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Yirawala (1897–1976)

by Luke Taylor

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Yirawala (1897-1976), by unknown photographer

Yirawala (1897-1976), by unknown photographer

ABC TV Collection, Northern Territory Library, PH0416/0005

Yirawala (c.1897-1976), artist and Aboriginal elder, was a member of the Naborn clan of Gunwinggu language speakers whose traditional lands lie in the Marugulidban (also called Morgaleetbah) region straddling the Liverpool River, south-west of Maningrida, Northern Territory. He was born in his home country. The date of his birth is not known but in 1970 he gave his age as 73. His father was Nowaritj, a religious leader and keeper of his people's sacred symbols and cave galleries of rock paintings; Yirawala's mother's name is not recorded. He was raised in the customary manner, learning his father's designs, songs and stories. The dramatic rock art of western Arnhem Land influenced his artistic development.

For a time Yirawala lived at Oenpelli (Gunbalunya) with his first wife, who died after giving birth to three children. He then married with the rites of his people Mary Malilba with whom he had a daughter and two sons, and Margaret Monanggu with whom he had one son. Moving around Arnhem Land, he took a variety of labouring jobs. In the late 1950s he and his family settled on Croker Island. By this time he was an important and influential bark painter. He was also a leader in the ceremonial life of the Gunwinggu, a law-carrier and a 'clever man' (medicine man and healer).

In the early 1960s Yirawala formed a close association with Sandra Le Brun Holmes, a Darwin resident who helped Aborigines to preserve their religion and culture. She and her husband Cecil accompanied Yirawala and his family on a visit to Marugulidban in 1970. Yirawala wished to show the ancestral cave paintings to his sons and explain their meaning—'so we don't lose the old law'—and to confirm his people's ownership of the land at a time when mining companies were increasingly active in Arnhem Land. Cecil Holmes made a film of the journey, Return to the Dreaming. In June 1973 Yirawala represented the Gunwinggu at hearings of the Aboriginal Land Rights Commission held at Maningrida.

Sandra Holmes had assisted Yirawala to take a travelling exhibition of his bark paintings to Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Orange and Port Moresby in 1971. That year he was appointed M.B.E. and was the recipient of the International Co-operation Art Award. He opposed the commercialization of his work. His genius as a bark painter is evident in the individual pieces and series that he produced addressing major ceremonial themes of the western Arnhem Land region: Mardayin (Maraian), Lorrkkon (Lorrgon) and Wubarr (Ubar). He creatively interpreted these themes by depicting the subjects and incorporating elements from the geometric body designs used in the ceremonies. One of his purposes was to inform a non-Aboriginal audience about the depth of Aboriginal culture.

Through his art and his struggle for land rights, Yirawala was part of the broader movement among Aboriginal people to gain self-determination. He impressed Holmes with his courage and integrity. She described 'his penetrating eyes' and 'his face, handsome and dignified with its lines of experience and wisdom'. He died on 17 April 1976 on Croker Island and was buried in Minjilang cemetery. Holmes's collection of his paintings was purchased by the National Gallery of Australia later that year. In 1982 one of the paintings was chosen for the Australian twenty-seven-cent stamp commemorating the gallery's official opening. Most Australian State galleries hold works by Yirawala, as do major collections overseas.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Holmes, Yirawala: Artist and Man (Brisb, 1972)
  • S. Holmes, Yirawala: Painter of the Dreaming (Syd, 1992)
  • D. Carment et al, Northern Territory Dictionary of Biography, vol 1 (Darwin, 1990)
  • Aboriginal News, 3, no 1, Feb 1976.

Citation details

Luke Taylor, 'Yirawala (1897–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/yirawala-12088/text21689, accessed 15 December 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012