Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

ANMM Gapu-Monuk: Journey to Sea Country

Alison Meier, Bark Paintings That Were Pivotal Documents in an Aboriginal Sea Rights Case Go on View, Hyperallergic, 28 November 2017

Bul’manydji at Gurala, Bunbatjiwuy Dhamarrandji (1948–2016), ANMM Collection (Purchased with the assistance of Stephen Grant of the GrantPirrie Gallery, reproduced courtesy of the artist and Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Art Centre).

The bark paintings in Gapu-Monuk Saltwater: Journey to Sea Country at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney were pivotal documents in a major case for indigenous sea rights.

The July 30, 2008 ruling by the Australian High Court in what’s known as the Blue Mud Bay caseconsidered the paintings by the Yolŋu people of northeast Arnhem Land as title deeds to the sea rights of coastal waters.

“The ruling set a precedent that recognized Yolŋu ownership of the inter-tidal zone on the edge of their lands,” Helen Anu, curator of Gapu Monuk Saltwater, told Hyperallergic. “This resolved the decade-long struggle that had been started by the Saltwater Collection of sacred bark paintings.”

“Gapu-Monuk,” from the Yolŋu matha language, refers to the words “gapu” for “water” and “monuk” for “salt.” The 80 Yirrkala Bark Paintings of Sea Country are now part of the collections at ANMM. The exhibition features around 40 of them, along with oral histories, contemporary and traditional art, and artifacts. Gapu-Monuk Saltwater marks 20 years since 1997, when Yolŋu artists from 15 clans and 18 homeland communities created the paintings, a reaction to illegal fishing discovered by Madarrpa clan leader Djambawa Marawili, AM, on his clan estate. As Marawili declared 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.”

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