Intro to the artists: Becky (Marika)
Artist Intros: Ishmael Marika
Ishmael Marika is the creative director at the Mulka Project at the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Center in Yirrkala. There, he is able to work with different artists around Australia and help them develop their own projects and art. Starting at the age 19, Marika has been working for the Mulka Project for 11 years. His first experience with the organization began when he visited Yirrkala for the holidays in between his eleventh and twelfth year at school. There he was watching the Bunggul (a cultural dance) at the Garma Festival, and while standing, a project manager who was filming the event asked if he could help out on the camera. Initially saying no due to lack of experience, the manager convinced Marika by teaching him some basics and they would go on to film for four more hours. After leaving to finish school, Marika came back again for holidays and ran into the project manager. The manager said he liked his shots and wanted him to work at the Mulka Project. Marika, first going back to finish school and spending some time as a ranger in Yirrkala, agreed, and from there the rest is history. His work since then has included short films, one of which (Galka, 2014) has been screened in film festivals around the world. Marika has also collaborated with Curtis Taylor, a western artist, where they made a film featuring memorial poles. The video came together with the purpose of teaching outsiders about aboriginal culture and practices.
Marika feels the purpose of the Mulka Project is extremely important. Their archives and workshops help engage the community, creating work that is different from what anthropologists have documented. This allows the Yolngu culture to stay strong and create leaders for the future. With hundreds of hours of videos the Yolngu look to document everything, often creating multiple works which are separated into many parts.
Wukun Wanambi: Jenna
Wukun Wanambi is an Aboriginal artist from Eastern Arnhem Land and has been painting for over twenty years. Since its founding in 2007, Wukun Wanambi has served as a Cultural Director at the Mulka Project, working alongside Ishmael Marika. When asked to speak about himself as an artist, Wanambi said, “I used to hate art in a way, but now, I am loving it.” Although he did not clarify why he used to hate art, the love stems from seeing how beautiful the things he can create for both himself and the world around him. Wanambi, while he was a renowned bark painter, became bored of two dimensional art and wanted to push the boundaries of what he could create. From there, Wanambi moved into the creation of three dimensional art, specifically coffins and poles. His poles became especially successful as he breaks from convention to utilize poles which have large curves, bumps, and dents. When searching for poles, Wanambi often looks for the most unique pole he can find to take home. When asked why, Wanambi emphasized a frequent theme in his works, the ocean. Wanambi believes that the battered poles are a way to dive into the ocean as the curves must have been created by the water.
Wanambi compiled his artistic knowledge into the creation of multimedia projects such as the award winning, Destiny. This project allows viewers to interact with the poles Wanambi has created while surrounded by a sea of digital fish. The fish signify destiny as Wanambi describes it saying that the fish are both traveling everywhere but also toward your location signifying the importance of where you are: your destiny. Wanambi’s goal was to bring the ocean landscape to land and mimic how the fish would behave in the ocean and submerge the viewers in the world of the art. If the viewer stands still, taking their time at a specific work, the fish will gather around them. As the viewer moves, the fish scatter, scared of the movement. Wanambi continues to experiment with new concepts, ideas, and materials saying this is a transition from “the old way to the new way.”
Yirrakala is a community on the east coast of the Gove peninsula in East Arnhem Region of Australia’s Northern Territory. Nearby is the mining town of Nhulunbuy. The population Aboriginal Australians of the Yolngu people. The region’s population increased significantly when the Methodist Church of Austalasia established a mission at Yirrakala in 1935.
Yirrakala became very well-known when elders of the community sent a bark petition to the Australian Government to protest against the government’s attempt to establish a large mining operation in 1963. Although the petition failed to stop the implementation of the bauxite mining operation, the 1963 petitions were a crucial step that eventually led to the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act of 1976, which was the first legislation that allowed for Aboriginal people to claim land ownership if traditional association could be proven. This was a significant win for all Aboriginal communities, who had for centuries been losing land and facing colonization by white people.
Today Yirrakala is known as the home of many famous artists whose work is shown around the world. Art is an important part of the community and it plays a role in ceremonies and politics.
Galka; film by Ishmael Marika: Maggie
The grandson of Milirrpum of the famed Milirrpum v. Nabalco land rights case of 1971, artist and filmmaker Ishmael Marika comes from a long line of artists and activists. In his 11th year at the Mulka Project and now serving as the Creative Director, Marika was first recruited by a Mulka project manager to work as an editor and videographer for the organization. Over the course of his career, Marika has been awarded the NT Young Achiever of the Year Award, the National Indigenous Art Award, and multiple awards for his traditional musical recordings. Working in other media, he was also the recipient of the 2016 TELSTRA Award, and was very recently accepted into the 2021 TELSTRA competition for an animation piece. His work, spanning diverse media and subject matter, is united by an interest in experimentation. Marika describes that his work attempts to move away from the traditional media and style of his family, representative of his passion for trying new things.
In 2014, Ishmael Marika wrote, directed, produced and edited a short film entitled Galka. Shown at film festivals nationally and internationally, the film documents an unsettling encounter between a young boy and a mysterious figure in the bush. The opening sequence features brothers fishing by the water, one of whom breaks off from the group to explore the bush. He comes across a strange man, running away from him but eventually passing out. He awakes to the figure standing over him, a man in white body paint with milky, snakelike eyes. In the late evening, he finally makes his way out of the bush and returns to his family. The next morning, however, he is unable to be woken up. The film closes with a panning crane shot of his mother crying over his limp body, zooming out past the beach and fading to white.
Brought to life in this horror film, Galka is a dark and sinister figure from Yolngu mythology. The white body paint he wears is used traditionally while hunting, as well as to identify the wearer’s warrior status. Importantly, the film also featured audio recordings of Aboriginal songlines, sung by Marika’s grandmother. Marika cites anthropological documentaries on Arnhem land from the 1940s through the 1970s, as well as Donald Thomson’s film and other popular films in the horror genre, as his principle inspirations for both Galka and his broader cinematographic vision. When asked about the challenges of creating Galka, Marika detailed the setback faced at the very beginning of production — after the first day of filming, the entire set caught fire and burned. Luckily, Marika noted, the small cast and crew made navigating the rest of the production process smooth, and they were able to recover quickly from their initial setback.
Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Center: Jenna
The Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre is an art community which is run and operated by the indiginous people of Australia. The center is multifaceted and consists of a printmaking shop, museum, gallery, music studio, theater room and much more. The centre began in 1983 after being transformed from a hospital which served as a functioning hospital, which Marika’s grandmother worked at as a nurse, in the 1960s and 70s. Overtime, the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre has grown from an act of self-determination and independence from overseas missionaries into the addition of the Mulka Project in 2007 where they now house over 18 days of audio, 14 days of video, and thousands of photographs which have been archived from the community’s culture and society. Furthermore, with the addition of the museum in 1988, the Yolngu hope to teach the community of their past and educate those who arrive in the community. The centre also aims to inspire artists to pursue not only the art forms they are comfortable with, but to try new forms of expression such as printmaking. Today, the centre is broken down into two components, The Mulka Project, where Marika serves as the creative director, and the Yirrkala Art Centre. The centre aims to supply Aboriginal artists a place to exhibit and sell their artworks. Additionally, the centre hopes to assist those outside the Yirrkala region as well, helping artists who live up to 4-5 hours away from the centre to showcase their work.
The Mulka Project: Celia
“We want to bring knowledge of the past to the present, to preserve it for future generations and to understand what meaning it has in the present day and age.”
– Dr. Marika, Inaugural Cultural Director of The Mulka Project
It is on this basis, as Dr. Marika stated, that the foundations of the 2007 Mulka Project were started. The mission of the Mulka Project is essentially to preserve Yolngu culture in Northeast Arnhem Land. The Project does so via the medium of art, specifically film/cinema. Mulka possesses their own production house, recording studio, digital learning center, and cultural archive to assist in achieving these goals. Throughout this process, Mulka also ingrains a reinforcement of Yolngu law and knowledge into their everyday operations: They employ many aged and wise Yolngu, as well as many eager, young Yolngu, who communicate and learn from one another, passing their culture down, generation to generation, via oral tradition. It is this previous reliance on orality that the Mulka Project also seeks to correct. In creating an archive, as well as producing original content, Mulka is providing the community with days of video footage and thousands of photographs that Yolngu can access to study their own ancestors and ceremonies, amongst other things. As long as the subject of the media is not restricted to clan members, as some ‘inside knowledge’ is not even permitted to be documented, the archive can also serve to educate the public/outsiders on Yolngu culture, so as to prevent their erasure from mainstream history from ever happening again.
Jenna: After speaking with Marika and Wanambi and the rest of the visiting artists, I have an appreciation for the diversity of art across Arnhem land and the pursuit of innovation across clans which often have many rules of what artists can and cannot create. My favorite piece from Marika and Wanambi’s visits is Wanambi’s Destiny. I loved how I could see Wanambi’s passion about the ocean through both his distorted poles and the implementation of the sea of fish surrounding the exhibition. To me, this also serves as an example of ways Yolngu artists have pursued changing their field of creation. While Wanambi has created items which have been painted for years, the poles, Wanambi finds a way, through his painting process and the poles he selects to change a seemingly traditional medium. Furthermore, with the introduction of digital aspects to the community and the Mulka Project, I believe the creation of more film and media which celebrates and explores the community will develop in the near future. Additionally, I found Marika especially engaging as a visitor because he seemed passionate about each project he had created and is a part of. I found his film, Galka, both informative of the culture and eerie. I really enjoyed taking an inside glance at differing forms of Aborginal art away from traditional bark paintings and speaking with artists from all across Arnhem Land this semester.
Other groups conclusion for reference?
Gabriel is a passionate, fun-loving, dedicated man who makes it a point to talk to others and reach out to other cultures in order to share his own. Gabriel came and talked to our class because, first and foremost, he wants more people to understand his culture and spread its knowledge so it stays alive forever. While some ceremonies have disappeared from Aboriginal culture, painting has taken on a huge role to remember ancestral stories and keep traditions alive. (SP)
In continuance of this effort, Gabriel loves to show younger individuals how to paint and continue their culture. Gabriel says that he shows the younger generation the “right way” to paint through informal instruction. Gabriel will tell onlookers what brushes to use, what paints to harvest, how to mix the colors, and what they could and could not paint, and how to paint little details. For all the inspiration teachers Gabriel had in his life, he hopes he can be that for others at Injalak Arts so that Aboriginal Australian cultures will continue to thrive. (SP)
Gabriel plays a fundamental role in the continuation of Injalak artistic traditions. Gabriel remains invested in the paintings and creations of the younger generations at the Injalak Art Center. He is very knowledgeable about painting and the significance of cultural symbols like the Lightning Man. These traditions live on within his art and the knowledge he passes down to others at the center. The Injalak Arts Center provides a space for artists like Gabriel to share his knowledge and practice his work, while also fostering the artistic skills of the younger generations. Gabriel finds his relationships to the younger artists extremely meaningful. Through these relationships, Gabriel is able to pass down knowledge of cultural traditions so that they remain part of the present. Because of Gabriel’s incredible work and dedication to the traditions at Injalak, these stories are something that will last a long time. It was a pleasure to hear from Gabriel these past weeks because I learned so much from his understanding of Aboriginal beliefs and cultural lifeways. This is something evident in his artwork and transcends language. His art has the impeccable ability to showcase tradition alongside innovation, demonstrating how the two are inextricably linked within the contemporary era. Gabriel is an incredible artist who puts a lot of heart into everything he does. (BW)
In learning from Gabriel over the course of a few weeks, the intrinsic nature of Gabriel’s knowledge of the land was striking. His understanding of culture and custom and environment is innate and is reflected in the art he creates. Hearing his perspective on art and the world in general has allowed me to gain insight into a worldview that varies greatly from my own. This has been invaluable in order to better understand the meaning and process behind his work. His belief system is so ingrained in how he functions and how he views the world that it is effortlessly woven into all of his pieces, an inextricable part of his personhood and his art. This is reflective of Aboriginal culture’s relationship to the environment and how interconnected all aspects of life are. (MW)