Garma Festival

Garma Festival

Young dancers painted for bunggul at Garma 2008 © Yothu Yindi Foundation / Garma Festival. Photographer Cameron Herweyen

Posted by Aboriginal Art Directory | 26.08.08

Author: Jeremy Eccles

Jeremy Eccles finds that life and art are inextricably intertwined at the Garma Festival

It was powerful proof of the eternal efficacy of art, and it was a moving exercise in humility.

Not, I should hasten to add, any humility by the Yolgnu hosts at the 10 year old Garma Festival, especially not their potent patriarch, Galarrwuy Yunupingu. He was everywhere in white – opening and closing the Festival, hosting the daily Bunggul of traditional dances, even singing the songs for his family group's contribution, contributing a print to this year's Garma Suite at the Guluku Gallery, chairing earnest discussions about indigenous economics and the power of culture and setting the agenda for this whole event with a Yolgnu version of the Noel Pearson position, and, perhaps in line with this, was rumoured to be preparing to lease the land where the Festival is held for mining!

A powerful presence – and never more so than when Galarrwuy introduced a big Crocodile Dance during the Bunggul. For this was a special celebration of the very recent High Court decision in the Blue Mud Bay case which had given the appellants land and sea rights over what's called the inter-tidal zone, the consequences of which are that traditional owners now have a say over 80% of the NT coastline in determining both commercial and recreational fishing rights. Big stuff; big in economic terms; bigger in standing four-square behind the Yolgnu's own perception of their relationship with both land and water.

So it was great to see centuries of belief translated into a danced evocation of Baru, the primal force in Yolgnu mythology which takes both human and crocodile form as well as being the source of fire.

But it was not just joy that discharged from the dance in the flames that burst forth and the sand that was kicked up wildly in the balmy evening air. It was also relief; relief that the 14 years of this particular legal battle and the 45 years of Yolgnu petitions and other attempts to explain their law had, for the first time, come to a successful conclusion.

So often, these explanations have been offered in the form of art. In 1962/3, miners were negotiating with the Methodist mission to dig bauxite from Yolgnu land, so the Aborigines poured the intensity of their power structure into two mighty Church Panels; only to see the land excised from the Arnhemland Reserve just days later. They responded with the two-sheet Bark Petititon to Federal Parliament - still displayed there, but rejected at the time on the technicality that it was impossible to prove the signatories were over 18 years old!

Then in 1996, at Baniyala on Blue Mud Bay, the ancient home of Baru was desecrated by illegal fishermen, who left behind the severed head of a croc in a hessian bag. Djambawa Marawili, senior leader of the Madarrpa clan and a descendant of Baru reacted in the only way he knew. He initiated the fabulous Saltwater Bark collection – an even more extensive statement of claim to a system of law than the Church Panels, detailing land and water rights from Blue Mud Bay in the south, up the coast and into every inlet to Arnhem Bay on the North-western tip of the Gulf of Carpentaria. It needed 80 substantial barks from the 15 clans in that area. An unprecedented coming-together.

Those barks are now in the National Maritime Museum. But the content of them was tested to the full during the High Court case when lawyers for the NT Government insisted on 4 weeks to come to Yirrkala to cross-examine that traditional knowledge. After 6 days, they gave up, defeated by the Yolgnu's depth of understanding of their law and art. According to Will Stubbs, co-ordinator of the Buku Larnngay Arts Centre, they then moved on to buying such powerful art. And for Stubbs, relating these stories to Garma Festival participants in the Indigenous Cultural Tourism program, there was a catch in his voice as he humbly concluded that after all these years, we Balanda had at last proved ourselves lawful people.

Meanwhile the sale of the Saltwater collection raised funds that could have been spread around the community. Instead, the artists decided to invest in a multi-media Mulka Centre at Yirrkala to offer new skills to their young. And that investment paid off at this year's NATSIA Awards when Nyapanyapa Yunupingu won the 3-D Award for a bark showing her personal story of a buffalo goring, accompanied by a film shot by 20 year olds of her telling that tale in uniquely Yolgnu fashion.

And hanging from the trees around him as Stubbs talked was the Garma Suite of coloured etchings inspired by the 365 crayon drawings anthropologists had got the artists' ancestors to do in 1947, prints of which also hung from paperbark trees as far as the eye could see. Neither series may use the traditional ochred colours we expect from Arnhemland, but they reveal the same intellectual property that turned the Blue Mud Bay decision, which was then celebrated in dance at the Garma Festival.

By the way, next year's Festival will concentrate its many minds on the Creative Industries, and how indigenous Australia can interface with them.

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Last modified: September 10, 2008 6:23 PM