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The Northern Myth

Jan 10, 2015

WARU!! Fire in Australian Aboriginal art

The Gumatj clan language, Dhuwalandja, is itself the tongue of flame. This language, or tongue, like the flame, cuts through all artifice. It incinerates dishonesty leaving only the bones of the truth.


Earlier this week I posted this piece by Stephen J. Pyne* on the tradition of fire in (mainstream) Australian art. Here I want to look at fire as it appears in (some at least) Aboriginal artforms.

Many years ago I had the pleasure of doing the live audio mix for the Warumpi Band for a few months. One of my favourite songs was “Waru” that opened with “Gurtha meinmak … ” (Yolngu Matha for “fire is good/great“) and ended with a exultant chorus of “WARU, WARU, WARU, WARU …” (the Pintupi/Luritja word for fire) that followed you out of the gig into the night with the roar and rush of a grassfire running before a hot westerly.

George Burarrwanga wrote most of the song in his mother tongue of Yolngu Matha but that single desert word came from his new homelands in the desert in country around Papunya, north-west of Alice Springs.

Twenty years later I was living just north of Papunya in Anmatyerr/Warlpiri country at Yuendumu and working at the Warlukurlangu Artists Centre. Warlukurlangu is a Warlpiri word meaning “place of or pertaining to fire” and refers to a site west of Yuendumu.

In 1977 the late Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri painted his magisterial Warlugulong that is “arguably the most important Indigenous work in the National Gallery of Australia’s collection.” In 2010 then National Gallery director Ron Radford said of Warlugulong that it is:

… an epic painting, encyclopedic in content and ambition, and it can be read from a number of perspectives, depending on the aspect of the particular Dreaming, or Tjukurrpa, being considered. The canvas contains the essence of five major Tjukurrpa. The main one, Warlugulong (or Bushfire Dreaming), depicts how the ancestral fire began.

Ronnie Tjampitjinpa is another western desert artist that has taken fire as a theme in a dramatic and powerful suite of works.

As Adrian Newstead notes here of Ronnie’s approach to his artwork, he:

… can be credited with having forged a new artistic direction in embracing a new aesthetic minimalism, thereby freeing up further possibilities for the younger up-coming generation of painters, and challenging fixed perceptions of Western Desert art. His hypnotic designs explore interacting geometric shapes which emanate an eye-catching, pulsating action.

The image of Ngamaru Bidu’s Wantili Claypan at the top of this piece comes from one of the too few exhibitions dedicated to fire as a motif and cultural key-stone for Aboriginal people. In 2011 the Martu people of the central deserts of western Australia presented an exhibition of works titled Waru! Holding Fire in Australia’s Western Desert.

The exhibition catalogue points to the centrality of waru in Martu life and culture and the links between ceremonial and religious practice and environmental sustainability.

Martu have chosen the title of the exhibition for its many meanings: Martu artists are cultural ambassadors, to spread, like fire, knowledge of their heritage and land; moreover, Martu artists are the literal agents of fire, applying fire to their country in the course of their daily foraging practice, resulting in the maintenance of key components of arid grassland biodiversity.

A glimpse of the fine-grainedness of Martu traditional fire knowledge and practice is apparent from this image that analyses Minyawe Miller’s 2010 painting, Karlamilyi River that formed part of the Waru exhibition.

For the Martu, fire is truly a key element for their continued survival in a landscape that most Australian’s would regard as barren and dangerous. As this excerpt from We Don’t Need A Map, a comprehensive presentation of the Martu-world-view that is on a national tour right now, notes:

To the Martu, fire means food. A landscape deliberately shaped by fire is a domesticated landscape. The Martu recognise five distinct stages of vegetation after country has been burned:

NYURNMA: freshly-burned country, good for hunting.

WARU-WARU: the green shots of fresh growth.

NYUKURA: regrowth between one and three years after burning, the period of greatest diversity of useful plants.

MANGUU: four to six years after burning, mature spinifex begins to encroach on plant diversity and can be burned.

KUNARKA: seven years plus after burning, landscape is dominated by old growth spinifex, there is little diversity and a high risk of devastating bushfires cause by lightning.

While waru is a keystone to Martu life in the desert, for the Yunupingu Gumatj clan of north-east Arnhem Land the totemic significance of fire – gurtha – is elemental:

It is said that the Gumatj clan language, Dhuwalandja, is itself the tongue of flame. This language, or tongue, like the flame, cuts through all artifice. It incinerates dishonesty leaving only the bones of the truth.

The diamond patterning is the miny’tji or sacred clan design, of this clan and this place. It summons the theme of this fire. The Gumatj clan design associated with these events, a diamond design, represents fire; the red flames, the white smoke and ash, the black charcoal and the yellow dust. Clans owning connected parts of this sequence of ancestral events share variations of this diamond design.

The late Barrupu Yunupingu was a daughter of Yolngu artist, visionary and political leader Munggurrawuy Yunupingu. Her siblings included Australians of the Year, Galarrwuy and Mandawuy and Telstra Art Award winner Gulumbu. Barrupu was  a prolific art practitioner during the last years of her long life, initially in print and later on bark.

For Barrupu, fire was a core to her soul. As Will Stubbs, Coordinator at Buku Larrnggay Mulka at Yirrkala writes, the sacred Gumatj clan Gurtha design which Barrupu Yunupingu paints is:

… not just any fire. This is a Fire of supernatural intensity, so powerful that it transforms the land it touched for all time. Its identity is etched into every atom of Gumatj land it spread to, or was carried to … [it] is sacred because it reveals a hidden secret … the land still remembers; its DNA is permanently altered. Fire is also domesticity and the hearth, light, warmth, cooked food, security. The flaming tongues are a language of creativity and truth and the sparks are offspring and generative

Canvas, bark, paper and music aren’t the only forms with which Aboriginal regard and respect for fire is made real.

The artists of the Girringun Aboriginal Art Centre and Gallery at Cardwell in Queensland produce these whimsical bagu with jiman pieces based on traditional fire making implements of the Girringun rainforest Aboriginal people of north Queensland.

Traditionally, Girrungun firesticks were made up of two parts, the bagu (body) and jiman (stick). Bagu were normally made from the boogadilla (milky pine tree) and Jiman from mudja (the wild guava tree). The bagu form was founded in the shape of a man and are now made with traditional clays and the ochre colours, including magera yellow, jillan, black with wallaby blood and garba, white.

The form and imagery of the bagu with jiman artwork has its origins in the sky. A mystical spirit of fire, would throw the jiman (firesticks) across the sky and a trail of fire would follow.

I’ve only touched on the many and varied intersections between Aboriginal art practices and knowledge here and I look forward to hearing of others you know of. Please post your thoughts and links below.

Wantili Claypan. Ngamaru Bidu, 2008. Martumili Artists

Warlugulong. Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, 1977. National Gallery of Australia.

Fire Dreaming. Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, 2003.

Bushfire. Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, 2003.

Karlamilyi River. Minyawe Miller, 2010.

Gurtha. Barrupu Yunupingu, Nomad Gallery/Buku Larrnggay Mulka, 2012.

Untitled. Barrupu Yunupingu, Buku Larrnggay Mulka, 2012.

Bagu with Jiman. Girringun Aboriginal Art Centre, 2014.

* See also Stephen J. Pyne’s Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia. University of Washington Press, 1998.


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