa children are believed to find their final resting place in the Morning Star after death. The top feathers are the star itself, while the bands are different facets of the light. The feathered tassels often hanging from them are the rays of light which gather up and envelop the souls of the deceased in their embrace.
Here we are back where we started: the waterholes, the digging sticks, the endless procreative powers of the Djang’kawu sisters. It is an epic tale. I’m quite glad that enquiry came in after all. Sitting here now, I can almost imagine an invisible thread joining all these works and many others sitting in our storerooms. A whole Dreaming track of hundreds of kilometres, dozens of paintings like little snapshots rendered in brilliant ochres, evoking salt,
Margie West (ed.), Yalangbara : Art of the Djang'kawu, produced in partnership with Banduk Marika and other members of the Rirratjingu clan, north-east Arnhem Land, Darwin, N.T. : Charles Darwin University Press, 2008.
National Gallery of Australia, No ordinary place : the art of David Malangi : a National Gallery of Australia travelling exhibition, Canberra ; National Gallery of Australia, 2006