World of Dreamings
Traditional and modern art of Australia
An exhibition held at the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg | 2 February - 9 April 2000
- Dr Brian Kennedy, Director, National Gallery of Australia
- An introduction to Aboriginal art by Susan Jenkins and Carly Lane
- The Aboriginal Memorial We have survived, by Djon Mundine
- The Aboriginal Memorial 1987-88 A description
- John Mawurndjul The resonating land by Luke Taylor
- All the world The paintings of Nym Bandak by Kim Barber
- 'Who's that bugger who paints like me?' Rover Thomas by Wally Caruana
- The enigma of Emily Kngwarray by Jenny Green
- High art and religious intensity. A brief history of Wik sculpture by Peter Sutton
- Laced flour and tin boxes The art of Fiona Foley by Avril Quaill
- The memory theatre of Tracey Moffat by Gael Newton
All the world: The paintings of Nym Bandak
In 1958 and 1959 Nym Bandak, a Murrinhpatha man of the Diminhin clan, painted a number of pictures for his friend, anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner. He created the paintings within his Diminhin country, at the mission at Port Keats on the south west coast of the Northern Territory.
Bandak met Stanner in 1935 when the latter travelled with Father Docherty and a small group of Catholic missionaries to a remote area north of the Fitzmaurice River to establish a mission in the vicinity of Port Keats. At the time of the journey the Port Keats area was virtually unknown to Europeans but was thought to be home to warlike groups of Aboriginal people. Stanner joined the party to provide advice and support, as he had met people connected with Port Keats on field trips to the Daly River, north of the area in 1934-35.
During the 1935 visit to Port Keats and on subsequent trips, Stanner spent a great deal of time with Bandak and they developed a close friendship and working relationship. The education Stanner received from Bandak and others whom he met at Daly River and Port Keats in this period strongly influenced his scholarship and helped established him as a significant figure in anthropological circles.
Within his own cultural milieu and community, Bandak also gained considerable stature. Between 1935 and 1958 he played a significant role in steering his community through a period of massive social change when they were confronted with the pervasive influence of Europeanism on their lives.
Stanner and the missionaries were made welcome when they arrived on Diminhin land, but they found a group of coastal people engaged in factional disputes that often erupted into spear fights followed by tense stand-offs. At the same time these people were involved in an on-going conflict with other coalitions of inland (freshwater) people. Accusations of sorcery and assassinations, followed by punitive raids to exact revenge, led to a cycle of tit-for-tat raids and conflict between these groups during which each coalition fought to drive the other from his land. In the tense atmosphere, jealous intrafracine fights of the kind witnessed by Father Docherty's party erupted within close family groups.
Father Docherty established his first mission on the Murrinhpatha estate of Wentek Nganai country, but as the site was being eroded by the sea and there was a lack of fresh water, the mission was later relocated to Diminhin land, close to where Docherty first landed.
Initially, Aboriginal people came to the mission for European goods such as tobacco, flour, tea and sugar. Gradually many of the coastal groups came to live at the settlement and this created tension between Bandak's Diminhin group and others living on their land. By the 1950s some of the old enemies of the Murrinhpatha - the Maringa - had exploited affinial [related by marriage] and other ties, gaining tenuous residence in the settlement. The tension between groups remained, however, particularly between the Diminhin group who owned the settlement location and outsiders.
A silent battle was also being waged on another front between the value system of the European Christian tradition and that ordained by the Dreaming. The inland and saltwater people were urged to live in harmony and on equal terms with one another within the mission settlement on Diminhin land. They were told that God created the world and Christian worship provided the means to understand all things. They were encouraged to give up ceremonial practice and stop the practice of polygamy.
In the course of his fieldwork in 1958, Stanner showed Bandak and a number of his kinsmen a topographic map of the Port Keats area, commissioned by the Australian National University. Stanner observed at the time that the Aboriginal people who saw the map were intensely interested. After viewing the European map, Bandak asked Stanner whether he would like him to create some maps. Stanner agreed and provided Bandak with sheets of composition board on which to paint.
Over a period of four or five weeks Bandak created the image Map of Murrinhpatha countryside, 1 (plate X). Bandak edited the painting a number of times. Stanner then sketched the image and discussed the meaning of elements in the painting with Bandak. From Stanner's notes it is clear that all of the paintings in this exhibition were created by Bandak during the same fieldwork trip, probably at the same time he created Map of Murrinhpatha countryside, 1. Stanner also sketched these works and discussed their meaning with Bandak.
The subjects of the paintings are interrelated. They represent different yet overlapping themes which reflect Bandak's understanding of his cosmology, and his place and that of his kinsmen within it.
The painting All the world (plate X) encompasses all known things within the Murrinhpatha understanding - the temporal and metaphysical. Larger elements of the design are referred to as masculine while smaller elements are described as being feminine. This can be seen in the design at the top of the painting which shows the daytime sky and the sun's progress from dawn to dusk. The first sun on the left is marinboi, a young, pubescent woman, which is surrounded by tjibulin, the mist around the rising sun. (To the artist's eyes, the rays of the sun shining through the sea mist look like snakes.) The second and third suns are large and male, while the fourth is smaller. In this state it is described as mirringi, an immature female child. The band below this is the Milky Way, a Dreaming of Diminhin. Beneath this is a band representing the waning and the waxing of the moon as it progresses to full moon (from left to right), leading to the stars which increase in brightness as the night progresses and the reflective light from the moon diminishes. This time is referred to as piling ngala (lit big stars) when kawtharr, the large red star, or yile, the father star, can be seen. The stars then diminish in intensity to the right of the painting until the morning star, kalekale, the mother of all other stars, remains.
The images beneath the bands of stars belong to the temporal world under which is the ' "within" or the "underneath" of the earth, through which great (male) stars pass nightly'.
The subject of Ku Wandatji, the Rock Python (plate X) refers to the cultural framework and spiritual parameters of the temporal world described in All the world. It alludes to the foundations of Aboriginal religion, authority, political power and land ownership in the region surrounding Port Keats between Darwin and the Fitzmaurice River. Bandak paints a selection of images which represent Dreaming creatures such as Ku Wandatji the Rock Python, in the centre top of the painting. Within male Murrinhpatha culture the evoking of the name of the creature is an allusion to other important Dreamings and, in turn, the cultural practices which they gave men. Other elements of the painting deal with these Dreamings, the details of which cannot be discussed as they relate to secret religious practices.
Below Wandatji is a hand-like design which represents Ku Tiwunggu, the Wedge-tailed Eagle. Again Bandak uses the device of referring to a single being to evoke other more complex meanings and cultural themes. Tiwunggu is a reference within the Murrinhpatha cultural context to the theme of social structure and order. In the Dreaming, Tiwunggu and Karrtjin, the Spotted Swamp Harrier, are brothers-in-law. They belong to different local groups or estates and married each other's sisters, in the fashion that the Murrinhpatha do to this day. Their actions created the patrilineal moiety system which is still implicit within Murrinhpatha society.
In the painting, these ancestral beings are embedded within the topographical features of the landscape. The border of undulating lines which encircles the main features of the painting is a creek (nyipiling), the concentric circles on a vertical plain in the lower left quarter are waterholes (kura kamarl) and the features on either side of the vertical in the lower half of the painting are hills (nandji palyirr).
The painting is not a map, however. It does not relate specific locales and cultural themes in an order or composition which reflects the distribution of these elements on the countryside. Instead, Bandak indicates his conceptual approach by reference to Wandatji and to Tiwunggu. As in All the world the references which belong to his country indicate that he is presenting the landscape from the perspective of his Diminhin estate. Bandak includes in his composition Pule Timandji, the Black Kite, who created and was 'boss' of many of the Murrinhpatha Diminhin Dreamings (the figure in the lower right corner of the painting). He also includes another Diminhin Dreaming - Ku Tjitai, the Sugar Bag [wild honey] - immediately to the left of Timandji. Adjacent to Timandji is a site with paintings on the walls of caves. In addition, Bandak shows the place Kunybinyi where the Dreaming resides within the Diminhin estate.
In Kardu Timandji (plate X) Bandak draws Stanner's attention to some of the specifics and detail of his country by painting the area of land between Dee Creek and just south of Tree Point (Koi). It encompasses the north eastern and saltwater portion of Diminhin and the south western portion of Rak Naning, the estate of the Magatige language. The painting is oriented north-south. The design which runs through its centre is Memarl (Marmull Creek). The wagon-wheel-like design at the top of the painting represents Thedimenbi, a mangrove island at the mouth of Memarl. Shown above Thedimenbi is the creek, Ditin, which is within Rak Naning estate.
In the Dreaming, Timandji the Black Kite travelled from the sea to Thedimenbi and then followed the course of Memarl, finally coming to rest in the hills within the Diminhin estate to the south of the area depicted by this picture. On his way he made a number of hooked spears, Thamul Menek (in the upper section of the painting). After trying the spears Timandji discarded those which were flawed and kept the others. He also made Wemberl, a flat fighting club (to the right and left in the painting). The other elements of the painting represent other Dreamings, such as the two old women who collected nuts from the cycad [a native fern-like tree] and finally drowned at Nganbalanggu when they were engulfed by the Milky Way (referred to in All the world). They can be seen with their dilly bags in the lower left of the picture. This element of the painting indicates the link of Diminhin, and by analogy other estates, with the forces of nature and with the metaphysical world.
In this painting Bandak places the thematic references of Ku Wandatji, the Rock Python in a social and political context by locating the travels of Timandji geographically within Diminhin. By doing this he implicitly indicates the relationship of Wandatji with other creator beings and, therefore, attributes high religious and social form to Timandji and thereby his country, Diminhin. This implies that the cultural logic established in the composition of Ku Wandatji, the Rock Python has geographic expression in Murrinhpatha country.
Diminhin interests are shown in greater detail in Between Wadeye and Memarl creeks (plate X) in which Bandak paints Diminhin country between Wadeye on the left-hand side of the painting and Memarl on the right. The painting contains references to most of the major Diminhin Dreamings, including Timandji, the anthropomorphic figure in the lower right of the painting, and Thathangai, the Gum Blossom, appearing as the five-pointed symbols in the upper left.
To return to Map of Murrinhpatha countryside, 1 (plate X), this painting contains the geographic references found in Kardu Timandji as well as the thematic references of All the world and Ku Wandatji, the Rock Python. In this painting, however, Bandak broadens his perspective to encompass a majority of Murrinhpatha country in the form of the estates of the coalition of coastal clans first encountered by Stanner and the missionaries in 1935.
Again the painting is oriented north-south. In the top left-hand corner the wavy lines represent the sea, while the straight lines forming a right angle bend are Darimurn Ngala (literally large sand or beach) - a location in the vicinity of Old Mission within the estate of Wentek Nganai. Below this, still on the left, is the country of Yak Maning and in the lower left-hand corner, the design represents Yak Nangu. The semicircular shape further to the right is Yak Kutjil, as are the pictographic forms of boab trees [a type of thick-trunked tree also known as baobab or bottle tree] showing the location of Noraminam within the Kutjil estate. In the lower right corner, a circular shape with boab trees represents Nganangurr, an island close to the mouth of the Fitzmaurice River owned by Yak Kutjil. The meandering parallel lines along the right-hand edge of the painting represent the Fitzmaurice River. The geographic features shown in the right half of the painting include the estates of Wakal Tjinang and Yak Madjilindi. The features from the centre of the painting to the top left are Yak Wunh and Yak Diminhin country.
The paintings by Bandak were designed to convey to his friend W.E.H. Stanner an understanding of the political and social meaning of the landscape in the Port Keats area and the form of the Murrinhpatha social world. They, with Stanner's notes, provide an insight into the philosophical basis of Murrinhpatha thought and institutions.
Shortly after the creation of these paintings Stanner published significant works on Aboriginal symbolism, religion and land ownership. While all of these works were influenced by Stanner's collaboration with Bandak, it is within Stanner's famous monograph On Aboriginal Religion where the influence of Bandak and of his 1958 and 1959 paintings is most apparent.
Stanner went on to become an important figure in Australian anthropology and within Aboriginal affairs. The education he received from Nym Bandak, and others within the Daly River area, contributed to his ability to make significant contributions to the debate which eventuated in the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 and the progress of a number of land claims under that Act.
The changes created in the outside world by Stanner and others, led to the Daly River Reserve and the Port Keats community becoming recognised as Aboriginal land under Australian law. Shortly after Stanner's last visit to Port Keats the Mission became an Aboriginal community. Once again the Aboriginal political systems and principles described by Bandak in his paintings were explicitly recognised as the cultural design which governs the Aboriginal world. At the time of writing, the descendants of Bandak are acknowledged as the owners of Wadeye.
To the outside world Nym Bandak became known as an artist, at a time when Aboriginal art was virtually unknown beyond academic circles. Nearly two decades after Bandak's death, his paintings are now found in collections in Australia and around the world. He is, however, remembered best by his kinsmen and family as a significant figure whose adherence to, and teaching of, Aboriginal cultural values and principals contributed to their survival in a rapidly changing world.
Barber, K.E.A., A History of Creation: A discussion of the Art Gallery of New South Wales Collection of Port Keats paintings, unpublished paper, 1993.
Barwick, D.E., Beckett, J. and Reay, M., 'W.E.H. Stanner: An Australian anthropologist', in. D.E. Barwick, J. Beckett and M. Reay (eds), Metaphors of Interpretation, Sydney: Australian National University Press, 1985.
McGrath, A., Aborigines and Colonialism in the Upper Daly Basin Region, Darwin: Northern Land Council, 1983.
Pye, J., The Port Keats Story, Darwin: J.R. Coleman, 1980.
Searcy, A., In Australian Tropics, London: George Robertson & Co, 1909.
Stanner, W.E.H., On Aboriginal Religion, Oceania Monograph No. 11, 1966.
Stanner, W.E.H., White Man Got No Dreaming: Essays 1938-1973, Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1979.
Stokes, L., Discoveries in Australia with an Account of the Coasts and Rivers Explored and Surveyed During the Voyage of HMS Beagle. In the Years 1837-38-39-40-41-42-43, London: T. and W. Boone, 1846.
Sutton, P., 'Aboriginal Maps and Plans', in D. Woodward and G. Malcom Lewis (eds), Cartography in the Traditional African, American, Arctic, Australian, and Pacific Societies, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998, pp.387-416.