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Reproduced courtesy of the artists

Saltwater collection

Date: 1998
Medium: Natural pigments on bark
Credit Line: ANMM Collection Purchased with the assistance of Stephen Grant of the GrantPirrie Gallery
Object Name: Collection of Bark paintings
Object No: V00033752
Place Manufactured:Northern Territory

User Terms

    The Saltwater Collection of seventy seven bark paintings by the Yolngu of north-east Arnhem land. This collection of paintings are the efforts of the Yolngus to demonstrate the rules, philosophies and stories of their salt water region and to educatute outsiders and strangers about Yolngu law.

    SignificanceThe Saltwater Collection barks painted by the Yolngu people of East Arnhem Land was an effort by forty seven artists from fifteen different clans to educate outsiders about local Indigenous stories, land ownership and sacred sites. The Yolngu have been active in the struggle for land rights since the 1960s and these barks represent their attempts to gain legal recognition of their traditional homeland, the Marrakulu Saltwater. The paintings are also a visual and traditional represtantion of the Yolungu living and interacting with the sea, depicting camps and sea hunting.

    The barks have a political and legal significance beyond their spritual meaning as they underpin the Yolngu community's native sea title claim which was granted in 2008 and known as The Blue Mud Bay decision. The production of the paintings provided an Indigenous tool for community action that could be created into evidence and used in the Australian legal system. The High Court granted the Saltwater People's rights, use of the Arnhem Land coast and therefore precedence over commercial interests and fishing. Aborginal freehold title is now recognised down to the low water mark.
    HistoryThe Yolngu have long been political leaders in the struggle for Indigenous Rights. This is not the first time they have joined together to paint their sacred designs to teach outsiders an understanding of their culture. The Yolngu people of Yirrkala sent a bark petition to the Australian House of Representatives in 1963 in protest against mining in the Grove Penninsula area. This document became known as the Bark Partition. Although the case against the Commonwealth and the Swiss mining company was ultimately unsuccessful, the bark now hangs in Parliament House in Canberra.

    In 1996 Waka Munungurr discovered rubbish covering the beach at Garrangali, his saltwater country.The rubbish included the severed head of a crocodile.This saltwater area is the ancient home of Baru the crocodile, in whose dreaming tracks the area was made. Disgusted and distressed at the continual invasion of the sacred waterways and the sacrilege of beheading Baru in his own nest, it was agreed by Yolngu elders that they coud not be quiet over Sea Rights and so decided to paint the Saltwater Yirrkala Bark Paintings of Sea Country Collection.The elders believe that by revealing sacred designs to the Balander(stranger or whiteperson) a mutual understanding and respect for Yolngu law will be advanced.

    The series of bark paintings, by 47 Yolngu artists, show how 'inside knowledge' (secret/sacred) has become 'outside knowledge' and form the spiritual and legal basis under pinning their Native Title Sea Claim. The paintings have toured within Australia and been used in court as evidence.
    In 2008 the Blue Mud Bay decision was passed by the High Court of Australia recognising Aboriginal Freehold title down to the low water mark. In addition it ruled that anyone holding a licence under the Fisheries Act also require permission from the Northern Land Council before entering and fishing in tidal areas covered by the Aborginal freehold grants.

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