Important Australian Indigenous Art
22 March 2023


born c.1939

natural earth pigments and printer ink on eucalyptus bark

222.0 x 104.0 cm

bears inscription verso: Buku–Larrŋgay Mulka Centre cat. 6358–18

$30,000 – $40,000
Sold for $153,409 (inc. BP) in Auction 73 - 22 March 2023, Melbourne

Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre, Yirrkala, Northern Territory
Chapman & Bailey Gallery, Melbourne
Private collection, Melbourne, acquired from the above in 2020


Tarnanthi, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 18 Oct 2019 – 27 Jan 2020

This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity from Buku–Larrŋgay Mulka Centre.

Deutscher and Hackett would like to thank Will Stubbs from Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre for his assistance in cataloguing this work.

Catalogue text

Noŋgirrŋa Marawili’s lines and dotted chains of ochre cover the chalky white background of Baratjala, 2018 radiating from vivid magenta rock forms.1 This network of jagged parallel lines upon a monumental sheet of gently undulating stringybark evoke the movement of water at Baratjala, where the artist camped as a child. Painted with swift confidence, the painting preserves smudged fingerprints and uneven brushstrokes which attest to the artist’s hand and physical presence. Her art is intuitive and immediate. It is characterised by modified forms of sacred clan crosshatching and sections of open space, anticanonical for Arnhem land bark painting. Baratjala, 2018 like many of Noŋgirrŋa’s mature works, demonstrates a bold divergence in Yolŋu art towards personal expression, liberated from the male responsibility of upholding of strictly codified practice but continuing to assert sovereignty over country.  
The past two decades have seen an explosion of innovation in the development of Yolŋu bark painting, an avant-garde movement led by senior female practitioners working respectfully within the laws of their ancient culture while harnessing the potency of their individual artistic voices. The concrete courtyard of Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre, a community run arts centre in Yirrkala, has been the nexus of this movement, fostering a collaborative environment for artists such as sisters Gulumbu and Nyapanyapa Yunipiŋu and Noŋgirrŋa Marawili. Their secular and boldly contemporary works on bark and on larrakitj (memorial poles) have become renowned both nationally and internationally, keenly collected by national institutions and private collectors alike.  
Noŋgirrŋa was born to an important Yolŋu family, one of many children of famed warrior-leader Mundukul Marawili of the Madarrpa clan. Her father died when she was young, never witnessing a time in which women were permitted to paint and before he could teach Noŋgirrŋa the sacred miny’tji designs of their people transmitted through countless generations. Without the authority to use these detailed ceremonial markings, crucial for painting the sites and songlines of the Madarrpa clan lands, Noŋgirrŋa’s artwork focusses instead on warraŋul (outside meaning) and associated sites of lesser sanctity, while remaining faithful to the Yolŋu belief system.  
The Madarrpa are Yirritja moiety saltwater people, with their lands extending from Blue Mud Bay into the cyclonic and tidal waters of the Gulf of Carpentaria, beneath which Mundukul, the ancestral lightning snake lives. For Noŋgirrŋa, while the men are entitled to sing the songlines of the ‘big waters’ of the sacred snake, she can paint ‘ideas, from the waters that form the outside part of the story.’2 While the spraying and rippling movements and exchanges of energy between the water and lightning3 form the subject matter and linear designs in most of Noŋgirrŋa’s paintings, the large circles and rectangles represent the sacred rocks set in deep water at Baratjala, a significant place of knowledge for her clan. Also, the title of this work, ‘Baratjala’ was an anchorage point for Macassan trepangers from Sulawesi, who visited the area and interacted with the Yolŋu for several centuries until the early 20th century.  
Noŋgirrŋa has painted this area of coastline since 2011, and her critical acclaim has brought significant attention to Yolŋu art and this remote area of the Northern Territory. Her late husband, Djutadjutja Munuŋgurr of the Djapu clan, also had secondary custodianship of Baratjala, reflecting a reciprocal relationship between the two clans. By virtue of Noŋgirrŋa’s respectful adherence to Yolŋu law and customs, she has been recognised by her people as caretaker and quiet custodian of Baratjala. Her role in the community as a senior Elder is to uphold this ancient area of cross-cultural connection and keep it alive, both physically and cosmologically.  
1. In late 2017, Noŋgirrŋa challenged what it meant to collect materials from country by working with recycled printer cartridges mixes with ochre. See Russell-Cook, M., ‘Bark Ladies: Eleven Artists from Yirrkala’, Bark Ladies, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2021, p. 10 
2. The artist, quoted in Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, University of Virginia [ ] (accessed 20/02/23)  
3. The Top End of the Northern Territory experiences an extraordinarily high number of daily lightning strikes during the wet season from November to April.