2021, 320 pages, Edited by Rebecca J. Conway, Sydney University Press
Reviewed by Lindy Allen and Louise Hamby
Djalkiri-Yolŋu art, collaborations and collections is an elegantly designed book produced to coincide with the exhibition Gululu dhuwala djalkiri: welcome to the Yolŋu foundations in the University of Sydney’s new Chau Chak Wing Museum that opened in November 2020. It explores and re-contextualizes the role and history of the University in collecting and exhibiting art from eastern Arnhem Land and the changing nature of museum practice.
The dramatic and powerful front cover image of a black cockatoo feather ceremonial ornament by celebrated Yolŋu artist, David Daymarriŋu Malaŋi, heralds a visual feast of over 200 artworks reproduced in colour and 30 or so black and white historical photographs, all drawn from the collections of the university—Macleay Museum, University of Sydney Archives and JW Power Collection (managed by the Museum of Contemporary Art). These and other historical and more recent images are the dominant feature of the volume and are used well to illustrate the broad spectrum of insightful and reflective essays, interviews and statements by Yolŋu artists, Indigenous scholars, Indigenous and non-Indigenous curators, and key university staff.
Upon opening the book, the reader is immediately introduced to contemporary Yolŋu art practice with full page closeups of artists at work at the arts centres at Milingimbi/Yurrwi, Ramingining and Yirrkala. The main body of the book has three sections, each devoted to the art and collections of these communities, and each section is introduced with a selection of works and images from the university’s collections followed by reflections from the arts centres—Milingimbi Art and Culture, Bula’Bula Arts and Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka.
The approach and tone of the writing varies throughout, beginning with more academic pieces such as Indigenous writer and curator, Stephen Gilchrist reflecting on dramatic shifts in Indigenous curation. The editor, curator Rebecca Conway details significant changes in museum practice with the inclusion of Indigenous voice and a collaborative framework of practice, which, in this instance is with Yolŋu scholars, artists and others whose work and perspectives have helped shape and give new relevance to the university’s collections. The book is also unusually revealing as to the machinations of museum practice, from transcribing documentation of bark paintings given by Yolŋu leader, Wandjuk Marika OBE, in the 1970s, to the development of the new exhibition by Rebecca Conway and Matt Poll with Yolŋu and the art centres.
The tone of the other essays is more conversational with personal insights, reflections and commentary about the collections from Indigenous and non-Indigenous arts workers and practitioners, curators and academics, including past and present university staff talking about working with the collections and engagement with Yolŋu artists and communities over time. Bernice Murphy’s essay traces the trajectory of exhibitions of Yolŋu art across Sydney as a consequence of collaborations with Djon Mundine OAM, Indigenous writer, curator and activist, during his time as Art Adviser at Ramingining. Djon’s own essay gives insights into his history and the critical role he played in positioning Yolŋu art in the forefront in galleries and museums in Australia in the late 1970s and 1980s, including with the University.
The overall presence of Yolŋu voice throughout the book is another invaluable element here, positioning Yolŋu as the authority in contextualizing collections. A lot of details have been collated about the artists who produced the works, much of it confirmed through the arts centres. The spelling of names has been updated and clan affiliations and birth and death dates provided. Together with the large number of works reproduced (and the stand-out feature of this book), the artists’ details will prove invaluable to Yolŋu and scholars alike, as will the naming of individuals in the archival images that appear in the book and identified during research on the collections by Dr Joe Gumbula in the late 2000s. A particularly poignant story in the book is Gawura Wanambi’s response to a painting collected by anthropologist Ronald Berndt in 1947 at Yirrkala and how the process of consultation revealed an extraordinary connection. The name of the artist was recorded as ‘Gulungul – artist’s details unknown’, who was, in fact, Guluŋgulk (also known as Gitjpapuy). Gawura is his son and was able to fill in the background to his father’s history and shed light on how he may have come to paint for Berndt.
Djon Mundine’s essay eloquently points out how ‘naming is central to the structure of language and of communication’ in eastern Arnhem Land, and the incorporation of Yolŋu language overall adds a significant dimension to the book. It is important to note that it is not always possible to translate adequately or capture the essence of the complexities and cultural meanings of objects in English. However, the use of Indigenous language in exhibitions and publications is considered an essential element of contemporary museum practice, and was a critical point emphasized by Yolŋu with delegates from museums attending the 2016 Milingimbi Makarrata (which the authors of this review organized in collaboration with the Miliŋimbi community and invited the Macleay Museum to send a representative).
Djalkiri-Yolŋu art, collaborations and collections is a fitting testimony to the history of the University of Sydney and its cultural collections and research, and the continuous and ongoing connections with the people of eastern Arnhem Land. The university staff, past and present, who have contributed their reflections as curators and scholars working with the collections and Yolŋu who have come to the collections provides an important counterpoint to the strong Yolŋu voice achieved throughout. An index is provided, and despite an exhaustive bibliography of literature referenced in chapters, a short list of recommended reading would have been useful. The art works and historic images reproduced in the book will ensure its survival as a vital resource for Yolŋu as well as scholars. The volume explores in depth the University of Sydney’s collections from eastern Arnhem Land and their histories, as well as the interconnection between the university and Yolŋu from the earliest days of the mission and the beginnings of anthropology at the university through the work of anthropologists William Lloyd Warner, A.P. Elkin and Ronald and Catherine Berndt, through to the present with the recent work of Rebecca Conway and Matt Poll. Djalkiri-Yolŋu art, collaborations and collections will also prove a lasting tribute to the work of the late Dr Joe Neparranga Gumbula, whose singular scholarship and leadership in this arena is unequalled, and who was a mentor to the authors of this review and many of the university staff who contributed to this book.
Ms Lindy Allen is an independent cultural heritage expert and anthropologist and worked as senior curator of the Northern Australian Indigenous collections at Museums Victoria for 30 years and currently as a Research Associate. Lindy has worked with Arnhem Land communities since the 1980s.
Dr Louise Hamby is an independent researcher and anthropologist at the Australian National University and has a long history of research in Arnhem Land material culture and museum collections, including her doctoral research at Gapuwiyak.
The authors were joint research investigators on the Australian Research Council Linkage project, The legacy of 50 years of collecting at Milingimbi Mission.