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Tjapu bark painting

Over 60 years ago a group of around 50 Yolngu men, including ‘many renowned warriors’, formed the nucleus of the Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit. Their objective was to defend 1600 kilometres of Australia’s northern coastline against Japanese attack.

A permanent base camp was established in August 1942 at Caledon Bay, where representatives of each clan remained with key leaders. Nine paintings were completed over two days at that camp in September. The paintings relate to the inland and saltwater clan estates of the Dhalwangu, Madarrpa, Ritharrngu and Tjapu clans of north-eastern Arnhem Land.

This painting by Wonggu (c 1884–1958), the famous Tjapu clan leader and warrior, depicts a prau and the activities of Macassan fishermen who came to the northern coastline annually to collect trepang or bêche-de-mer.

Vertical bands on either side indicate a day’s activities of fishermen collecting and preparing trepang. The white crosshatched section on the right indicates that it is early in the day, and the band infilled with black on the left shows it is sunset. The canoe, or lippa lippa, in the upper right shows a man diving onto the reef for trepang; others hunt turtle for its much-prized shell. In the lower left, three groups of men (some wearing trousers and belts) are boiling trepang in large cooking pots before drying it.

Wonggu inherited the rights to paint these designs through his maternal grandmother, or mari. They relate to an important saltwater place in the sea off Yarrinya in Munyuku clan country in the north-west corner of Blue Mud Bay.

Bark painting, Wonggu Mununggurr
 Bark painting, Wonggu Mununggurr

 Detail of bark painting, Wonggu Mununggurr

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Wonggu Mununggurr, untitled (1942), natural pigments on bark
Dimensions H 18.2 x W 80 cm
Registration No. DT 48
Image source: Museum Victoria.
Courtesy of Buku Larnggay Mulka Centre

© Museum Victoria Australia