Gapu-Monuk Saltwater

Journey to Sea Country

Gapu Monuk Saltwater Journey to Sea Country

Discover the story of the Yolŋu people and the Blue Mud Bay legal case.

  • Art as Legal Case

    Art as Legal Case

    Gapu-Monuk Saltwater: Journey to Sea Country tells the powerful story of the Yolŋu people of North-East Arnhem Land, their fight for recognition of Indigenous sea rights and the Blue Mud Bay legal case. Discover how historic bark paintings were used to win Indigenous sea rights.

    On Now


    "…this exhibit blows away Dior, Bowie, Mapplethorpe  – ALL of it.
    And it's ours from the Yolŋu people – their Dreamtime on bark paintings.
    I'm in total awe!"  

    –  Wendy Harmer, ABC Radio


    Gapu-Monuk are words from the Yolŋu matha language, of North-East Arnhem Land. Gapu (water), monuk (salt), describes Saltwater.

    The Saltwater Collection 

    The exhibition centres around 40 Yirrkala bark paintings from the Saltwater Collection, created by the Yolŋu artists who petitioned for sea rights by painting their Saltwater Countries onto bark, and revealing sacred patterns or designs known as Miny’tji.

    It also includes Mokuy (spirit) carvings, Larrakitj (mortuary pole paintings on hollowed trees) and other traditional and contemporary works. 

    Oral histories, aerial photography and traditional and contemporary Indigenous objects help visitors delve deeper into the stories of the communities who created the paintings, revealing a richer understanding of their connection to sea country.

    A Fight for Recognition

    In 1997, 47 Yolŋu artists from fifteen clans and eighteen homelands communities in North-East Arnhem Land revealed their sacred lore and their connections to land and sea in these paintings known as the Saltwater Collection. The works were initiated by Madarrpa clan leader Djambawa Marawili AM, following his indignation at discovering an illegal poacher’s camp on his sacred estate that included a decapitated crocodile.

    More than a decade later, in July 2008, the High Court of Australia confirmed that the traditional owners of the Blue Mud Bay region in North-East Arnhem Land, together with the traditional owners of almost the entire Northern Territory coastline, have exclusive access rights to tidal waters overlying Aboriginal land. 

    The paintings were deemed the legal equivalent of title deeds to the sea rights of coastal waters. 

    "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.”           

    - Djambawa Marawili, AM, 1999

    Nawurapu Wunuŋmurra’s Mokuy (spirit) sculptures Gapu-Monuk Saltwater Journey to Sea Country, November 2017. Image: Andrew Frolows/ANMM.Long Read

    Spirit Figures from Arnhem Land

    A contemporary Aboriginal artwork has links to the cosmology of the people of Arnhem Land and to their relationships with their Makassan neighbours from Indonesia.


    Open daily, 9.30am–5pm, from 9 November 2017 - February 2019.  

    Included in the FREE Galleries Ticket.

    Plan your visit

    Our Plan Your Visit page has everything you need to know about a trip to the museum.

    Become a Maritime Museum Member and receive free or discounted entry to all our events and exhibitions, as well as many other benefits.



    Nicole Monks 150x150

    The museum store has sourced a unique range of Indigenous-made products that speak to the stories and themes in the Gapu-Monuk exhibition.  

    You’ll find an array of inspired choices that reflect both the art and the experiences of Indigenous Australians when you shop online.


    The range acknowledges the traditional land owners of Australia, and a percentage of profits are directly endowed to Indigenous communities and artists.


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

    The Yirrkala bark paintings are held in the ANMM collection and were purchased with the assistance of Stephen Grant of the GrantPirrie Gallery.

    The museum would like to advise visitors that this exhibition may contain the names of and artwork by deceased Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people.

    Helen Anu, Indigenous Programs Project Assistant, ANMM

    Listen to the Audio Interview

    Listen to exhibition curator Helen Anu's in-depth interview with 2SER to learn more about the land, culture and language of Gapu-Monuk.

    Magna Awards Logo

    Indigenous Project or Keeping Place MAGNA Awards 2018 

    A project or program developed specifically for Indigenous communities or by Indigenous people. May include gallery or exhibition development or interpretive programming and learning projects.

    Exhibition developed in association with

              BUKU Larrngay Mulka Logo

    Exhibition Sponsor

    Media Supporters

      University of New South Wales UNSW Sydney logo
    National Indigenous Television NITV logo
    Timeout logo

     Catering Partner

    Laissez-faire catering logo  

    Djambawa Marawili AM  ceremonial leader of the Madarrpa clan on northeast Arnhem Land and a lead plaintiff in the Blue Mud Bay Case Photo by Justin OverellNaminapu Maymuru, Milnijawuy, bark painting, ANMM Collection 00033798.On location in Yilpara in northeast Arnhem Land Photo by Justin Overell for Carbon CreativeDjambawa Marawili AM - ceremonial leader of the Madarrpa clan on north-east Arnhem Land and a lead plaintiff in the Blue Mud Bay Case. Photo by Justin Overell for Carbon Creative.Yolŋu dancers performing a traditional ceremony at the opening of the Gapu-Monuk Saltwater exhibition. Photo by Andrew Frolows. Son of Birrikitji (1935–2016), Djarrwark ga Dhalwanu, bark painting, ANMM Collection 00033797. On location in Yilpara in northeast Arnhem Land Photo by Justin Overell for Carbon CreativeOn location in Yilpara in north-east Arnhem Land. Photo by Justin Overell for Carbon Creative.Djambawa Marawili, Contemporary Madarrpa, bark painting, ANMM Collection 00033775. Yolŋu dancers performing a traditional ceremony at the opening of the Gapu-Monuk Saltwater exhibition. Photo by Andrew Frolows. On location in Yilpara in north-east Arnhem Land. Photo by Justin Overell for Carbon Creative.Bunbatjiwuy Dhamarrandji, Bul’manydji at Gurala, bark painting, ANMM Collection 00033806.On location in Yilpara in northeast Arnhem Land Photo by Justin Overell for Carbon CreativeMiniyawany Yunupiŋu (1947–2008), From Biranybirany bark painting ANMM Collection 00033802 On location in Yilpara in northeast Arnhem Land Photo by Justin Overell for Carbon CreativeMokuy (Spirit) Nawurapu Wunuŋmurra ANMM Collection


    The Gapu-Monuk Saltwater exhibition is a collaboration between the traditional owners of the Blue Mud Bay Region in North-East Arnhem Land and the Australian National Maritime Museum. The exhibition's curators, designers, marketing agency and video producers are all Indigenous, inspired by the leadership of Djambawa Marawili, AM to create a powerful story that connects all Australians.


    "One of the most important exhibitions the museum has put on during its 26 year history." 
    – Kevin Sumption, PSM, Director Australian National Maritime Museum


    Djambawa Marawili AM Artist, Leader of the Madarrpa clanDjambawa Marawili, AM
    Ceremonial Leader of the Madarrpa Clan in North-East Arnhem Land
    A Lead Plaintiff in the Blue Mud Legal Case

    Djambawa Marawili is an artist who has experienced mainstream success but for whom the production of art is a small part of a much bigger picture. He was instrumental in the initiation of the Saltwater collection. Djambawa’s principal role is as a leader of the Madarrpa clan,  caretaker for the spiritual well-being of his own and other related clans, and an artist and administrator in the interface between non-Aboriginal people and the Yolŋu (Aboriginal) people of North-East Arnhem Land.

    First and foremost as leader, art is one of the tools Djambawa uses to lead. He uses his painting to show the sacred designs that embody his right to speak as a part of the land and sea.



    Helen Anu, Indigenous Programs Project Assistant, ANMM

    Helen Anu
    Australian National Maritime Museum
    Exhibition Curator

    Helen Anu is a Koey-Buway, Samu Augud (Cassowary) and Sui-Baidham (Black-winged Stilt and Shark) Clan Woman of the Zei Gub (South West Winds) from the Top Western cluster of the Torres Strait Islands.

    Helen has worked as a cultural practitioner in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts, Culture and Media Sector for 25 years, and currently works in Indigenous Programs at the Australian National Maritime Museum.

    She assists with the delivery of Indigenous-specific projects, cultural outreach, engagement and exhibitions, including highlighting the narrative of new and existing works held within the museum's Indigenous collections, and supporting the transmission of traditional and contemporary Saltwater and Freshwater stories.


    Beau James, Indigenous Programs Manager, ANMM

    Beau James
    Australian National Maritime Museum
    Exhibition Curator

    Beau James is from the Mununjali clan of the Yugambeh Nation from South East Queensland, with links to Stradbroke Island.  Currently working as the Indigenous Programs Manager for the Australian National Maritime Museum, their responsibilities include the development of cultural programs, events and exhibitions focusing on the Museum's Indigenous collection. 

    Working collaboratively with communities, artists and art centres throughout Australia, Beau has curated innovative exhibitions both nationally and internationally and sourced exciting new works, intertwining the traditional with the contemporary to further highlight and explore Indigenous culture and the connection to Saltwater and Freshwater country.


    Nicole Monks 150x150

    Nicole Monks
    blackandwhite creative
    Exhibition Designer

    Nicole Monks is a trans-disciplinary artist of Yamatji Wajarri, Dutch and English heritage. Living and practicing in Redfern, Nicole is informed by her cross-cultural identity and her work takes its focus from storytelling, as a way to connect the past with the present and future. 

    A designer by trade, Nicole works with furniture and objects, textiles, video, installation and performance. Nicole’s practice weaves together Aboriginal history and philosophy with contemporary Western thought.

    In addition to her solo practice, Nicole is the founder of blackandwhite creative. She is currently on the Design Advisory Panel for the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS).


    Wayne Denning, Managing Director/Indigenous Consultant, Carbon Creative

    Wayne Denning
    Carbon Creative
    Exhibition Marketing

    Wayne Denning is a Birri Gubba man. He left a successful career in Federal Government over 10 years ago to start Carbon Creative, a proudly Indigenous, award-winning creative agency.

    Embracing the tradition and culture of the Yolngu people of North-East Arnhem Land, Carbon Creative designed the look and feel of the exhibition marketing collateral, then adapted for both print and digital media. Carbon Creative also had the privilege of visiting with Madarrpa clan leader, Djambawa Marawili AM, to create the accompanying exhibition video.


    Malinda Rutter, Whyldfisch Productions

    Malinda Rutter
    Whyldfisch Productions
    Exhibition Videography

    Malinda is from Wiyabal clan, and is the founder of Wyhldfisch Productions, as well as a published author.

    Her career of 34 years encompasses Logie Award-winning TV programs, international award-winning television commercials, documentaries and corporate films.

You might also like