The bark paintings on view in Gapu-Monuk Saltwater: Journey to Sea Country at the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM) in Sydney were pivotal documents in a major case for indigenous sea rights. The July 30, 2008 ruling by the Australian High Court in what’s known as the Blue Mud Bay case considered the paintings by the Yolŋu people of northeast Arnhem Land as title deeds to the sea rights of coastal waters.
“The ruling set a precedent that recognized Yolŋu ownership of the inter-tidal zone on the edge of their lands,” Helen Anu, curator of Gapu Monuk Saltwater, told Hyperallergic. “This resolved the decade-long struggle that had been started by the Saltwater Collection of sacred bark paintings.”
“Gapu-Monuk,” from the Yolŋu matha language, refers to the words “gapu” for “water” and “monuk” for “salt.” The 80 Yirrkala Bark Paintings of Sea Country are now part of the collections at ANMM. The exhibition features around 40 of them, along with oral histories, contemporary and traditional art, and artifacts. Gapu-Monuk Saltwater marks 20 years since 1997, when Yolŋu artists from 15 clans and 18 homeland communities created the paintings, a reaction to illegal fishing discovered by Madarrpa clan leader Djambawa Marawili, AM, on his clan estate. As Marawili declared in 1999: “It is time for non-Aboriginal people to learn about this land, learn about the waters. So if we are living the way of reconciliation, you must learn about Native Title and Sea Right.” He speaks about the exhibition in a video from ANMM:
“The paintings are a visual and traditional representation of the Yolŋu living and interacting in their respective Saltwater Countries,” Anu explained. “They also provided political and legal significance beyond their spiritual meaning. The paintings underpinned the Yolŋu community’s native sea title claim and provided an indigenous tool for community action that could be created into evidence and used in the Australian legal system.”
In particular, the bark paintings supported an argument that the coastal waters between the low and high-tide mark involved sacred sites both in the physical and spiritual planes. The High Court’s decision gave Aboriginal ownership to 80 percent of the Northern Territory’s coastline, a ruling that included precedence over any commercial interests or fishing. “It was described as the most significant ruling for Aboriginal land owners since the High Court’s Mabo decision,” Anu stated. The Mabo decision of 1992 was groundbreaking in finally recognizing native title, or rights to land, in the country.
Ancient seafarers, cartography of the coast, and spiritual creatures like turtles, crocodiles, and fish are depicted in the bark paintings. Sacred designs, or miny’tji, from each clan give them distinct textures through cross-hatched patterns. Each visual detail, whether relating to fishing or cultural heritage, reinforces a traditional, and spiritual, relationship to the coast.
“All Yolŋu paintings are rarely representational, even where they may appear to be,” Anu noted. “An icon might show a creature, a cloud, a rock, fire, a spear, or a rope. This can denote an ancestral being as well as its actions, and it may be a code for relations between people, places, and things.”
And they resonate beyond their initial purpose as a powerful political statement, recalling how artistic expression played a vital role in this legal case. As Anu said, “Yolŋu elders have advised that these sea rights paintings will never be produced again because of their sacred and historical nature, and instructed that the paintings were to remain together as a collection which are held in the keeping place of the Australian National Maritime Museum.”
Gapu-Monuk Saltwater: Journey to Sea Country continues through February 2019 at the Australian National Maritime Museum (2 Murray Street, Darling Harbour, Sydney).