Linguist anthropologist Murray Garde talks about the Kuninjku language and being an interpreter for artist John Mawurndjul

Murray Garde, a linguist and anthropologist, is fluent in the Kuninjku language – the language spoken by master bark painter John Mawurndjul. Mawurndjul’s work is the focus of a major retrospective John Mawurndjul: I am the old and the new, which opened at the MCA on 6 July 2018.

Garde worked as a school teacher for the Northern Territory Education Department in the 1980s and ’90s, living in Kuninjku-language communities on the remote outstations or homeland centres south of Maningrida in western Arnhem Land. He first met Mawurndjul, whom he calls Balang, in 1988: “Balang is his skin name or his subsection, which is how most people refer to him.”

In this interview, Garde talks about learning the Kuninjku language, his close friendship with the artist, and why Indigenous languages continue to be under threat.

How did you come to learn the Kuninjku language?

I learnt Kuninjku by being totally immersed in Kuninjku-speaking outstation communities south of Maningrida. As a school teacher, I felt it was important that to be effective as an educator I had to be able to communicate properly with the people I was working with. As I was living on Kuninjku country with Kuninjku people, it just seemed obvious that I should make an effort to learn the language. As a visiting homeland centre teacher, I was teaching English during school classes which ran from 8.30 am to lunch time. In the afternoons the whole community would go off fishing, hunting or visiting other communities, so I would accompany people on these excursions and participate in the daily activities.

I carried a notebook around in my pocket at all times and later I started making audio recordings which I would then transcribe. I guess it took me about 3 years to reach some level of fluency. But learning another language as an adult is like aiming to reach the horizon – as you chase your goal, you realise that the horizon keeps moving away from you and the task becomes, in fact, a lifelong journey.

When translating for John Mawurndjul, what is difficult to express in English about his art practice?

There is a misconception, often held by monolingual English speakers, that there is such a thing as a “literal translation”. I am often asked by non-Aboriginal people to provide a “literal translation” from Kuninjku into English. Once, when I was acting as an interpreter in the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory, a barrister asked me to only provide a “literal translation”. I asked him what he meant by that, and he replied “a word-for-word translation”. Sorry to rain on his parade, I informed him that such a notion was a myth.

There is no such word-to-word correspondence whereby the meanings of a word in one language always have an analog word in the other language with an identically bounded semantic range. Many cultural concepts expressed in the Kuninjku language do not exist in non-Indigenous cultures of Australia and therefore have no single-word equivalents. The inverse is also the case. Further, Kuninjku is what linguists call a polysynthetic language, whereby a whole sentence in English can be expressed by a single very long word in Kuninjku. These long words are composed by gluing together in the correct order many small word parts, or what linguists call “morphemes”.

Here is an example: “Kabirriyawoyhdarnhbimnan” (“They are looking very closely at the painting again”) or “Kabirri-yawoyh-darnh-bim-nan” (“They-again-closely-painting-look”).

When speaking Kuninjku, many subjects and things being referred to are done so in very vague terms because people in small culturally homogenous communities have a lot of shared knowledge and they do not need to be continually explicit about many of these things. It is assumed that the listener will be able to infer what the speaker is talking about. Further, in Kuninjku art, many religious subjects are of a sacred nature and when John Mawurndjul talks about them, he often uses cryptic or indirect expressions. As an interpreter, I then need to work out how to decode this for the benefit of my audience without compromising the delicate nature of this knowledge. Many subjects Balang Mawurndjul talks about have no equivalents in English.

One of the most troublesome subjects for interpreters who work with Australian languages is finding acceptable ways to refer to the concept of a sacred site. In Kuninjku, these are known as Djang. In central Australia, the term Tjukurrpa is becoming more well known by non-Indigenous people. These terms involve more than just a location, but also ideas about deep history, the period of creation and the association between specific groups of people and totemic aspects which have their historical focus in these places. The term ‘Dreaming’ is so inadequate and misleading and so many Indigenous people are starting to reject this term, although others continue to use it.

Other difficulties for me as an interpreter involve reference to non-human persons and beings in Balang’s art. For example, he sometimes depicts a subject from his wife’s clan, a being known as Namorrorddo, which is a fearful and dangerous being that can cause harm to humans. It has long claws, makes a whistling sound as it moves and has light streaming from the back of its head. Some non-Indigenous people call it a “shooting star spirit” but this is not completely accurate. Namorrorddo are not necessarily associated with shooting stars, which are known by another term in Kuninjku. So, what do you do when Balang uses the name “Namorrorddo”? For an audience who have never encountered a Namorrorddo before, you have to paraphrase and explain the term when it is first encountered.

Today, Kuninjku has about 300 or 400 speakers. What can be done to protect Australian Aboriginal languages?

Kuninjku is one dialect in a chain of mutually intelligible varieties of a single language that linguists now refer to for convenience as Bininj Kunwok or “the people’s language”. The total number of speakers would be about 2000, which, in Australian terms, is one of the larger language groups. Nonetheless, the few hundred people who speak Kuninjku experience many difficulties in being able to live out their aspirations to continue to enjoy their language and culture in the face of government policies that seek to override and frustrate these aspirations.

There is no doubt that in the face of Australia’s anglophone monolingual mindset, all Indigenous languages are constantly under threat. It only takes one link in the intergenerational transfer of language from parent to child to be broken and the language and cultural knowledge carried by the language is lost to subsequent generations. At the same time, the Commonwealth Government does allocate funds through its Indigenous Languages and Arts program to support the maintenance of languages such as Kuninjku. As part of this program, language maintenance and support programs are currently taking place in communities where Kuninjku people are living and working.

Kuninjku will survive if the wider community, especially non-Indigenous people, accept the idea that there is prestige and great value in being able to speak Kuninjku and allowing it to have a formal or official status in the institutions and community organisations that interact with Kuninjku people. If Kuninjku children see their language valued and being learned by people outside of their community (and this includes art galleries and cultural institutions), this sends a very important message about the prestige of the language, and this translates into continued use by younger generations.

You’ve said, “If you were to travel by car from Darwin through to Kakadu National Park and then to Maningrida, you would pass through the linguistic territories of at least a dozen different languages.” In your travels with Mawurndjul in Australia and abroad, how do audiences respond to this diversity?

In Australia, most non-Indigenous people have no idea of Australia’s Indigenous linguistic diversity. Most people would not even know the name of the Aboriginal languages associated with the place where they are living. Last year, I took a bus in Darwin from the CBD out to the suburbs where I was staying. Among the passengers on that bus, I heard conversations in 5 different Australian (that is, Aboriginal) languages. Many non-Indigenous people refer to Aboriginal languages merely as “language” or “lingo” because it is not of any interest or importance to them and we can’t identify the names of these languages when we hear them being spoken. However, Australian Aboriginal languages have much to teach all of us about deep Australian history, as well as art and culture, the Australian environment and what is possible in the organisation of human societies.

Throughout human evolution, multilingualism has been the norm for human societies. Monolingualism limits our potential to solve problems, think creatively and develop tolerance and appreciation of and respect for difference. People in Europe understand this better than we anglophones in Australia do. Driving a few hundred kilometres anywhere in Europe usually means you will cross linguistic borders and most people are able to speak at least 2 languages, if not more.

The Kuninjku language features strongly in the exhibition and catalogue, with additional learning resources online. As a linguist, how do you respond to this level of engagement by a cultural institution?

The Museum of Contemporary Art Australia and the Art Gallery of South Australia really need to be congratulated for the commitment to have Mawurndjul’s Kuninjku language as a prominent feature of the exhibition and supporting print materials. As I am always saying, if you live in Australia, then learn to speak (at least some) “Australian”. Balang John Mawurndjul speaks Kuninjku as his first language. It makes sense then that an exhibition about his art will be presented in both his Kuninjku language as well as the national language of English.

It’s not a question of one or the other. As art is not just a visual domain, it’s nice to think that you can learn many things about human cultural endeavour when you visit an art gallery. In this case, visitors to the exhibition can learn something about the Kuninjku language and that in recent decades it is now a written language with its own special official alphabet with letters and combinations of letters that represent some sounds absent in English.

All art galleries who present Australian Indigenous art can make a contribution to the maintenance of Australia’s first languages in the way they present the art and interact with artists who speak Australian artists. I’m sure this exhibition will inspire other galleries to do the same.

Finally, how has your friendship with John Mawurndjul changed the way you look at art?

I would like to think that we have finally shaken off the description of artworks produced by Indigenous Australians as some kind of “ethnographic” or “tribal” fascination. Mawurndjul himself had to suffer the indignity in 1998 of having his works along with those of fellow Maningrida artists rejected from exhibition at the Cologne Art Fair on the grounds that art produced by Aboriginal people was “inauthentic” or “folk art”, as if only Europeans were capable of producing “authentic art”.

While the creation of art is part of what it means to be human, there are indeed some aspects to art production that are unique for artists of a particular cultural background. Working and living over the years with Balang Mawurndjul has caused me to reflect on the psychological and emotional importance of depicting Djang – those special places which are a focus for the identity, history and wellbeing of different groups of Kuninjku people. Art is formed within the boundaries of the artist’s world view. When I look at an artwork now, from any artist, I wonder about the world view of the artist and the values and ideas that have brought the work into being.

Kuninjku artists do not always separate people and non-human things into discrete categories. The boundaries that separate animals, spiritual beings and humans are quite fluid in Balang Mawurndjul’s art. Representatives of one category can take form in the guise of another. Animals are non-human persons, or animals are sometimes rainbow serpents, and the cave-dwelling mimih are another category of humans. Even objects such as ceremonial dilly bags, or landscape features such as plants or water can be animate agents who communicate and interact with other animate beings. That Mawurndjul’s art can express such ideas, based on the world view that all things are connected, reminds me that there are many options for interpreting art from other traditions.

Mawurndjul always enjoys visiting important state galleries on his trips to Europe. He carefully examines each work in a very non-judgemental way. The view which he has often expressed to me on such trips is that everyone’s rarrk – or “ways of making images” – is to be equally respected and appreciated; while the external appearances are different, the making of art is common to all humans and that each work has its own “power”.



Dr Murray Garde is a consultant anthropologist and community linguist. He is currently Research Fellow in the School of Culture, History and Language at the Australian National University.

John Mawurndjul: I am the old and the new is on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia until September 23 and at the Art Gallery of South Australia from October 26 to January 28, 2019.

This article was first published online by the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia in ‘Stories & ideas’ on 9 July 2018 (



Top: Transporting the mandjabu (conical fish trap) to Maningrida Arts and Culture, Bulkay region, July 1980. Courtesy of AIATSIS, Jon C. Altman Collection

Centre: Kay Lindjuwanga, Jay Ragurrk, Laura Wawee, Ananais Jawulba, Kienan Wawee, Murray Garde, Lisa Slade, John Mawurndjul, Nici Cumpston, Keith Munro, Elizabeth Ann Macgregor and Natasha Bullock, Milmilngkan outstation, 2016. Photograph: Tristan Derátz

Bottom: John Mawurndjul and Murray Garde at the opening of John Mawurndjul: I am the old and the new, 2018, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. Photograph: Jacquie Manning