Untitled. Johnny Devlin, Dunmarra Wayside Inn Series

This is the first of two pieces looking at the art of people living in and around the Elliott and Marlinja communities in the centre of the Northern Territory. Here I’ll set out some brief historical information, look at some efforts locals have taken to preserve language and culture and take a brief look at a few artists from the region. In the second piece in this series I’ll look at a set of wholly remarkable painted records of all aspects of traditional life on Mudburra country by two senior law-holders.

Back in 2014 I described Elliott as ‘… the town the Northern Territory forgot’—largely in the context of the appalling state of housing in the two Town Camps—Gurungu & Wilyugu—that bookend the northern and southern edges of town.

Not a lot has changed in the last six years. Services from all levels of government fall between jurisdictional cracks based on the fact that Elliott—Kulumindini in the local Mudburra language—is equidistant from the major Northern Territory service and administrative centres of Darwin and Alice Springs. Elliott falls into an administrative worm hole—bureaucrats in Alice Springs will say that Elliott is Darwin’s responsibility and vice versa ad infinitum.

Notwithstanding this torpid adminosphere—and don’t get me started on what happened during the NT Intervention between 2007 and 2012—it is perhaps surprising that Elliott remains at all and by at least some measures thrives, against overwhelming odds.

For me Kulumindini’s vitality is apparent in the integrity, strength and maintenance of local Aboriginal culture, evidenced most recently by the production of three wonderful books that provide valuable insights into how Aboriginal culture can and will survive despite government neglect and the alienation of dearly-held traditional lands by pastoralism.

The first of three important recent publications showcasing local Aboriginal culture is Jingilu and Mudburra Plants and Animals, published in 2018 and the 49th volume in a long-running—and vitally important—record of Northern Territory ethnobiological knowledge.

The second is Birrka Mudburra – Making Things Mudburra that illustrates some Mudburra ways of preparing bush medicines, how they get different bush tucker and use available resources and some of the country around the Mudburra homeland of Narrwan.

The most recent publication is, like the others a magnificent collaborative effort titled the Mudburra to English Dictionary and was published in late 2019.

Time and space prevent a fuller examination of these works here but together they form a powerful statement of intent to preserve and protect Jingili and Mudburra heritage, knowledge and culture. I cannot recommend them highly enough for anyone interested in the contemporary maintenance of Aboriginal culture and language.

Another means by which cultural knowledge and authority are projected and maintained is through a community’s art practices. Based 250 kilometres south of Kulumindini in Tennant Creek—but operating on a proverbial shoestring budget across the Barkly region—Barkly Regional Arts is the service hub for the arts and does a great job within its constraints.

Local Mudburra and Jingili families continue to produce compelling music grounded in their cultures—see for example the recent album by Rayella that I reviewed in 2015 and the eponymous Kulumindini Band, the latest iteration of which played at the wake of senior Mudburra lawman and knowledge-holder Kumunjayi Dixon two weeks back.

Kulumindini Band poster, 1991. Image: Green Ant Research Arts & Publishing.

But the visual arts are one area where the residents of the Elliott district unfortunately punch well below their weight. Sure, there is the current iteration of Kulumindi Arts, that started in the mid 1980s and is based in Gurungu town camp at Elliott. Currently Kulumindini Arts concentrates mainly on printing a range of fabric using mainly lino-cut techniques but that centre currently has little market reach, profile or impact.

In terms of contemporary acrylic painting on canvas or similar media, again the available record of Jingili and Mudburra artists is scratchy. and warrants further attention to record what has gone before.

Two early Mudburra artists of note are Lady Dixon Nimarra and Daisy Ngawaia Nalyirri (both deceased). Lady Dixon Nimarra was married to Pharlap Dixon Jalyirri, a truly legendary stockman, political activist and knowledge-holder with whom Lady Dixon signed an unprecedented 1952 petition of “the Newcastle Waters Aboriginals” that requested proper facilities for the men and women working on pastoral stations in the region, and asked that “our tribe not be dispersed”.

The current record of Lady Dixon’s artistic practice is limited and there are unconfirmed anecdotes that Ros Packer—wife of media czar Kerry Packer who owned Newcastle Waters Station that has a pastoral leasehold over vast swathes of Mudburra country—bought many of Lady Dixon’s works to hang on the walls of the lavish Newcastle Waters homestead.

Barndanligija, Lady Dixon Nimarra, 1989. Image: Lawsons*

One online account of Lady Dixon’s artistic career records she didn’t start painting until her late 50s and that “soon her art work was highly prized and on one occasion she traveled to Paris for an exhibition of her work.” Lady Dixon Nimarra passed away in late 2005.

Records of Daisy Ngawaia Nalyirri’s artistic career are similarly scant. In 1995 she held her first solo exhibition at Melbourne’s Alcaston Gallery (an Archive Survey exhbition was held in 2019) and a number of her works are held by the National Gallery of Victoria, where her work has appeared in a number of publications and group exhibitions between 1995 and 2006.

Bush Potato, Daisy Ngawaia Nalyirri, 1996. Image: ©Alcaston Gallery
Ngurra-Mala, Daisy Ngawaia Nalyirri, 1995. Image: NGV

The Alcaston Gallery website entry for Daisy Ngawaia Nalyirri says of her career that she:

… lived for many years on Channel Island in the East Arm Leprosarium [near Darwin] and eventually married Nuggett Collins Japarta, senior law man of the Marlinja area.

Nalyirri, though not prolific, amazed us by her ready use of acrylic and canvas, producing passionate images of great depth and subtlety, exploring the very core of Aboriginal Spirituality – the meaning of her land, free from the more formal constraints of traditional desert work. Her painting with its brilliant colours producing dynamic canvasses splashed with dots and scattered meandering dreaming trails resulting in images, which convey a rich and powerful interpretation of a complex ceremonial life.

Daisy had her first solo exhibition at Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne, in 1995. Her output was very limited due to her leprosy. Two major paintings by Daisy were exhibited in the spectacular BlueScope Steel sponsored exhibition and publication Colour Power – Aboriginal art post 1984, at the National Gallery of Victoria, Federation Square, November 2004 – March 2005.

Part two in this series is available here.

Further reading:

  • Jingilu and Mudburra Plants and Animals. Biocultural knowledge of the Jingili and Mudburra people of Murranji, Marlinja, Warranganku (Beetaloo) and Kulumundini (Elliott), Northern Territory, Australia. Pompey Dakamajbi Raymond, Pharlap Dilkbarri Dixon† Sue ‘Lady’ Mangkanjangiwarra Dixon†, Kumunjayi Kulngankarri Dixon†, Ray Dimakarri Dixon, Jeffrey Manawurda Dixon, Janey Walanyku Lunjabirni Dixon, Elizabeth Dixon†, Mark Murrulunginji Raymond, Harold Injimadi Dalywaters, Jumbo Kijilikarri Collins†, Robin Yikalamba Woods†, Eileen Minyminyngali Peterson-Cooper†, Felicity Meakins, Rob Pensalfini and Glenn Wightman. January 2018. Publisher: Batchelor Press.
  • Birrka Marnini. Making Things Mudburra. Kumunjayi Kulngankarri Dixon, Wendy Hughes, Janey Walanyku Lunjabirni Dixon, Raymond Dimakarri Dixon, Maureen Bill, Sarah Bill, Raylene Bill, Susan Kingston, Johnny Devlin, Nangkurrunyungu, Amanda Hamilton-Hollaway, David Osgarby, Rob Pensalfini and Felicity Meakins. 2019. Publisher: Batchelor Press.
  • Mudburra to English Dictionary. Compilers: Rebeca Green, Jennifer Green, Amanda Hamilton-Hollaway, Felicity Meakins, David Osgarby and Rob Pensalfini. Contributions from: Pharlap Dilkbarri Dixon, Jumbo Kijilikarri Collins, Sue ‘Lady’ Mangkanjangiwarra Dixon, Lucy Hughes, Albert Lalka Crowson, Kumunjayi Kulngankarri Dixon, Janey Walanyku Lunjabirni Dixon, Ray Dimakarri Dixon, Wendy Hughes, Maureen Bill, Susan Kingston, Raylene Bill, Bernie Dixon, Jeffrey Manawurda Dixon and Todman Dixon. With additional Contributions from: Glenn Wightman, Patrick McConvell, David Nash and Mary Laughren. 2019. Publisher: Aboriginal Studies Press.