Located between Cape Steward and the Woollen River the community of Ramingining was created by the Australian Government in the 1970’s when the mission station on Milingimby Island became overcrowded. The Yolgnu people in Arnhem Land were made up of many different clan groups and the creation of centralised communities such as Milingimby and Ramingining meant that different clan and language groups were required to live together.
Painting on Eucalyptus bark was a part of Yolgnu culture prior to the European arrival. Bark panels decorated with ochre was recorded by ‘balanda’ (non-indigenous people) as early as 1923 as decorative elements on the bark shelters and there is also earlier evidence of paintings on bark used in trade with Macassan traders from Sulawesi who negotiated trepang fishing rights with the Yolgnu people. The designs and techniques have been honed over millennia during use in ceremonies.
When, in 1907, the Australian government banned the Macassan trade in favour of Japanese fishing vessels, a major source of income and recognition of Yolngu sovereignty was last. This served as a stimulus for creating barks, hollow logs and other carvings and artefacts as commodities for tourists and later as important evidence of Yolgnu culture in land rights cases. Large bark panels were used as evidence of land ownership as artists depicted their creation stories and their deep association with the land and sea in the Arnhem Land area.
In the post WWII era, there was interest in the artwork produced in the area. Collections were commissioned for American and European collectors such as Karel Kupka, Edward Rhue, Louis Allen, and Germome Gould. There was also interest from art dealers and anthropologists.
In 1963, an attempted secret land excise by the Australian government in favour of a swiss bauxite mine, was met with indignation, resulting in the production of the historic bark petition. The petition, sent to parliament in Yolgnu and in English, was attached to bark decorated with the sacred Yirritji and Dhuwa designs. The Yirrkala Church Panels, two large panels that detailed exactly the descent of Yolgnu people from the ancestral beings, had been created just prior to this. One panel was Dhuwa and one Yirritja moiety. For Yolgnu everything, including people and the environment, are split into two halves, Dhuwa and Yirritja. Each half is a mirror of the other, and to understand the whole universe these two halves must come together, similar to the eastern concept of Yin and Yang. The panels were intended to make explicit the rights of Yolgnu people and their deep connections and history with the land in Arnhem Land.
In 1976 and 77 the Buku-Larrangay Mulka Art Centre at Yirrkala and The Ramingining Arts cooperative in Ramingining were established. The latter under the auspices of the town council and an Australia Council Funded arts coordinator. In 1992 an arts organisation, Bula Bula, was established, independent of the council. These two arts communities along with Maningrida are now the major sources of barks and carvings from Arnhem Land.
Resources and Publications
Buku-Larrngay Mulka Centre, 1999 Salt Water Country, Yirrikala Bark, Paintings of the Sea Country, Jennifer Issacs Publishing, pp20-27(Djon Mundine)
Kleinert,S Neale, M (Eds), 2000 The Oxford companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture, Oxford University Press