These days there are lots of colours. How come? I don’t know. Up until now you’ve only seen us use black, yellow, red and white. That’s a different type of art. What we’re showing you now is a new way of doing art, full of colours, full of fullness, full of meaning. Full of dhäkay-ŋänhawuy.
Old people got gamunuŋgu [ochre paints] and marwat [brushes made of hair], larratkj [ceremonial painted burial poles], but people now got bitja bitja [digital photo assemblage].
I like to do bitja bitja with mayawa [frilled-neck lizard] or eagle, or sunset and yiki [knife] for my mother’s Dhalwaŋu clan. Or I get honey and bees to show the Yolŋu life, like real photos of bees or drawings, and then I add in manikay [soundtrack] and make-up to make it yuwalk, real and alive.
This phone-made media is concerned with a particularly Yolŋu approach to the work of showing and seeing. Yolŋu understand that to make oneself into an image is to press something into the field of visibility. This showing of oneself is an inherently political act. You are calling attention to yourself, positioning yourself, asserting yourself. Inviting others to look. Offering yourself up to be seen.
At the same time, making and sharing these images involves the cultivation of particular ways of seeing: seeing beyond the image to the deeper layers within it; seeing connections not only between kin, but to images that are not suitable for public display; seeing connections to things that you may not have ever seen before, but which can inhere within an image—even these Google photo assemblages.
Buyayak is a word we use. It means like it’s there, but you can’t see it. The old people can see it, the senior members of a tribe.
For Djingadjingawuy this bitja bitja djäma is a way of coming into direct relationship with ancestral knowledge, though in a way and at a level suitable for her age and knowledge base. Through this cut-and-paste assemblage work, she is cultivating her own capacity to see and to know the invisible.
Before mobile phones it was hard for Yolŋu to get hold of bitja. We had to rely on balanda to make prints and buy frames, or to laminate photos for us and then send them on the barge. We had to go the public phone box and ring someone like an anthropologist or teacher and ask them to send us the DVDs they’d made from our ceremonies, or when we went hunting together. Some Yolŋu did have cameras but it was hard to share the images. Not many people had laptops or iPads. Nobody had printers or even memory sticks.
But then… boom! We had those phones and we could start to make our own bitja. We could take photos of our young men at their dhapi circumcision ceremonies, or make silly videos of kids and families, just like on Australia’s Funniest Home Videos.
At that time, the young people started making a new kind of art. They started using their phone to grab photos from here and there and then making them into one bitja with colour and patterns. Just like a bark painting, these bitja show deep family connections. They connect Yolŋu to the land, the maḏayin. These pictures are full of life. Not dry gamunuŋgu, like bark painting. Both tell the same story, but they are different. These are full of colour, brightness and energy.
Through this bitja bitja djäma Yolŋu senses become animated and attuned to a more-than-human world of revelation and relationship.
When Yolŋu look at these images they can see connections through the songlines, from the land right up to the sea.
Anthropologists often use the term ancestral power to identify both the source and subject of Yolŋu creativity. The difficulty with such formulations is that it suggests that Yolŋu art and ritual depend entirely on the creative actions of those who came before. This obscures the degree to which this is a two-way street—the way that formal innovation and contemporary modes of creative engagement can enliven current generations, the old people and country itself.
Before mobile phones, young people had no chance to do this kind of identity djäma [work]. They had no chance to sit and make gamunuŋgu with the old people. Because they were not allowed to. Maybe they thought we weren’t ready. Young people don’t paint their gamunuŋgu in ceremony. Or on bark paintings. Or other important things.
With the real gamunuŋgu it is not allowed for everyone to look and sit and share that pattern. Some gamunuŋgu are hidden, not to be shown in public. Some hidden for ever. Most of them. It’s only the men that know. Not the young boys or women.
Despite the fact that Yolŋu from neighbouring communities (and even members of the same clan who live in neighbouring outstations) paint variations of clan designs, the Yolŋu families I work with made a deliberate decision, many years ago, not to produce their gamunuŋgu as art for sale or public display.
For these Wunuŋmurra men the act of not painting is a highly political act, and simultaneously a means to conserve ancestral force and to avoid the dangers of scrutiny and retribution associated with what might be seen as reckless revelation.
As Fred Myers has described in a different context of Aboriginal art and display, ‘Concealment and control lie at the heart of an Indigenous performance that seeks to impress us with its value without accepting the dominance of those who view.’1 In this respect it is the considered acts of not showing and not telling on these pages that arguably does the most to affirm rom and its enduring authority. As our commentaries provide balanda a glimpse of processes that Taussig might identify as ‘the skilled revelation of skilled concealment’,2 it becomes possible to begin to appreciate the twist of tension within each image, as Yolŋu negotiate the making and circulating of images always alert to the possibility of showing too much, or something that one does not have the rights to show at all. This managed tension between revealing and concealing adds to the push-and-pull aesthetic force of each tender assemblage.
Yolŋu way, you have to be careful. If you spit it out—your gamunuŋgu, dhäwu, rom, and everything—you’re not to live for a long time.
To make the bitja, first thing we do is buy a phone at the community store. Once we’ve got a phone we can start taking photos of people in all kinds of situations. Or we ask our family to send a picture straight to our phone. Then we start connecting all the photos together, doing the image work. We start planning what we’re going to use, like sunset or our totems.
When the young people make those pictures on their phones, what they are doing is making those photographs waŋa [talk, speak, ask for]. Yolŋu can hear that call. We can feel it. Those pictures connect us back to the wäŋa, to our family and our law, they take us straight there, in our minds, our hearts, our rumbal [bodies].
This a different way of showing arts through the colours and the reflections. Because colours can talk, nature can talk, Yolŋu can talk, gamunuŋgu can talk.
Yolŋu have always had art inside our rumbal and our ḏoturrk, in our bodies and our hearts. What people make depends on their aims, skill and style. With mobile phones we’re making a new kind of Yolŋu art. But it still comes from inside. It still comes from Yolŋu ḏoturrk.
That’s gakal. That’s Yolŋu style.
Along with the right to show comes the capacity to see. At every point in our discussions about these bitja, the members of Miyarrka Media were careful to defer to the knowledge and authority of senior members of the relevant clan and their djuŋgaya, or ritual managers. As I was told repeatedly, a young person simply will not see what an old person sees in the same image, whether on bark, body or screen-made collage. They just don’t have the experience and knowledge to see the levels of meaning that are understood by all to be embedded in these patterns of kinship.
What that means is that young people who make these bitja do so with the understanding that even though they may not have the requisite skills or knowledge to paint gamunuŋgu, with the phone they are able to participate in the making and circulation of a new genre of unrestricted designs: family portraits that are perfectly suitable for public circulation, even though they contain as much story, relationship and sacred significance as a traditional ochre gamunuŋgu.
When mobiles came in, everything became open. The phone allows everyone to give their picture; to give a yindi picture for bukmak (everyone, balanda and Yolŋu). We can use Blingee with photos instead of painting. The phone can tell the same dhäwu but using different techniques. All young people now have a chance to identify themselves through the mobile phone, to show others their totem, their dreaming, their dhäwu, through the mobile phone connecting djäma. We are using our mobile phone to talk to other people through the images. We show everyone who we are, where we belong, what’s our land, or totem, our mind and our power. We can feel proud. And strong. And connected.
Young people these days can be invited into ceremony to see gamunuŋgu. They can learn to paint, under the supervision of the old people, the owners of that design and the djuŋgaya. Because old peoples’ eyes fail and they can struggle to paint those fine lines. They need young people to help. So things are changing.
A long time ago only djuŋgaya could do that. But we are inviting young people to take that position. It’s up to them. Their phones can’t do everything.
My favourite thing to do on the phone is to keep busy making bitja, downloading apps, new-release apps, playing around with make-up mala. I don’t play games. I don’t do Facebook right now, I’m sick of it.
The phone helps young people upgrade their connections. Most people are doing this. Even if you don’t know your gamunuŋgu, you can see it.
Everybody knows that it’s not just good things like dancing, music and bitja happening through the phones. Bad things come through the phones too. But our work with Miyarrka Media is about showing how kids have learned to use their phones in the right way. In ways that support law, kinship and identity. Having fun and still taking pictures the right way.
This bitja thing is just a little thing. But as they get older, they will know through djalkiri, bäpurru, manikay, through the foundation, the clan and the songs.
Yolŋu explicitly understand the phone as a conduit, a mechanism that opens one up to social expectations, and therefore as something to be managed, judiciously opened and closed in order to manage the flow of demand or even threat potentially coming down the line.
Mobile phones give young people the chance to connect to their identity, especially if they aren’t really sure. Many Yolŋu lost their identity because of drugs. They are not interested in rom. That’s the true story. Since around the year 2000 too many Yolŋu people are concentrating on drugs.
The way to solve our problems today is to put modern life back into the rom. That’s what our leaders have to do.
The Yolŋu way of life is to make it real. Not talk-talk. Action has to happen. To make it alive.
This is a Yolŋu way of drawing near, pulling you back to who you are—your bäpurru, your yapa [your sister clan], your märi, your ŋäṉḏi… these images are about drawing Yolŋu back.
Only the gamunuŋgu can identify the person. It gives a big picture, for Yolŋu and balanda. These bitja made with the phone through Google and the camera, they can help balanda to see where we are coming from. If they looked at my bitja they could see the Yolŋu picture with the shark and the water and the story. But if they only looked at a painted gamunuŋgu they’d have no idea what it represents. Because balanda don’t know.
This style is more safe too, no one is going to get in trouble. Phones make it easy, but the images we make are not really serious, they’re fun to do and the dhäwu is real. Because it is there already, you can see it showing through the picture.
Yolŋu use these bitja to see deeper. These are not only outside pictures. They are full of deep meaning and feeling. They tell stories. They show the rom.
There is a lot of politics with gamunuŋgu. If you do a painting it can lead to arguments about who owns that gamunuŋgu and who has the right to paint it and show it. But on the phone it’s clear. The young people just show themselves and their family and their relationship to their wäŋa, their märi wäŋa, their ŋändi wäŋa. Whatever they feel like. And no one can argue. Or get upset.
One man cannot hold all the patterns. You have to be barrkuwatj [separate]. You have to be separate. Some men do know a lot for their area and the areas that they are djuŋgaya, they are the managers for that rom. But the gamunuŋgu will always be held separately. They are different. They belong to different people and different wäŋa. That’s Yolŋu life and Yolŋu politics.
I can’t go there and ask for another clan’s patterns. Because I don’t know. Only the family knows.
When the early phones arrived they had different effects already inside to frame our photos. And then when we got the touchscreen phones we could go through Google Play to get make-up [visual effects]. We got hold of all kinds of frames and editing apps for our videos and photos so we could make them colourful and patterned, in different ways. All through the phone.
For example, I get some of my photo make-up from the Internet. I download backgrounds when I want something like water, or honey, or a frill-neck lizard. Because I can use that to show where I come from. So I can show my family identity by putting them into the water, or into the honey. After the make-up I will pull it all together with the names or whatever else we want. That’s how we make it waŋgany, make it one.
Young people, we’ve got more skills with the phone. What we can do is remix, like taking this new technology and making bitja that show our connections in a new way. When I have quiet time, like at night when I have free data because I am good at choosing a good plan, I do my bitja djäma. I don’t like games or things like Facebook or AirG. I love to make these bitja. It is yuṯa rom. I love this. I get so excited. I want this and this. I never get tired hands because this work gives me power and strength. This is yuṯa rom. Making yuṯa mala rom [a new way to live in relation to country and kin]. A new way to be alive and active.
Yolŋu people can share their clothes, their shoes, their TVs… anything really. But they don’t share their phones. These are personal things. Other people might use it, sometimes kids will borrow it to play games, but you don’t give it to other people to take to other places. Because inside that SIM and memory card is all that person’s connections, in the music, the bitja, the videos and the phone numbers themselves. It’s their identity.
We are Yolŋu. If something bad happens we are always getting our leaders to go into the rom and madayin to give raypirri—that’s a way of talking to give encouragement and guidance. Sometimes those kids are breaking in, or going to jail, and so the elders bring that Yolŋu and put him to that rom. Instead of stopping in jail for two years, or four years, or six years.
Sometimes police take the kids because they’ve been breaking in, and all our mala leaders—the leaders of all the tribes who live here in Gapuwiyak—phone them up to ask them to bring them back, and we’ll have to put them into rom and give them a story, about which manymak life to lead, which path to follow.
Young people today are just going any which way, but when they get older they will recognise who they belong to. Who is their yapa, their märi, all this is connected. Connected to the wäŋa, to the gapu. Moṉuk, raypiny, fresh and salt water; and land and nature. Trees. Certain trees have songlines and manikay.
Older people like me look at the phone as a way to connect to their land, a way to think about their mothers and fathers who have passed away. And they need that phone, because every time they hear their ringtone, it takes them back. Not forward.
Sometimes the kids start growling each other through Facebook. All the kids, they jealousing each other. They’re provoking each other through Facebook or AirG, which can lead to them fighting each other on the road.
Boyfriend, girlfriend, that’s the reason. Lots of times we see them. Then the kids take video of that fighting and put them to YouTube. That’s the fun. Everyone can watch. Everywhere. Every time the fight starts, everyone comes down with their phones.
Does that make those kids shamed?
Bäyŋu [no, nothing]. They’re proud. That’s their life. Sometimes we go to the YouTube and watch the kids fighting. Or dancing. Like those other mobs.
Do people put yätjkurr [bad] things on the Internet?
I don’t know. Because last time the policeman came and checked the phones, for yätjkurr things. Sometimes kids are using the phone for manymak things, sometimes bäyŋu.
When Djingadjingawuy talks about the phone as a technology that enables yuṯa rom, she is not talking about a new law replacing the old. She is talking about using her phone to enact the values and practices of the past in a new way. The technological extension of her projective reach allows her to embody the honey hunter Wurray and so to participate in the making and remaking of the world. In this way, she has accessed what one might call the ancestral affordances of the mobile phone.
For a little while, in 2016, I had two phones: an iPhone and a Samsung Galaxy Edge 7. The Samsung was better for the bitja bitja work; the iPhone I liked for video. But then my cousin stole my Samsung and my sister’s son accidentally dropped and smashed the iPhone screen, so now I’m trying to save money for another phone and have to use my mother’s. I did most of these bitja on my Samsung.
I jump through the phone and find the elements I need in Google, and bring them back and put them together with the photos I have on my phone, working with my ŋayaŋu and mulkurr, my heart and mind. I use colours, frames, family, feelings, names, memories, stories, manikay. That’s how I make everything waŋgany, everything as one. That’s how I make it yuwalk—alive and real.
Djingadjingawuy’s birth certificate lists her first name as ‘Kayleen’. But for a few years she preferred to be introduced to balanda as Kylie, finding the sound similar, but more pleasing. In the long run this proved difficult, however, as all her official paperwork (like bank accounts and employment documents) insist on her using her ‘official name’. So she’s given up on Kylie, though I sometimes still call her that. Her family call her Djinga (except her brothers, who are not allowed to say her name).
Djinga and I got to know each other well during the fourteen days of Gurrumuruwuy’s wife’s funeral. She was one of the kin appointed to look after the body. Djinga was also the one who Yangathu, her märi, had asked to accompany her when she was flown out to Gove hospital feeling lethargic and having difficulty breathing.
Those four old men, they are in the djalkiri, the foundation, the luku, the footprint. Djalkiri means you are walking with that foundation. It is inside you, in your blood. You are linked.
Djalkiri means that even if something horrible happens, or you get into trouble, you will still come back to the foundation, that anchor.
I know it looks yuṯa, but the manikay and rom are old. Anchor, yiki and ŋarali’ [tobacco]. Birrinydji is the man, the ancestor for us. I heard at Gurrumuru in the special bush area, his birrimbirr [spirit] is there all the time. And you can hear that yiki in bäpurru time with your own ears. It’s there. I heard it lots of times. But only when somebody passed away. You can hear over at Gurrumuru. It’s there. That yiki.
For Gurrumuru and Dholtji, those homelands are connected because of wetj [relationship made through a gift between places], connection waŋgany [one], märi-gutharra [maternal grand-mother-grandchild]. Connection through rom. I’m talking about the culture. Together in buŋgul, the yiki. You can dance. It’s hard to explain, but it’s there.
If you look at this bitja, you can see that’s me. I am the one with the spear. Doesn’t matter that I’m a miyalk, a woman. In this bitja I am Wurray, the honey hunter, throwing my spear to the future. I am thinking through that Wurray’s spear. Imagining my life.
I made this from bitja I collected from the Internet. First I just got any bitja of the bush with gaḏayka’ trees, those trees that balanda call stringy-bark. Then I started looking for my family on the Internet so that I could put them together in a new way. The photo of my brothers came from images balanda put up. I found them through Google.
I have many, many bitja on my phone, but I made this one especially to show myself and to show you, balanda people, who I am.
When I make this bitja showing my ancestral spear on the phone, I’m imagining my own aims and goals. That spear points forward. This bitja shows me imagining who I’m going to be, what job I’m going to get, how I’m going to live my life, because I’m young. I don’t know my future yet.
I am thinking through that Wurray honey hunter gara—underneath I believe in Garray [God], because he’s the one who created the world, protecting you wherever you go, shielding, guiding… I feel like home when I go back to Raymaŋgirr and I see the water and the sunset and those things that are the foundation of our rom and dhäwu—I feel present, feel closer to Garray… we got wäŋa.
In the centre is Peter, who was the leader of Marraŋu clan until he died in 2018. He was the oldest of all his brothers and held the manikay and rom. He grew his hair long because of that dharpa [tree] we call djuway. It represents that Yolŋu at the bäpurru, at the ceremony like a funeral.
That frame is holding everyone in the gapu. His white and blue represents blue clear water where you get those bubbles. The bubbles coming up from the spring water that you sometimes see in fresh or salty water.
From my point of view this is full of meaning. For me that blue-and-white pattern is like the gapu, the special water at Raymaŋgirr. That gapu, that fresh spring water is calling me, calling my name to Raymaŋgirr.
For Marraŋu people, the landowners, like Peter and Djingadjinga, every time they go for a swim that gapu makes their hair grow. That shows that they are really connected to the gapu, the land, the rom. That’s how people can see that connection.
Two men travelled from Muypan [Goyder River] right up to Raymaŋgirr. Djuway is the name of these two spirit men travelling through the land. The white feathers on their heads represent the gurrukuwuru gapu muḻmuḻmirr, the fresh water that bubbles up at the shore in our homeland.
This photo was taken two years ago, when Geymul and Djambala graduated from Gapuwiyak school in Year 12. The dot dot on their faces shows the guku and the gapu, the honey and the water. The black clothing shows their identity with wäk [the crow]. The blue colour represents the gapu, the water that holds Yolŋu spirits.
The white stripe on their head is the white foam in the calm water that looks like guku. We call it mul-mul [foam, lather, froth, suds, bubbles]… and it drifts along.
In the picture on the left, they’re looking forward into the future. Like the spear. If in your mind you bring in the picture of that Wurray throwing his spear, then that adds to the dhäwu. Then there is the reflection on the other side. That’s like an olden-day picture, and it shows that when they pass away they will return to the land, to maḏayin and rom, the sacred objects and way of life. Back to our law.
This is more of my Wanambi family. Wurray is in the middle carrying his spear, a stone axe for chopping down trees and a bag for collecting honey. We were making a video that day, so Banambi grabbed that old axe from the culture centre. The other bitja I collected up from different ceremonies.
In this one the white colour represents the guku. In the middle that’s my [uncle] and mukul [aunt] and my gäthu [nephew]. They all passed away a long time ago.
My gäthu passed away about two years ago. I put him in the middle because I love him very much, he’s my kind gäthu, he always came up to me saying ‘Auntie, Auntie, Auntie’ giving me hugs and welcoming me, sitting and talking to me.
That’s all his brothers and sisters surrounding him. This little boy is taking all our hearts away.
This is my grandfather and grandmother. I put love in the middle because I love my grandmother. I knew her before she passed away, I looked after my grandmother when I was five years old. This hot heart means I still love her mirithirri mirithirri däl [really, really strong]. I never forgot her in my life and in my mind. I put chains because they are dhuyu [sacred], coming from balaŋu [anchor]. Lukuŋur [coming from the foundation] of my ŋathi’s [maternal grandfather’s] dreaming.
That’s all his children. At the top. Only the two in the middle are still alive. And this heart represents them… the second little heart. And that flower represents my mother (aunt, Gurrumuruwuy’s sister), Bayni, who passed away a long, long time ago. I never saw her when she was alive.
That flower is me. Djingadjingawuy. And that heart represents me because I never knew my grandfather. Never seen him, I’ve only seen my grandmother. So that little heart represents that I need her. And that big heart represents what I’ve got two left from those generations before me: my mum and uncle. The red flower, wur-rki, is because they are Dhalwaŋu. So if you look at it another way, that hot heart represents Gurrumuru. It’s like ŋärra [ceremony ground]. I can either see this big heart as my Wanambi ŋayaŋu, or as Gurrumuru ŋärra.
When you die all the elements come in. Like from märi, all those elements will come close to you. All the märipulu, yapapulu, all those clans that you are linked to through your family, through the land. For example, if a Dhuwa person dies, all the Dhuwa people will come close, all the links will come for the ceremony, because this is where you are coming from. Because of the pattern.
The chain shows the songs, land, the ceremonies hold that rom tight. It’s strong and firm. Locked tight to the foundation. The chain and the anchor connect us to the foundation. To hold it there for the future, no matter how many waves of change come, this will stay forever here, passing from generation to generation through dhawu, manikay, rom. The red represents the land and the sparks, you can see the heat and power. Same in that heart, like hot metal. The heart represents the loved ones gone, only two left out of four. The heart also represents the ŋayaŋu that’s holding the maḏayin.
That ŋayaŋu shows my djäl, that means what I go after, my desire, my decision—what I pull to me because I want it so much. It shows the power of ŋayaŋu to pull the family back to the land and to become waŋgany.
This man is me. I stand with my gamunuŋgu, my clan designs and colours on my belly. Surrounding me is the colour red, the colour of our clan. The colour comes from my ancestral lands, from the red cloth of the flags that we dance with in ceremonies.
The candle shows the Dhalwaŋu fire, see the sparks we call ṉilŋṉilŋ’ everywhere? The red flowers show my ŋayaŋu, my deep feelings as a Dhalwaŋu man. They show the power of my longings, the deepness of my feelings.
This design is dhuyu. That means it is full of power beneath the surface, like the fire in that land. It’s all inside, in the veins, in the heart. When you walk, you walk with gamunuŋgu… We might all look the same from the outside but the old people recognise who you are through this.
It might be that balanda get confused when they see that red wine, because they might not know that Yolŋu can sing and dance stories about alcohol because it belongs to Gurrumuru. But Dhalwaŋu people, we know this. Other Yolŋu know too.
Dhalwaŋu people sing about ŋänitji [alcohol]. So do some other Yirritja people. For us ŋänitji is in the songs, in the rom. So red wine matches perfectly. But here it looks almost black. So if we look it at that way, it can also show the märi-gutharra [grandmother-grandchild] relations between Dhalwaŋu and Warramiri people. The sparkling is the fire, the heat that comes from the land, like the sparks come off something really hot. Red is Dhalwaŋu colour. It’s the colour of our flag. It’s the heat of the wäŋa; you can’t walk barefoot in that place in Gurrumuru.
When you’re drunk you can send your mind back to the wäŋa, back to the land… We can make jokes too. You could say, ‘Don’t rock the boat’. When we drink and start to sway, I say, ‘Don’t rock the boat’. It’s a kind of remix; playing jokes.
We call ourselves the names of ancestors, as if we were in a boat travelling, like that warrior man who came in a ship and threw out his anchor at Gurrumuru.
When Djinga arrived at the clinic with her bag packed to accompany Yangathu to the hospital, a nurse shooed her home. ‘She’s a grown woman. She’ll be fine.’ That same nurse had to wake the family later that night with the news that Yangathu was dead. Blood tests later determined the cause as melioidosis, mostly treatable if caught in time.
Since that funeral, Djinga has become an integral member of Miyarrka Media, bringing her bitja-making skills and resilient optimism to our work together. Djinga laughs when she describes that she uses her phone as a means to hunt and provide for her family. But she’s good at it. I’ve seen her in action when she’s stuck in town with relatives who’ve been drinking for days, leaving her—the sober and resourceful one—to look after her nieces and nephews. At twenty-five years old, she is the youngest member of Miyarrka Media.
Like her uncle, Djinga appreciates that these bitja allow for complex spatio-temporal modes of self-projection and emplacement. These temporalities are actually more complex than any idea that the old look back and young people look forward, for Djinga also anticipates a life as a spirit in her country after her death, as well as a place in Heaven, even as she dreams about how her life will turn out.
This kind of associative thinking—or ‘seeing as if’—is not only a primary mechanism by which the world is rendered resonant and meaningful; it has been fundamental to Yolŋu ways of engaging foreign ideas in many different arenas.
Yet, as Howard Morphy notes, Yolŋu are not the only ones with a sure grasp of the poetics of association:
Wilbur Chaseling, the first missionary, began a syncretic dialogue with Yolŋu over religious phenomena—a practice that continues to the present. I can only briefly summarise the process here. From Chaseling’s writings we learn that he entered into a process of religious dialogue, drawing attention to differences and similarities between Yolŋu and Christian religious beliefs and practices. He did not dismiss Yolŋu beliefs or attempt to overturn their cosmology. He respected Yolŋu values and said that he learnt far more from Yolŋu than he was able to teach. A key part of Chaseling’s teaching was to draw analogies between Yolŋu religion and Christianity, and one consequence of this may be seen in the continuing ways in which Yolŋu relate aspects of their religious practice to biblical precedents. Ancestral Beings as local heroes take the position of saints, the twelve apostles can be seen as reflecting the division of Yolŋu society into clans, the land-transforming actions of the ancestral beings can be seen as reflecting Old Testament theology and the generalised spiritual concept of wangarr can be seen as a manifestation of the one true God.3
When someone goes hunting and they get that kangaroo in the side—Bang! Dead!—with one shot, one spear, then we call that person djambatj. These days those young people are djambatj with their phones. One shot, straight where they want to go, through that phone and through the Internet.
Do you know the Yothu Yindi song called ‘Mainstream’? You should look it up on the Internet.
When I was in boarding school in Darwin I had an mp3 player with this song on it. I used to listen to that old man from Yothu Yindi sing about reflections. Because by looking in the reflections Yolŋu can get meaning and understanding in their own way. These bitja are reflections. In Yolŋu we call them wuŋuli’ or mali. That’s why I do those images with the double-up. Because they are like the person and their wuŋuli’. That’s their reflection, or their spirit.
Such images produce a certain depth of field, a temporal field of expansion and contraction that draws history and biography into a frame of enduring ancestral belonging and emplacement. Not only do they assemble families and icons sourced from elsewhere to position Yolŋu in relation to their ancestral identities, they also set up a temporal resonance that gestures to the course of a single human life figured, quite literally, by ancestral forms and forces.
This dimensionality plays out in the visual field where the perspective itself is doubled, creating what can now be seen as a startling perceptual dynamic within the frame: the first perspective is the vertical view of the figures as if seen from a standing position; the second is a horizontal view from above, where we see figures emplaced as if in a funeral sand sculpture, or as spirits arising out of clan waters.
The hum of time. Yolŋu-style.
Look at the Two Waṉambi Boys bitja again, ’cause I’m going to explain more. The circle is like gapu, that special water we call mirriny. We use that same word to describe the entrance to a bee hive. But the blue and white here, it is showing gapu bubbling up. There’s lots of meaning there. So when we are looking at this bitja of those boys at their graduation, from my point of view its mayali’mirr, really meaningful, full of meaning.
That pattern reminds me of when we put dot-dot patterns on our face. For me that’s like the gapu; that gapu is calling me, calling me to Raymaŋgirr. It’s like the gapu bubbling up: mirriŋur, ŋurruŋur, mulmulmirr, yarpanymirr.
Everything is coming up from that gapu. Can you see now? Waŋganygurr [through one], everything coming up as one. To me it looks like they’re bubbling out the gapu, standing there proud of their achievements.
As my collaborators kept reminding me, from a Yolŋu point of view it is the bitja themselves that tell stories. When we were talking images they would often say, ‘This bitja is telling us …’. This formulation not only downplays the interpretive task of the viewer—and indeed the story-telling role of the image-maker—it raises the question of how we might possibly prepare our audience to become receptive to the story-telling agency of images themselves. Information, analysis, or even extensive story-telling can never be enough. So the challenge becomes one of fostering receptivity in the viewer. How might we encourage a sensorial, affective and imaginative openness where the images might begin to ‘speak to’ our readers?
This is where dhäkay-ŋänhawuy comes in. With dhäkay-ŋänhawuy rom attention is paid to the ways that the audience might be lured closer, past the initial moment of surprise or attraction, to be intrigued, surprised or otherwise sensuously stimulated to open themselves to the potential of being transformed through sensory and imagistic encounter. What is also important is that given their own relative lack of knowledge of the ritual realm, dhäkay-ŋänhawuy rom provides a mode of sensory, experiential knowledge and relationship-making that all the members of Miyarrka Media feel confident in claiming expertise.
This book will be like a mobile phone—everyone will connect through the book.
For the Aboriginal people of east Arnhem Land, there is no necessary, or obvious, correlation between a spear and a phone. This is our own conjunction, our own jaunty juxtaposition, something that Miyarrka Media came up with in the course of making Phone & Spear. Yolŋu who are not directly involved in this project will likely be puzzled when they read the title for the first time. But that’s partly the point, really. ‘They can understand if they think about it,’ says Gurrumuruwuy.
Nowadays, not many young people are learning how to paint gamunuŋgu with ochres. Maybe the leaders won’t teach them. Maybe they don’t trust them. Maybe there are other reasons. I don’t know. But with our phones young people can make bitja full of life. Bright. Colourful. Lovely. True. That’s the hidden secret.
The word ‘enargia’, Greek for ‘visible, palpable, manifest’, points to describing things with a sensory vividness. Although it’s a term generally tied to language and rhetoric, it seems to me to be a good way to describe what is going on here in a multisensory register.
But, of course, this vividness intensifies and affirms something more than sheer sensation.
Life can be hard. There are a lot of bad things going on in the community, like alcohol, drugs, fighting through Facebook, sorcery and suicide. But I don’t think about that. I need to handle my own rom. What that means to me is to be strong, to be who you are. Like if you are Marraŋu, if there is a Marraŋu clan ritual, then you should be there always. Dancing. Showing people who you are. Always.
My future is still a long way away… What’s going to happen to me? Will I still be walking with that gara, with that spear? Or will my future fail? Bad luck? I believe in my heart like that mokuy throwing that spear, I believe I will be strong, still going.
That’s why I gave you that bitja with the mokuy, Wurray. So you can catch on.
This is an important one. This is me. The frame matches this story perfectly. The colours of red, black, yellow and white match the painting on my belly. The colours in the frame come out of that design. The sparkle there, that is the Dhalwaŋu clan fire. You can see the anchor and ŋarrpiya [octopus] from Gurrumuru, the place I am named after. These are outside images for important things. The octopus’s eyes are madayin [restricted], only men can know the name and the body of the octopus. It changes colours. Just like the sunset. The colour of the ŋarrpiya is like the colour of the sunset. That ŋarrpiya brings colourful sunsets.
In the centre image, I am painted in the design that I hold the responsibility for. It shows my identity, my knowledge, my power. That bitja is of me in Denmark, where they made a statue of my body and gamunuŋgu. This was the first time that a Yolŋu person ever was made into a statue.
The black around the anchor is for the Warramiri people who use the surname Bukulatjpi. They are märi for the Dhalwaŋu people, through the ceremony side. The anchor is an important thing for Dhalwaŋu people. You might think it’s come from balanda, but you would be wrong. That anchor (and that knife) is born in the land. Balanda can’t see it, but we know it’s there in the land. I know this might be confusing for balanda. But that manikay [song] holds the yiki [knife], anchor, ŋarali’, alcohol and other things. Especially for Warramiri and Dhalwaŋu people.
When I die, my body will go back to the soil, to the land. But my birrimbirr will remain. That’s what the doubling-up of my image or wuŋili’ tells you here. I will be gone, but still here, in my clan country as well as in Yalakun and the lands I cared for all my life.
This bitja is also like the sand sculpture that holds a Dhalwaŋu body before it goes into the ground. We can build that djalkiri munatha [sand, soil], that special sand sculpture, at funerals for Dhalwaŋu people. In Gurrumuru at sunset you can sometimes hear the sound of the octopus that lives under the ground—djatj djatj; it sounds like metal. When you hear that sound it might be telling you that something is coming. Something is going to happen. Maybe someone is going to die.
When Dad’s gone we might hear him making the sound of that ŋarrpiya, that octopus. Sounds like this… djatj djatj.
My name is Djingadjingawuy and people call me Djingawuy, or Djinga, for short.
Djingadjingawuy is the name of those yellow flowers from the gaḏayka’ stringy-bark tree. They are the sweet flowers that the bees fly to, going back and forth to the hive with their sticky sweetness.
In our funerals we dance that guku and people hold those leaves. It doesn’t matter if there are no flowers at that time. We can dance with the leaves and Yolŋu see that the flowers are there. Or sometimes we will use other kinds of flowers, doesn’t matter if they are other colours or from the shop. Yolŋu will still see that lovely yellow djingadjingawuy.
See how everything comes together? There is pattern, story, family and deep, deep meaning here.
When you are dealing with serious things like this, I don’t think of it as remix. When you get closer to the old people and their way of seeing, then you don’t joke around.
My daughter Balanydjarrk is named after that anchor Lukuwurrŋu. She is coming from the foundation of the anchor. The red colours show her Dhaḻwaŋu identity. Even when she’s travelling around, this picture shows that she’s still rooted in the land. And you get that feeling of power coming from that land, from the waters in our land, the waters where her spirit will return one day.
The land of the Dhaḻwaŋu people has such heat, power, energy and strength. There’s a special sound when we sing about the anchor dropping. See the ripples going out? It reflects the Dhaḻwaŋu woman and al Dhaḻwaŋu people.
Katrina Dharraganmarttji is showing people who she is because of the colour and the yiki [knife] shining on her nirrpu’ [top of her head]. It tells us that she is really a Balawuku girl from Gurrumurru. Balawuku is a way of showing Dhalwaŋu clan and Wunuŋmurra identity.
Sometimes when you see Dhalwaŋu people dance, you see that power come through, you see the image of the old people. When the old people are gone you can see their image in the new generation, even in these pictures.
I think that Dharraganmarttji looks serious here because most of our old people, the fathers and the brothers, they looked serious when they got together for ceremony.