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Published onOct 12, 2020


Sometimes in the community when there’s a lot of trouble, with shouting, that’s when you see people smashing their phone. Then straight away they’re running to get a new one, with a new SIM card.


I love it when my Yolŋu friends tell me stories of people smashing their phones. I can relate to this, though I’m too timidly middle class to follow suit. Over the years, Gurrumuruwuy and I have talked a lot about new stresses that phones have brought and about the ways the phone becomes a way to exert pressure on others from afar; to claim the reciprocities and responsibilities of kinship, even when one is physically far away and barrkuwatj.


Sometimes you have to do this, gäthu. It’s the life; in the city especially, it’s hard: you’ve got to find rrupiya for your food and ŋarali’. Sometimes it’s raining, hard, sometimes you have nowhere to go, your phone gets wet, you get sick, you sleep in the toilet block. That’s how it goes. That’s the Yolŋu life. And that’s when you have to put pressure on people to help you. You ring them up, maybe even threaten to curse them, if you have to, to make them know you’re serious. But then again, they are family. They should help you. They can help you.

Other times it might be people ringing you up. When they’re stuck, or if they need money for anything. It’s hard that way too. Pressure coming from all directions and you’re in the middle. In the old days, we used to just be by ourselves, in little groups, not in contact with all these people and their needs and desires. I’m like you; sometimes you just have to hide.


Yolŋu ring my phone, lots of times. Sometimes I don’t pick up, but if I feel like picking up, I’ll answer. Sometimes it’s like an emergency call, a family mari, like a fight or argument. Sometimes I pick up fast and sometimes ignore. Sometimes it’s nothing, sometimes it’s bad news.


Yolŋu life can be hard. What Yolŋu can do? Ringing, ringing, ringing a lot of times. All the time ringing. Sometimes asking. Sometimes bad stories.

Sometimes saying isn’t this weather lovely, how are you feeling?

They can express the feeling that they miss someone else in their family. Like Jennifer, for example, she is in the Djalkiri family, her wäwa was working with her. So Susan will ring her up to ask how she is, because she is close to them. That’s why Yolŋu feel comfortable with her.


I received news of Yangathu’s death sitting on the floor of the West Village apartment I’d found for rent on Craigslist. My partner had skyped me. My US phone number put me out of reach of my Yolŋu networks. In my shock I kept repeating, ‘but we only just spoke’, though it had actually been about 30 hours since I’d called her from the airport in Brisbane before removing my Australian SIM card. We’d spent the previous few weeks together in Darwin editing a film about death, sorrow and the joy of Christmas, and I had just returned to New York.


Six years later, Yangathu’s superannuation payout was finally transferred into Gurrumuruwuy’s bank account. It had taken that long for me to find the time to pull together all the documentation necessary, including signed statements from all her children that they would not make a claim on the funds. Because Yangathu and Gurrumuruwuy had never been officially married by the state, and his name did not appear on her death certificate, we needed letters signed by community elders, and affidavits witnessed by the local police, to attest to their relationship.

The family initially anticipated a generous payout. Yangathu had worked at various times in her life as a part-time clerk working for MAF Airlines and also as an assistant at the community school. At one point the family was convinced that she had accrued a small fortune—I was told with some certainty the paperwork said that there was $400,000 in her account—it turned out, however, when I finally talked to someone at the superannuation fund on speaker phone with everyone listening, the final figure was little more than $8,000.

Even that kind of money doesn’t often land in Yolŋu accounts. (‘Unless you get royalty money’, as Gurrumuruwy corrects me.) It had arrived at a good time; this was the Christmas break and Gurrumuruwuy was in Darwin, taking time out from his work as a ranger, and so he could use it to rent an air-conditioned room at a motel situated between his new wife’s mother’s housing commission flat and the casino.

It took only five days for Gurrumuruwuy to spend it. I know this because I used an app on my smartphone to help him transfer the money to the account from which it could be accessed.

We spoke many times as I helped him navigate Internet bank transfers. Once he rang in the evening, needing more cash. ‘I’m having a party,’ he told me. ‘I went shopping for oysters and fish.’ (‘I hate stingy people,’ he’d told me a few weeks before. ‘You were stingy once, but not anymore.’)

On the sixth day, when the bank account was once again empty, he phoned to tell me that he’d spoken to his boss back in Gapuwiyak and that he was due some holiday pay. Might I lend him a little to tide him over until he flew back home?

I laughed, but quickly shut up when he told me in a stern and slightly hurt voice, ‘Don’t laugh at your father.’ He went on to say that I was the only daughter he could rely on; that he would pay me back once he got paid. I knew that this was a version of the truth and that he would pay me back because he managed to live very cheaply at the outstation and so always did. In the end.

I told him that the reason for my laughter was because we were both in the same predicament: my account was empty too (plus I had $24,000 owing on my visa card from a Miyarrka Media art project from the previous year). And in that moment, that was my truth. But, as we both also knew, if I really tried, I could easily find the money for him.

‘What’s the word for that warrakan [bird] that eats animals, leaving only the bones?’ he asked.

‘Vulture?’ I suggested.

‘Yes. Vulture. That’s what they did to me, gäthu. When I got that money, Yolŋu came from everywhere. ‘Gurrupul, gurrupul, gurrupul, give me, give me, give me’. Day and night. They didn’t stop. They are still coming, but I’m only bones. I’m going to ring up that bank and let everyone listen on the speaker, so when they tell me the balance in all my accounts, they can hear that I have nothing. That’s the only way they are going to believe me and leave me alone.’

Even though I promise to help him out in a couple of days when I am next paid, Gurrumuruwuy ends the conversation with one final attempt at breaking my resolve, so that he might get the rrupiya he needs that same day.

‘Think about it, gäthu,’ he says, referring to me in our kin relationship, as he always does. ‘Think about it.’

He uses this expression so that I don’t have to say no, and in so doing, refuse the relationship. It leaves things lingering, the connections opened by the phone still in play.


In 1995, Raymattja Marika-Mununggiritj and Michael J. Christie co-authored a short yet remarkable paper in the International Journal of the Sociology of Language entitled ‘Yolŋu Metaphors for Learning’.1 The two educators talk about the cultivation of forms of attentiveness that enable Yolŋu to identify and follow animal tracks in the environment as a necessary precursor to understanding ‘the clouds and the tides, the animal tracks and the flowers, the clan totems and the sacred designs, and the songs that have come from the creation’. Although they don’t use this terminology, what they point to in this article is a dynamic process of sensuous world-making in which acts of envisaging, making visible and recognising provide key moments in an ongoing project of participatory and relational poiesis.

They talk also about the role of what we in Phone & Spear have been calling remix. They write: ‘Yolŋu education is learning to love and understand our homeland and the ancestors who have provided it for us, so as to create a life for ourselves reworking the truths we have learned from the land and from the elders, into a celebration of who we are and where we are in the modern world’ [my emphasis].


Thought on a plane: I don’t want to write a book about digital technologies. I want to write about love. Or rather with love. From love. And into love. Whatever that means. I make a note to myself, open my novel and fall asleep.

I don’t mean romantic or a romanticising love; what preoccupies me is something more akin to familial love; something foundational, intimate and binding, but always, necessarily, fractious at some level. I want love as a prism through which to consider the relationships that matter in this book.

I also intend love as a verb, as it infuses acts of care and attentiveness, as it shapes the contours of our lives.


In Marika-Mununggiritj and Christie’s account, love is not a terrain of interpersonal vulnerability. It is the result of careful cultivation. One arrives at a relationship of love through a sustained attention to the land as site and source of ancestral connection. Love accompanies understanding. It is emergent. It is located. It offers a more-than-human embrace.


Inspired by the repeated declarations of love made sometimes in words, but mostly in the heart-shaped motifs adorning so many of the images—and indeed the tender care evidenced in both the making and the viewing of these images—I began to wonder if love might provide the thread to link the stories and experiences I had accrued over twenty years of working with one community—one extended family, really. Could using love as a touchstone of what matters here help me to attend better to the orchestrated moments of affective coalescence that make the state of becoming ŋayaŋu waŋgany so socially significant? And so valued.

After all, love takes me to hostels and hospitals, shopping centres and Centrelink, casinos and funerals, drawing me into versions of life that extend beyond the human: versions of life and relatedness that include ancestral bees and God and digital light.

Love, I thought, might offer a means to circle back and reposition myself within the work of intercultural recognition that has compelled me for so many years. This is because love teaches you about incommensurability. Not to mention frustration and vulnerability. It schools you in the ways that closeness may lead to friction and, sometimes, irreparable fracture; the ways that we lurch towards and away from each other. Sometimes it’s more elegant and orchestrated than that, but the movement is backwards and forwards, it turns on moments of connection and disconnection.

A few weeks later, I email a friend who confesses to writer’s block, or perhaps something more specific, a kind of resistant freeze against academic language and the ways that our jobs seem to hang on a capacity to pump out words. She asks me if I have any suggestions. I do. I tell her to stop trying to write. I then blurt out my own desire to write differently and my growing attachment to ‘love’ as the touchstone for this project. She doesn’t write back.


Still, the idea of love—or rather the amorphous, alluring and reassuring feeling it provided as a way to both claim and characterise the intensified attachments and acts of care that compel me—continued to haunt me as both motivation and mode. Might love, I wondered, offer a means to overcome the distancing deemed necessary for anthropological analysis? As described earlier, yuṯa anthropology presupposes a willingness to eschew the academic tendency towards safe detachment and cool appraisal.

Indeed, my Yolŋu family presume that their family photographs cannot make a claim on others unless the viewer brings their own affective associations to bear, their own histories of attachment, their own experiences of familial loss. Taking love, rather than ‘the digital’, as a touchstone for the project seemed to a way to write more intimately about the media and their makers—myself included—to allow both for our ambitions and our failings in such a way that the aesthetic acts of care, commitment and connection at the heart of this book could be foregrounded without producing a heroic narrative of what Melinda Hinkson calls ‘technological redemption’.2

Thinking about separation, connection and love, Rebecca Solnit draws on Simone Weil, who writes: ‘Let us love this distance,3 which is thoroughly woven by friendship, since those who do not love each other are not separated.’ Solnit goes on to describe Weil’s sense of ‘love as the atmosphere that fills and colours the distance between herself and her friend’.

How could I not take this snippet to heart?


My thoughts on love, and the passionate reach of projective association, proved sustaining for a while. But, in the end, I abandoned the idea, fearing it was bad anthropology: the notion of love was too generic, too bound up in balanda concepts and expectations.

Instead, I began to focus once again on the images at hand, and to listen more closely to the words that came down the phone line. My Yolŋu kin often say ‘I love you’ at the end of our phone calls, but if I’ve been overseas, or out of touch for some time, or if it’s a special holiday like Christmas, when they first ring, they will sometimes say they’ve been worrying for me. It’s a way of saying they’ve missed me. But there’s more to it than that.


When someone passes away we ask family to send a bitja to our mobile and then we look at our phone and cry.

Thinking and worrying and crying. That’s dhäkay-ŋänhawuy rom, the law of feeling and relationship. You see with your eyes, then you start thinking, putting that bitja into your ŋayaŋu, your heart, and you start crying. Because you have to start seeing, thinking and feeling like someone is lost.

After that I save that picture in my phone so I can think with my heart and my mind whenever I want, going way back to how we spent time with that person who passed away.


Warwu is the word Yolŋu use when they talk about the effects these photographic collages are intended to produce. Warwu refers to an active kind of sorrow; it entails a deliberate attention to the gaps produced by absence. Warwuyun is to worry for someone or something. It’s an emotional state that people deliberately trigger in order to feel into; a properly deep affective space of resonance that opens you up to others through a deliberate foregrounding of separation. It seeks out and cultivates a very particular register of connection, but one that is active, dynamic, enlivened by the push-and-pull life lived as an always unfolding process of connection and disconnection in which one participates in inward as well as outward ways.

Warwu [the noun form of warwuyun] is more than an emotional state of being. It’s something people do, a kind of djäma; it is a word describing deliberate acts of memory, imagination and feeling that involve calling to mind faraway people and places. Warwu entails orientating oneself in a specific direction with a specific intent; it requires an opening to the feelings that arise from the fact of being separated, of being apart—all with the expectation that this often-difficult process has a socially transformative effect. Unlike its poor English equivalent, worry, warwu is necessary, positive and productive. It might be an internal process, but it is neither individual, nor private djäma.


When Yolŋu put hearts into those bitja they are showing their feelings, they show that they are worrying for their family. But another way you can see those ḏoṯurrk is like something sacred. Like maḏayin. Because Yolŋu hearts are an inside thing, they hold that deep connection to the wäŋa, through the maḏayin and the rom.


A long time ago, Yolŋu didn’t do this. But now they’ve changed, or remixed it.

Back then when someone passed away you couldn’t look at bitja, or couldn’t say their name. But these days you can look at photos and videos and pull those loved ones räli [towards you], bringing them closer to your heart and mind. Before, people had to be careful; they put that photo in a suitcase or safe area, until after two or three years when you can look or give it to family. My grandmother was thinking that way. At that time my family didn’t have cameras.

Now, if someone passes away they just put that picture in the phone, thinking, reflecting, remembering what they were doing in their lifetime. You still can’t say that name. But these days people feel closer with their pictures in their phone.

My auntie passed away a little while ago. I still go to her number on my phone. I don’t want to delete it. I need to look at that number… to bring her closer, as if she were alive… it would hurt to delete it. I need to see her number and feel close.


Taboos regarding looking at photographs of the dead changed in the early 2000s. Whereas once images of the deceased would have been deemed highly dangerous, now they are valued for the connections that they evoke, so when someone dies, their family start sorting through their photographs, collecting them on their phones, looking at them, stroking them, sometimes talking to them.

Photographs have become an essential element in funerals, often taped to the wall to make patterns of kinship, as was the case at Yangathu’s funeral. They then become the backdrop for more family photographs.4

Through these processes, the photographic traces of the dead that a previous generation feared as unruly and potentially dangerous become a source of comfort and communicative potential. Arranged alongside their loved ones, located in their homeland, they no longer pose a threat, nor make demands of the living. Instead, as family members will often point out, they show themselves as happy.

In the making of these collages the subjects on the screen become united not only thematically and visually, but ontologically, in the sense that otherwise quite distinct and disparate things—categories of things that would normally be separate because of the very nature of what they are, or where they came from, or whether they are living or dead—assume a certain correspondence.

Deeply sentimental, the images shown here strike complex chords. The layered bling of the ‘happy’ lights signal depths beneath the surface. While the application of such glowing effects might act as a kind of balm to grief and loss, the assembling of the photographs entails a wilful scratching at the wound of loss: the allure of the lights dependent on a deeper willingness to not look away from death itself. (And it’s not just through photographs that Yolŋu spend time with death. Their funerals often last two weeks or longer, during which time family members live in close proximity to the coffin and the metamorphosing body within.)


A Yolŋu aesthetics of shimmer brings forth the twinned forces of resonance and rupture. For those who know how to peer into its depths, the lights sparkle with a gesture towards an intimacy with lives in which death, beauty and danger comingle; lives in which the withholding of image and information is as crucial as their release; generating the sensuous grounds of poiesis, while simultaneously demarcating the oscillating limits of what can be known, seen, shown, felt and shared.

Over the past thirty years, anthropologists have schooled art lovers to recognise the aesthetic effects of light in Yolŋu art as a manifestation of ‘ancestral power’.5 But what we are invited to experience here is something less abstract. Through the shimmering effect for which Yolŋu have become so well known, the surface of the visible is simultaneously intensified and made permeable. Made to oscillate not only with light effects but also with photography’s unique capacity to make absence present, the screen-image becomes porous: a site of emergence. As with the shark pressing up and out of the water, we get a sense of the image itself pushing through into visibility, a sense that the photograph’s true subject lies somewhere beneath the surface of the visible.


Warwuyun is important. We worry for all our family members we are separated from. Photographs are good for warwuyun.

Family collect those sunsets because they bring out heavy meanings and feelings. That’s why they look for a sunset shot when someone has passed away. They bring in the other elements that are connected to their clan and it shows that relationship and all the worry that they feel for that person.


During the fourteen days of Yangathu’s funeral, a vase full of red silk roses sat on each side of her bed. When, on the final day, her children and other djuŋgaya danced around her coffin as it was carried to the burial site, dancing as bees darting back and forth, they held these flowers in their hands. They danced with the flowers because it is the scent and sweetness of those flowers that draw those honey bees close as they seek food. Even though these were red roses, everyone there knew how to see them as the yellow flowers of the gaḏayka’. But in the same moment, everyone could see that these flowers were red, single-stem roses. Red for their hearts as Dhalwaŋu women. Red for their love and longing. Red for the blood of Jesus. Red for their warwu. Red for their ŋanayngu and maḏayin.

They danced with her white coffin, which, in that moment, was recognised by all as a fallen gaḏayka’: the fallen ‘mother’ tree that once held the hive, meaning that the bees have to leave and find another home. The back-and-forth dancing expressed the longing to stay, and the necessity to go.


We add in the lights to show that our lost loved ones are happy.


That light, djarraṯawun’, it’s like a flash, it makes a picture look good. We use that word for any light, like normal light flashing, spotlight, car light, traffic light or bed light. Any light, really, but adding it to picture, that makes Yolŋu feel worry or feel manymak, happy. That light brings it to life. When you see the added light, you might feel excited, or shocked, while you worry... … that’s what you say… We use the light to do that drama.


I’m always inclined to transcribe as ‘yaaaaaaaaaa’ to capture the way the word opens outwards on an extended breath. The Yolŋu dictionary translates this common Yolŋu expression as: ‘Ah! Oh yes! Expression of discovery.’6

Shirley Nirrpurranydji, the former principal of Gapuwiyak School, explained to me while she was staying with us in Cairns after the funeral of her murdered son. ‘ is what we say when everything comes rushing back. Or, it can be what you say to photographs. is really a feeling. Sad maybe. A word you use when you’ve got a feeling of missing. Sometimes relief, too. The relief of missing. You say it to the picture, and it then it touches your heart and mulkurr and it all comes rushing back. You say it to whom or what you’ve been missing. Sometimes with a shake of the head.’


That long sound shows that you are making the connection. The sound will come out in different moods. It can be so sweet, even though you are really missing that person.


Ŋayaŋu is another word for maḏayin.


Heart—not the actual organ, but a word used to refer to the inner, embodied location of feelings—is another word for sacred object.


Our sacred objects are the ŋayaŋu of the tribe. So, for example, in funerals Dhalwaŋu people sometimes give a special object that will go inside the coffin. And do it gladly. That’s our ŋayaŋu.

It is the same on the last night of a funeral. People give their ŋayaŋu in the manikay, in the song. You can feel it. It’s like that balanda expression ‘from the bottom of your heart’. It’s like we are giving out from the bottom of our rom.

Ŋayaŋu is when you give it out gladly. No holding back. Showing who you are through the depth of your feelings.


To gloss the light effects of shimmer as ‘ancestral power’ is to miss so much. By using light effects to transform the visual into a field of flux and sensuous connection, the dynamic of revelation and concealment, showing and withholding, at the heart of Yolŋu knowledge, sociality and politics, becomes materially manifest. The tremulous surface of the visible becomes a site for a sensuous and participatory poiesis.

Yolŋu understand that it is in the moment that the light begins to infuse the surface of an image that the agency of the artist is usurped, or at least rendered less significant, as the potency of immanent ancestral forces are brought forth and made visible. Places and beings are not merely represented: they show themselves. Viewers feel the effects, they look deep into the image, seeing and feeling their way back to the land.


Your ŋayaŋu belongs to that place and you, yourself, every Yolŋu, has to make that connection, that deep connection through feeling. That way your ŋayaŋu can sit in that wäŋa.


To talk about ŋayaŋu is to talk about longing and belonging.


Even if we’re living in another community, we’ll still have to worry for the place we have left, we’ll have to go back to that place. Even if we go to another place, we’re still worrying for Gapuwiyak.


You have to be careful. If Yolŋu think too much in this way, they can get sick. Too much warwuyun is no good.


When you see people sitting on the djäpana, the sunset, you see everything: through the feeling and through the imagination, because your muḻkurr just opens up, that’s how people warwuyun through that miny’tj, using those colours to think about that family who have passed away. Who is far away, and who is close. That’s how I see it. As your eye gets closer, you’ll see the family. Not just those photos.


Sunset tells that it’s time to worry. It’s time to look out for your children who might be out playing, time to call them to come home. Or if your family goes to live at another place, you think of them at sunset.


For a long time, I thought of warwuyun as a particular and practised capacity to stay with the wrench of separation, opening up to the full devastation of death, and thus enabling Yolŋu to work through their grief in socially prescribed ways. I envied this capacity to literally look death in the face, over and over. It has taken me a long time to realise that it is not actually death that is being looked in the eye and held close.

Gurrumuruwuy’s second daughter’s husband, James Ganambarr, set me straight: Warwuyun, he told me, is a way of feeling good. It is not about death, but life. Life and its capacity to restore, renew and connect.


When you warwuyun with these images you ‘see those lost loved ones as in life’.


You couldn’t have a clearer statement about the generativity of vision: you see loved ones as in life, not as if they were alive. This distinction makes all the difference to what I understand James to mean: he is describing a process of feeling-envisioning that has an animating effect, positioning both subject and viewer within an encompassing field of aliveness and spectral visibility. It is an act of seeing invisible presences—a form of projective imagining of spirits who, in turn, are wanting to show themselves to you.

The effect of this push-and-pull of affect and perceptual agency is that, to a Yolŋu eye, the people in the bitja are present as an animating force in the world. In other words, warwu entails first recognising, then mediating against, separation. One does not dwell in disconnection.


When you warwuyun, your feelings change from worry to something good. Just like the colours change and become beautiful in the sky.

If you keep thinking, thinking, you’ll get sick. So you should look, satisfy yourself and put it away. Nhäma, warwuyun, look, cry and feel. Manymak. Good. Then put that bitja away.7

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Celina Walmandji Yunupingu, 2013

Mindharr is the name for the green colour of the Wangurri clan. This colour is often shown through the green flag in ceremonies.

In this bitja it shows us that this Wangurri woman’s spirit has returned to her land. No more pain, no more suffering. The lights show she’s happy.

Can you see the blue background around her? It looks like water. Maybe the lights represent the sparkling water. There’s a Wangurri expression, dhalatj bik, that refers to calm water after flood. Here that meaning extends to ‘rest in peace’.


God made us the same. There is nothing different between Yolŋu or balanda from my point of view. 



Kayleen Djingadjingawuy, 2015

Djäpana means sunset. The red clouds called rreypa show our Dhalwaŋu identity. They show the colour of Garray maŋgu’, God’s blood. When we sing djäpana it connects us to other Yirritja clans through the songlines. When we see a brilliant red sunset like this it tells us that the sun is going down without someone.

This picture represents our sister clan and also Dhalwaŋu, Birrkili Gupapuyŋu at Yalakun and the island across the water. This connection comes through the songlines. This rreypa, the colours of the sunset in the sky, reflecting with the galuku [coconut] floating in the water, hits the water muŋurru’ (that’s the special water that Dhalwaŋu and Birrkili sing that flows from Gurrumuru).

My youngest sister Wuluku is always complaining that she wants to go back to Yalakun. Every day she says, ‘I want to go back. It’s boring here.’ In this picture it’s like she’s looking down from the hill at Yalakun. She’s where she wants to be. Going fishing by boat and camping. That coconut palm on her shirt represents the Garawirrtja people who are the landowners at Yalakun. We call that wäŋa yapa, it’s our sister country. It’s where we grew up, it’s the country we care for, the place our fathers established, the place my mum is buried.

When I go to Yalakun I can feel the wäŋa is calling for me. When you go away from the wäŋa you can still feel it, because the wäŋa is calling. It’s calling my mind and my spirit. It doesn’t matter that my homeland is Gurrumuru: deep in my heart is Yalakun. I hear that voice not in my ears, but in my heart. It gives me confidence, that land. When I get to Yalakun I will feel confident from that wäŋa. All my worries will be gone. I will feel at home. 

When I worry for Yalakun I put on the laptop and find that recording of our brother singing Garraparra. That’s the one manikay that Dhalwaŋu people can sing to Yalakun. It’s part of the songline from Garraparra that links Yalakun. I imagine and it draws me back, to make me feel manymak. I feel good then.

When Yolŋu look at a photo they can straight away see all these connections and colours. It hits you. The colours connect you to the land, the songs and to the people. The colours are related like people. Songs too. It’s the most powerful thing. In these photos we get more energy, more power, by bringing together all the different elements.



Rowena Laypu Wunuŋmurra, 2011

This is a story about a family still missing their father and husband ten years after his death. The coloured leaves show that he loved reggae music. Lucky Dube was his favourite. It also shows the connection to man’jtarr [floating leaf]. It’s a way to show that he liked to smoke waymi [marijuana]. That little fire in the bottom corner is like the one Yolŋu burn when someone passes away, to cleanse the spirit. Different clans have different names for this.

Bäŋgana was my wäwa, the brother who adopted me, my closest kin and collaborator until he died of what the coroner deemed a heart attack, though his family thought otherwise, in 2001, aged thirty-seven.


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Artist Unidentified, 2013

This couple have both passed away now. Joe Ŋalandharrawuy Garawirrtja died in 2009. He was a minister. We used to call him Bäpa [Father] Joe. He and his wife, Nimanydja Ganambarr, were both Christian so we see them here in a Paradise Land, or wäŋaŋura [the promised land]. The gold especially represents this.

The hearts show their children missing them. The flashing lights show the feelings of love, sorrow and joy that rise up when we see this picture. We can see that they are in Heaven and that they are happy.


Kayleen Djingadjingawuy Wanambi, 2015

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Kayleen Djingadjingawuy Wanambi, 2015

Margaret Mary Marlumbu Wanambi died around the year 2000. She was my mother’s mum. I found her photograph in one of my sister-in-law’s photo collections and grabbed it with my phone.

I made this picture to show that old woman’s spirit returning to her clan waters. The light shows the special water. Heaven too. That long white cloud is the same as the white feather raki’ [string] called malka that we wear at funerals and use in the ceremony to guide the spirits of the deceased back to their homeland. We point to the homeland with this raki’.

The seagull is called Gakararr, it always stays at the beach. Through the manikay we see it at Raymaŋgirr. It cries for our lost loved ones.


I made this bitja so that I could think about and worry for my märi, Fiona Yangathu, who passed away in 2011. This one shows yothu-yindi, it shows the relationship between mother and child. You can tell by the colours. Green for her mother, that fresh water from Dhälinbuy, and that black representing her mother from Dholtji. The circles show her connection to her mother from Dholtji, they reflect the colours of her octopus identity. Two mothers. One fresh and one salt water. That water started from Dhälinybuy and goes to Dholtji because they gave each other the agreement to give each other the gapu. So this picture tells about the riŋgitj [the connecting sacred objects] that link from Dhäliny to Dholtji. They were her mothers, carrying her in their own water. 


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Kayleen Djingdjingawuy Wanambi, 2015

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Kayleen Djingadjingawuy, 2015

This is my son, Warren Jr., with two images of his grandfather. The face when he was alive, and the face he got on the night he passed away in 2014. Warren was his beloved grandson because he looks like him: his way of sitting, his movements, his rumbal, his face, his reactions… they look exactly the same. Same nose. They call my son ma’mu [grandfather] because his face is exactly like his grandfather.

The djäri represents the rainbow serpent, Witij. It represents his tribe and his madayin and his secret ga-munuŋgu, which we picked up from the Internet. The lightning represents the lightning that the snake spits into the sky. Spreading that language to all the different lands, and he was telling himself: I’m here.


When you see that Witij, rainbow snake, changing colour, that shows the dhuyu rom [the restricted law] of the Gurruwiwi people. The colours show the power of that man and his rom. Normally this kind of snake is just ordinary. But on a special occasion like a funeral or a circumcision ceremony we will paint that snake, showing its deep meanings and power.

Whenever you see the rainbow, you start crying. Your memory goes back to that land, to those people. It touches you. And you feel that old man, still there, close. Balanda probably only see a pretty rainbow. But it’s meaningful. Yolŋu have strong feelings. From the eye contact with that rainbow it goes to your mind and to your heart. You start to worry straight away.


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Rayleen Warrinydhun Garmu, 2014

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Lillian Manybar Munungurr, 2014

The rainbow colours called djäri represent that old woman’s mother. None of her sons would exist if not for their mother’s mother. That rainbow-coloured background shows that. It holds them all together. The interlinking hearts show they’re missing her. Because she’s gone.


Those girls call this rainbow Djäri-gäthu. They are gäthu-wataŋu. That means that their fathers are responsible for these colours, because this colour is märi for their fathers. Their fathers are märi-wataŋu. They put those special rainbow skirts on when my father passed away to perform special items at the funeral.


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Rayleen Warrinydhun Garmu, 2013

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Jessica Watmatja, 2014

These shots were taken at my father’s funeral in 2013 at Yalakun. We wore red to represent the Dhalwaŋu flag and the blood of Jesus. The white is the brightness of God’s glory.

Raelene put djäpana in the background because sunsets tell us to go back to the land through our minds and hearts and to think about family who’ve passed away.


This old woman, Dorothy Gudaltji, has passed away now. She’s a Wangurri clan woman—you can tell here by her green-coloured dress.

Here she is surrounded by her grandchildren. Her gutharra from her daughters and her gaminyarr from her sons. She is the roots and they are the branches.


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Jessica Ganambarr, 2014

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Selena Walmanytji, 2014

After you hear the first wolma thunder cloud, that signals that the wet season is coming, the clouds separate into different wukun [clouds].


These girls call themselves after a female spirit who lives in their home-land and cries for the bones of her ancestors. The background colours are djäpana, the colour of our sorrow. When you see the sunset anywhere in the world it connects us back to our land. And you can feel it. It touches your heart, because of the colours of Garrumarra [the octopus]. The stars represent our märi, Djurrpun Wirdiwu, that first morning star.

This photo is from a funeral where the girls performed a Christian bungul [dance] representing Garray [God] through all the different colours. I believe Garray gave us the colours. They give thanks to Garray with the colours .


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Mandy Mandhamawuy Munyarryun, 2014

When Hudson was young he called himself Elvis because he was a fan. When he sang manikay his voice sounded like Elvis’s, so that’s what people called him. Gurruwiwi people were the biggest fans of Elvis. For a while, when Hudson was living at East Arm Point near Darwin, he dressed like Elvis, in a jumpsuit. Those Gurruwiwi people liked to imagine Elvis was a member of their tribe, so looking at them here you can see these two men posed as Gurruwiwi brothers.

The water flowing behind is the Dhuwa moiety salt water, garrkuluk raŋgurr.

There’s more here, too. The background sunset called djäpana shows that his wife was a Dhalwaŋu clan woman. She died long before Hudson. He missed her for many years. The cigarette in his mouth is another way of showing his longing for this lost Dhalwaŋu woman, because Dhalwaŋu people sing tobacco. It comes from their country. Deep inside. The songs tell us that.

The green colour of the rose leaves are for his waku, his sister’s children, from the Wangurri people. Together, here, the red flowers and green leaves show the märi-gutharra relationship. That’s the relationship that gives Dhalwaŋu people power and support.

We put them together because they are a team, or a family. It’s all about that he’s gone. His wife is gone. Finished. That represents everything gone.

That’s his gapu, his clan waters. They sing that, barkparkthun, Dhuwa people singing with clapsticks. They sing the salt water and the fresh water. Both.

That ŋarali’, that cigarette, that is his warwuyun, what we call in English ‘worry’. That’s our Dhalwaŋu song, worrying for the ŋarali’. We sing that tobacco and dance it. And other Yirritja clans sing that ŋarali’, too, you’re crying deeply for that ŋarali’… crying, crying.


So we warwuyun through the manikay. Not only for ŋarali’. But that can open your mind back to the old people. It pulls everyone together connected through the ŋarali’, all those Yirritja clans who sing that tobacco, back through the maḏayin, through the rom.


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