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New exhibition explores intersection between indigenous art and sea rights

With this year marking the 25th anniversary of the Mabo decision, most Australians are aware of the historic plight for Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders’ land rights, yet are unfamiliar of their sea rights which are of equal significance says Kevin Sumption, director at the Australian Maritime Museum.

“Most people don’t realise that the high court has also made determinations on Indigenous communities’ sea rights,” Kevin says.

Gapu-Monuk Saltwater is the latest exhibition at the Australian National Maritime Museum which explores the journey of Aboriginal sea rights for the Yolŋu people—an Aboriginal community located in North-East Arnhem land.

“Most people don’t realise that the high court has also made determinations on Indigenous communities’ sea rights.”

Gapu-Monuk are words from the Yolŋu community’s own language: Gapu (water) and monuk (salt), which together describes saltwater.

The Saltwater Collection consists of 40 Yirrkala bark paintings meticulously etched with sacred patterns by 47 Yolŋu artists.

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It was created following an incident in the 1990s where an illegal poacher camped on the community’s site, Blue Mud Bay, and decapitated a local crocodile. According to Kevin, this had serious consequences on the local community because the crocodile is a ‘totem’—a sacred and spiritually significant animal for the Yolŋu community.

Kevin says, “The exhibition goes beyond the visual elements—exploring the complex relationships between land, animals and religious beliefs of this community.”

Gapu-Monuk Saltwater portrays the Yolŋu community’s fight for sea rights culminating to the Blue Mud Bay Decision.

“Not only are they artworks which document the connection of the Yolŋu community to land and water—they are actually legal documents,” Kevin says.

These bark paintings were used as legal evidence in the  landmark high court case to win Indigenous sea rights—an Australian first. Next July will mark the 10th anniversary of the 2008 Blue Mud Bay Decision.

Aerial photography, traditional indigenous objects and videos from the indigenous artists allow the audience to unpack the artworks and discover the Yolŋu community’s inextricable connection to sea country.

“Not only are they artworks which document the connection of the Yolŋu community to land and water—they are actually legal documents.”

“The artworks unpack that (…) it goes beyond art. It’s not just beautifully painted but complicated storytelling,” Kevin says.

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He says that the museum takes on a “custodian role” when presenting indigenous collections, through working in close collaboration with both artists and elders from the Yolŋu community.

“We are a national institution and we may be based in Sydney but our storytelling is all around Australia,” Kevin says.

He adds, “When it comes to the culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities—we work as custodians rather than owners. We don’t own their artwork.”

 

The Gapu-Monuk Saltwater exhibition will be running until February 2019 at the Australian National Maritime Museum and is free to all members of the public.

 

This article is also available in French.

 


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