Some time before the end of the year 1962, two great panels of Aboriginal art were begun. They were painted for part of a screen placed behind the Communion table in the Yirrkala church, and represented the two main, creative legends governing the lives, the behaviour and the ritual of the Aborigines belonging to a wide area of northeast Arnhem Land.
The actual painting of the twelve feet by four feet panels of masonite was a lengthy process, of careful and faithful work and of meticulous attention to correct detail of line and symbol, for the painting on each panel was one continuous legend embodying within its scope outlines of many smaller legends and myths. The pictures were painted in the four earth colours of local stone and clay, prepared and applied as in the traditional way of bark paintings.
The work involved complete harmony of purpose and co-ordination of artistic skill, together with knowledge of the mythology surrounding the figures of their ancestral heroes. The eight artists of each moiety grouping were among the best in the area, being chosen as such by the rest of their people.
Mawalan was the acknowledged leader and custodian of ritual legends and songs for the Dua moiety, the Dua legend being that of the arrival, the journeys, the adventures and the creative activities of Djankawu and his two women-folk.
Birrikidji held a similar position of honour among the Yiritja people, whose creative legends were based on and woven through that of Banaitja. Banaitja, whose mythology has been jealously guarded by the Yiritja "men of high degree" (to use Professor Elkin's significant phrase), was an ancestral figure of ritual power, and leader or relation of three other spirit men. The shadowy figure of a spirit woman moves through a part of this great legend and is held in high regard by men of the inner circle of elders. She has several names, but the one by which she is best known is Nyapililnu.
In the interpretation of the panels Mawalan aiid Birrikidji were each aided by two men. Birrikidji shared his honours with Mangarawui and Naritjin, both men in this case being ritual leaders in their own language groups and of equal status as artists. Naritjin, being the most fluent in the English tongue, was spokesman for the Yiritja men.
Mawalan's brother, Mataman, is co-authority in regard to the Djankawu legend, while Mawalan's son, Wondjuk, worked with both and translated for them. In his own right Wondjuk is an artist of high merit.
The panels were completed and in place by March 1963, but the photographs used with this work were taken in February, before the supporting centre and wings of the screen were erected. These, while giving an impression of recessed depth to the panels, make photography of the completed paintings difficult.
On 2 October 1963 the church building was used by the Yirrkala Youth Choir to entertain visiting members of parliament, at the close of the historic Parliamentary Select Committee's hearing in regard to the feelings of the Yirrkala people about their land rights. This hearing was held in answer to the "bark petitions" sent by the elders of Yirrkala. The distinguished visitors, parliamentarians, secretaries, officials and pressmen, were visibly moved by the haunting quality of the young Aboriginal voices and the range of music offered in both English and the local languages.
The artists of both moieties requested that no one question what they were painting until the panels were complete. This request the staff honoured, leaving the men to work quietly day by day, within the shade of the church roof as they wished.
Gathering the stories associated with the two great legends took many quiet sessions with the informants of each group. Sometimes the meetings took place in the church building, before the panel under discussion. Sometimes those most informative interviews were held within the shelter of the Mission house on the cliff, where sea breezes were always blowing' and where morning or afternoon cups of tea could add refreshment. There photographs and sketches of the panels were used for reference. The stories were checked and rechecked, previous notes often being read and commented upon, corrections made, and obscure word pictures clarified. All the informants were keenly interested in the work and courteously insistent that no errors should be set in the permanent record.
The Yiritja word was given mainly by Birrikidji and Mangarawui, with Naritjin interpreting where necessary. The Dua stories were given by Mawalan and his son Wondjuk, for the other chief authority, Mataman, spent much of that period in the Darwin hospital. At times the other artists would be present, to give their own particular slant on the main legends or to add their expert skill and knowledge of their own tribal country to the discussion.
Though there appear to be unexplained gaps in the mythology surrounding the two great legends concerning the doings of the ancestral heroes, Djankawu and Banaitja, their word in recitation and song reveals something of the reaching out of man's mind and spirit into the unknown, the attempt to explain life and creation through symbol and ritual. These legends helped in the formation of the pattern by which the Australian Aboriginal of that area ordered his daily existence on earth so that he might worthily re-enter the world of the spirits, when death brought him full circle through this phase of his Eternal Dreaming.
Both Dua and Yiritja men of authority declare that in the Beginning the two great heroes, Djankawu and Banaitja, were "rambangi" (equal or level), and could have belonged to the same family grouping in the spirit world from whence they came. The paths on earth that they trod ran somewhat parallel, yet diverged so that each fulfilled a special part of the creation story in that "Time before the Morning", as the days of creation are called. The doings of those heroic ones are now remembered by the descendants of the men to whom they are said to have given and taught so much; remembered by ceremonial dancing where their deeds are re-enacted; in the song cycles sung around flickering camp fires to the music of yiraki (drone-pipe) and clap-stick; in their totemic symbols; and in the sacred paintings on bark and cave wall and the human body.
Where shadowy traces of race memory end and invention or inspiration begins is not discernible now, after so many generations and so many centuries of time since the first men danced the rituals of Djankawu and of Banaitja. However, the figures of sea and air and land creatures named in the legends are based on reality. The ngainmara, represented now by a shallow cone-shaped mat, is a case in point. Mawalan was emphatic that the original ngainmara was "like a whale", and that he himself had seen the great sea creature several times. For better definition he sketched the ngainmara as seen from several angles, supplying as he did so quite a detailed description of its eating habits and its love of resting on the top of the waves in a sunny sea. These were sent down to Dr. Endean of the University of Queensland, who suggested that the creature might very well be a sunfish. When shown the picture of a sunfish in a book of Australian marine life, Mawalan nodded his complete agreement. That the ngainmara was what we called a sunfish was final and Wondjuk was equally emphatic on the matter.
Here I would like to record my gratitude to Dr. Endean for his courtesy and assistance.