Skip to content

Update from the Gallery regarding COVID-19

The Art Gallery of New South Wales is open. We are observing strict physical distancing and hygiene measures to protect the health of visitors and staff and minimise the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus). Read the latest visit information, including hours

Yirrkala drawings

from the Berndt Museum of Anthropology, University of Western Australia

Mowarra Ganambarr Dätiwuy Thunderman and shark site at Arnhem Bay 1947, lumber crayon and chalk on butchers paper, RM and CH Berndt Collection; Nyapanyapa Yunupingu Larrakitj 2013, Art Gallery of New South Wales Collection; Mundukul Marawili Fish trap at Baraltja 1947, lumber crayon on butchers paper, RM and CH Berndt Collection

In 1947, senior ceremonial leaders at Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land produced hundreds of vibrant crayon drawings on paper for the anthropologists Ronald and Catherine Berndt, which are now held at the Berndt Museum of Anthropology at the University of Western Australia.

This exhibition presents 81 drawings and is the first time that a significant selection of the Yirrkala drawings collection has been displayed. In an unexpected palette of brilliant red, blue, yellow, green and black, these works are stunning in their visual strength and impact. They depict in exquisite detail the complexities of Yolngu life and are an unrivalled document of Yolngu knowledge and law, representing what can be accomplished through collaboration, mutal respect and understanding.

The overriding strength of Yirrkala drawings lies in the mastery of the artists working with the new media of crayon on paper. Although the process of drawing on paper is vastly different from painting in natural pigments on bark, the artists seamlessly translated their inherited clan designs to this new media.

Men from various clan groups worked with the Berndts and many of these artists are considered among the most important bark painters of the 20th century, including Mawalan and Wandjuk Marika, Munggurrawuy Yunupingu, Narritjin Maymuru and Wonggu Mununggurr. These men were also cultural leaders and social negotiators, and deserve to be recognised as important figures in the history of this county. Through their works we learn the intricacies of culture, clan relationships and connection to country, which permeate the land, freshwater, saltwater and the sky.

An important aspect of developing this exhibition has been providing the artists’ families with access to the works of art and documentation of their fathers and grandfathers, and inviting people to openly comment on these. The descendants have actively sought for these masterful drawings to be shown publicly so the extent of what they achieved in working with the Berndts can be fully appreciated.

Yirrkala remains an important centre of artistic excellence and many of the artists working today are the children and grandchildren of the men who worked with the Berndts in 1947. These artists are nationally and internationally renowned and their works highlight the ongoing cultural inheritance and innovation within art from Yirrkala. The Gallery is fortunate to have recently acquired a collection of larrkitj by the leading artists at Yirrkala today, including Marrnyula Mununggurr, Nonggirrnga Marawili and Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, which will be displayed for the first time in this exhibition.

The 81 Yirrkala drawings will tour to Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane from 12 April to 19 July 2014 and Charles Darwin University Art Gallery, Darwin from 7 August to 3 October 2014.

On view
12 Dec 2013 – 23 Feb 2014
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Art Gallery Road, The Domain, Sydney


Media contact

Claire Martin
Tel 02 9225 1734
Mob 0414 437 588