Dr. B. Marika AO

An inimitable artist, community leader, and friend, Dr. B. Marika is remembered for her commitment to the sacred places and the people of Yolngu culture.

Dr. B. Marika was a very great Australian, a premier artist and fierce negotiator. She came from Yirrkala, North East Arnhem Land, the home of the Yolngu peoples. She pioneered Yolngu women’s art in many fields and by the time of her death in July 2021 had left a legacy that expressed her passionate commitment to Yolngu culture, her family, the environment, and sacred places of creation. Through lyrical lines, colour, mapping in precise formation, and respectful precision she was able to detail the sacred knowledge and creative forces of nature, yet had also taken a key role on fifty boards or advisory groups of state and national art institutions (including the National Gallery of Australia, 2012–2015) as well as environmental management bodies. All this whilst rearing five children, then caring as mother and grandmother to perhaps one hundred more – the future generations of the wider family clan – too often in grief and anxiety for the many tragedies she could not prevent.

As her name is withheld due to funereal protocols and the danger to families of the power of the spirits, I will refer to her here by the name we used in family life, Dhuway. She called me Galay, both terms being close kinship references. Sometimes, when we relaxed, she was dubbed “Dr. B.” That was prescient as she gained an honorary D. Litt from Flinders University in 2018. In 2019 she received an AO, and in 2020 was also named the Senior Australian of the Year for the Northern Territory. Previously her accolades had included the Red Ochre Award of the Australia Council for the Arts as the premier Indigenous artist in the nation. 

Dr. Marika’s father Mawalan 1 Marika was clan leader of the Rirratjingu baparru (estate-owning group) on whose land the Yirrkala Mission had appeared in the 1930s. Contact with Napagi (white people) had increased during the following decades. Dhuway was born in October 1954 to the relative peace of the sands of Rangi (the beach) on the edge of the Yirrkala Mission.  By the ’60s the bauxite mine was mooted and this need of Napagis for land, the establishment of Nhulunbuy township and introduction of the pub for miners spelled imminent disaster. Mawalan 1 and others fought to explain Yolngu ownership and rights through visual symbols and sacred information. Thus, paintings on bark in earth ochres became an important medium, and a genuine form of political speech. Mawalan was the initial plaintiff in the first pivotal Aboriginal Land Rights case in Australia –  Milirrpum and Os. v. Nabalco Pty. Ltd. and the Commonwealth of Australia, 1971. His young daughter was at the beach camp home and witnessed discussions. She has thus always known the Yolngu view of the function of art – to be heard, to have an effect on an audience, and to allow the visible truths to work on the minds of others. 

Dhuway followed this pathway in her own creative life and was able to take a national role educating Australians about threats to the precious environment and culture of the Yolngu people, and to show this through her life’s art and work as a cultural ambassador and protector of sacred sites.

The status of her family was unique. The “sunrise” Marika family are the principal traditional owners of Yalangbara, the beach where the Djang’kawu, the first Ancestral beings, had arrived on the continent. As their descendants, the Marikas are essentially Yolngu royalty – Dr. B. had watched her father then her brother Wandjuk lead, sing and direct the lengthy ceremonial activities of their clans and relatives celebrating the site of Yalangbara, the sacred “paradise beach” where the Djang’kawu had beached their canoe. The continuation of the responsibility to protect the site became a primary ambition for her as an adult, culminating in her collaboration with founding Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) curator Margie West to organise a major survey exhibition of Marika art covering four generations of the families, with a major book and touring National Museum of Australia exhibition Yalangbara: Art of the Djang’kawu, 2008.

In the 1970s, after first living in Darwin away from family, she travelled to Sydney where her life became sporting groups and parenting her then-four children. Lonely for her Yolngu family and culture, she felt alienated. Hearing Wandjuk was in town she visited him at my home and accompanied us to an Aboriginal art exhibition where he spoke eloquently and passionately about the meaning behind the Yolngu art on the walls. It was earth moving for Dr. Marika. 

She had seen a tiny monoprint from Yirrkala, done using the razor blade woodcutting technique used by Yolngu women to carve surface patterns on wooden animals. Dhuway was easily persuaded to try the technique herself, carving lino tiles. Her earliest training thus happened in my kitchen where she found she could print inked carved linoleum by placing the paper on the table underneath the inked lino surface, then applying pressure by standing on the blocks in her bare feet. This produced a solid printed image on the paper – and it could be repeated over and over! It was certainly a major moment and transformed her financial thinking of how she could make her life align with her Yolngu traditions.

Her earliest prints from this trial period are single animals, birds in pairs and episodes from cultural themes. Djanda, 1982, Djaygang + Waterlili (sic), 1983, Gantji, 1987. The “hatching” is represented by simple linear zones printed in one colour. Enthusiastically working to advance her skill she had soon amassed a limited portfolio and, after small localised exhibitions in the Old Meadows Gallery, Blacktown, New South Wales, she attended an art conference with me in Canberra and met printer Theo Tremblay and visual art specialist Prof. Vincent Megaw, who enabled her to learn more in their respective workshops – Theo at the Canberra School of Art, and Vincent at Flinders University visual arts studio, Adelaide. Theo revealed the steps needed to achieve her aim: to be the first Yolngu artist to print miny’tji (cross hatched clan designs) in their appropriate colours and sequences – the sacred visual codes. 

When her own art practice developed it had the site and import of Yalangbara at its core, the most important linocut print being her commissioned Bicentennial print Yelangbara, 1988, in which the pure white reflective sands of the beach dune system reveal the faint tracks of Djanda, the goanna, named by the Djang’kawu. These Djanda became a signifier of creative forces at work and appear in Dr. B.’s art from her first print, Djanda, 1982. Two other works of the same title – Djanda and the Sacred Waterhole, 1984 (in black and white), and Djanda and the Sacred Waterhole, 1984 (in colour) – and Ganytjurr, 1985, were developed during times in Canberra studying with Theo Tremblay, and became the first Yolngu colour prints. The three-colour Djanda became the subject of a landmark copyright case, where, as one of three living plaintifs, Dr. B. successfully defended her copyright to this design (Milpurrurru v. Indofurn Pty Ltd, 1994). 

From 1982, solo and group exhibitions had followed in quick succession. Dr. B. Marika and I then formed a mentoring partnership called Miyalku Aboriginal Women’s Art and began to hold an annual selling exhibition from women artists we knew from Sydney or the communities. This continued for six years and provided a vehicle for Dr. B. to learn about commerce in art and the gallery system. She continued to control her output without a dealer all her life. Early exhibitors in the Miyalku shows included Tracey Moffatt, Thancoupie and Dr. B.’s family. 

Wandjuk died in 1987, the same year that Dr. B. arranged a comprehensive family exhibition of the work of the Marika sisters at the Australian Museum. He had been a crucial guide in her art practice as well as a model for her own life between the Yolngu and Napagi worlds. Returning to Yirrkala for the lengthy funeral, after an absence of many years she re-established her relationship with family and community and accepted management of the Yirrkala art centre, Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre.

She had become a well established solo artist in city galleries in Sydney, Canberra, and Adelaide. She had held exhibitions including Rex Irwin Gallery, Woollahra and headlined the first show at a Girls Own Gallery (aGOG) Canberra, titled appropriately Les femmes formidables 1 in 1989. Master printers who worked with Dr. B. included Tamarind Press and Whaling Road Studio in Sydney, Basil Hall Editions, Darwin, Charles Darwin University’s Northern Editions and the new print studio that was soon set up in Yirrkala. Basil Hall maintained his collaboration throughout her life and still marvels at watching her take the backed blade in hand and sweep it along the block surface cutting effortlessly.

The role in the art centre in Yirrkala proved a loaded dice due to conflicting expectations of artists and governing forces, so happily she had brought her lino sheets home and soon set up her own printing space. Back on Country the environment worked on her heart and mind. She set up an endemic species plant nursery, cleaned up the beaches and urged youth involvement as sea rangers. Fish and their movements became a popular subject for new prints, Wakun, 2005. The sea, billabongs, and the moods of nature became her dominant nourishing influence. I wrote in 2008, “Yolngu law establishes that all waters, salt and fresh, riverine and oceanic have a spiritual clan identity. In the atmosphere thunder, lightning, cloud formations have a kinship and all interact with neighbouring kin identities on land and sea,” (Saltwater, Buku-Larrnggay Mulka, revised ed. 2014). Dr. B. began to express the swirling waters, the warm currents meeting others at sacred rocks in Rawu, 2006, or in her grandmother’s sea country, Rulyapa, c. 2005, a bark painting expressing the grandmotherly care of Warramirri clan over Rirratjingu as expressed in the miny’tji  of the two clan waters meeting and intertwining in the deep.

Painting on bark was eventually to become Dr. Marika’s principal medium although she always made prints too. In 2005 she won the national Telstra Bark Painting award at MAGNT with a finely honed, mesmerising abstraction of the sands and journeys at Yalangbara. Another larger version completed in 2007 is illustrated – Yelangbara [Yalangbara], 2007. Her major bark paintings are brilliantly conceived and carefully executed, masterful reveries on song, land, sea
and movement.  

In 1992 with her then-partner Mark Alderton she began to build a remarkable, red-ochre coloured  home on Rangi designed by Pritzker Architecture Prize winning architect Glenn Murcutt, and had a new daughter. These were heady years as demand grew for her presence throughout the country. From her home base she had built a network and art reputation visiting conferences and board meetings as well as peak bodies including Bangarra Dance Company. She co-ordinated the Arnhem Land performance at the 2000 Sydney Olympics Opening Ceremony. Supported by many loyal associates and friends she was able to lead others throughout her life, creating an inimitably hard act to follow but an inspiration nevertheless.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 58, 2002.
Images courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, Basil Hall, Buku-Larrngay Mulka | Yirrkala Art Centre, Northern Territory, Copyright Agency, Diana Wood Conroy, Jenny Isaacs, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, and Warren Macris.

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