2017 media releases

Powerful new exhibition reveals

historic bark paintings were used to win Indigenous sea rights

The Australian National Maritime Museum is inviting visitors to ‘journey to sea country’ to discover how the Yolŋu people of northeast Arnhem Land fought for and won their case for Indigenous sea rights in a powerful new exhibition featuring the historic collection of Yirrkala Bark Paintings of Sea Country.

Opening 9 November Gapu-Monuk Saltwater features up to 40 of the stunning paintings from the Saltwater Collection. It also uses oral histories, aerial photography and traditional and contemporary indigenous objects to delve deeper into the stories of the communities who created the paintings, giving visitors a richer understanding of their connection to sea country.

Yolŋu artists from fifteen clans and eighteen homeland communities in east Arnhem Land created the sacred paintings in a response initiated by Madarrpa clan leader Djambawa Marawili in 1997, following the discovery of illegal fishing on a sacred site in his clan estate. 

Djambawa Marawili AM said in 1999, “It is time for non-Aboriginal people to learn about this land, learn about the waters. So if we are living the way of reconciliation, you must learn about Native Title and Sea Right.”

The paintings were deemed the equivalent of title deeds to the sea rights of coastal waters. And almost a decade later, in July 2008, the High Court of Australia confirmed that traditional owners of the Blue Mud Bay region in North-East Arnhem Land, together with traditional owners of almost the entire Northern Territory coastline, have exclusive access rights to tidal waters overlying Aboriginal land. 

The Yirrkala Bark Paintings of Sea Country map hundreds of kilometres of the coast, showing physical and social features throughout the region. Visitors will see a host of vibrant images including ancestral beings, ancient mariners, symbolic icons and a host of spiritual creatures including snakes, crocodiles, fish, turtles and birds, all set against traditional sacred designs representing fresh, tidal and salt water. 

Indigenous objects include Mokuy (spirit) carvings and Larrakitj (mortuary pole paintings on hollowed trees) which are combined with interactives, maps and video footage to give visitors an insight into the beliefs, languages and traditions of the communities as well as the unique landscape of north-east Arnhem Land.

Museum director Kevin Sumption said, “The museum is honoured to be the caretakers of the 80 bark paintings that assisted in highlighting the ownership of Sea Country for the Yolŋu. We hope that through this exhibition we can immerse visitors in the important stories of the communities behind the paintings. We are also delighted to fly the Blue Mud Bay flag representing this landmark decision and event for Yolŋu and the wider Australian community.” 

The Yirrkala part of the ANMM Collection and were purchased with the assistance of Stephen Grant of the GrantPirrie Gallery.

This exhibition has been created with the support and assistance of the artists and Buku-Larrŋggay Mulka Centre, Yirrkala, the Yolŋu community, the Yirrkala Rangers of the Laynhapuy Homelands Aboriginal Corporation and the Northern Land Council

Gapu-Monuk Saltwater opens to the public on 9 November 2017 and is FREE.
For more information visit www.anmm.gov.au/saltwater or call 02 9298 3777.

Media images available on request.
Media inquiries: Jude Timms (02) 9298 3645, 0418 219 841;
Shirani Aththas (02) 9298 3642; 0418 448 690;

The Australian National Maritime Museum acknowledges the Yolŋu people as the traditional custodians of the lands and waters of northeast Arnhem Land. We pay our respects to them and their elders both past and present.