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Ronald M. Berndt Collection of Crayon Drawings on Brown Paper from Yirrkala, Northern Territory

From the Yirrkala Community in the heart of northern Australia’s north-east Arnhem Land via the intricate drawing expertise of Yolngu artists, the Yirrkala Drawings Collection was successfully nominated in 2009 for inclusion on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Australian Register. Such recognition honours the original Yolngu artists, contemporary Yolngu families, and the wondrous artwork they produced; it also adds a dimension to the rich artistic heritage of Australia more broadly.

Yolngu from several clan groups were involved in creating the coloured crayon on brown paper drawings, many of which were inspired by land-based and interrelated designs evident on traditional bark paintings. The drawings produced by significant artists such as Mawalan and Wandjuk Marika, Munggurrawuy Yunupingu, Narritjin Maymuru and Wonggu Mununggurr are among the 365 works currently held in the Berndt Museum’s Collection.

A key dimension to the Yirrkala Drawings story is that the drawings were first collected and documented by renowned anthropologists, Catherine and Ronald Berndt, whose ethnographic work facilitated establishment of the Berndt Museum at The University of Western Australia. Catherine and Ron worked with the Yolngu Community in 1946 and 1947 and, when it was believed that bark paintings with original designs would not survive local conditions and travel from a remote wetland setting to an urban one, rolls of brown paper and packets of crayons were called on to execute the designs in another medium.

Yirrkala Drawings creatively articulates Yolngu intellectual and cultural life, aesthetics, daily living, and relationships to land, family, and religion. Visual story-telling shines through the aesthetic range and diversity of the artwork, including by depicting the contact between coastal-living Yolgnu and Macassans from Macassar (now known as Sulawesi) before European colonisation. The artists in vital imagery drawings such as Port of Macassar and Macassan Swords and Knives richly display visual evidence of contact and the importance of trade. Evident also is Yolngu social and economic reliance on the cultural environment in which they lived, and continue to live, through figurative and spatial works depicting fishing for trepang and sharks, and superbly designed fish traps.

The sublime and complex aesthetic significance of the distinctive Yirrkala Drawings collection encompasses insights into the depth and breadth of Yolngu cultural and spiritual life that remain within the domain of contemporary Yolngu people for future generations. Accompanied by rigorous explanatory detail recorded by the artists, their families and interpreters over time, Yirrkala Drawings as a whole and as a collection of 365 interconnected parts represents a unique assemblage from the past which is embedded with qualities that continue to live in the present.

Professor Sandy Toussaint, Associate Director, Berndt Museum, The University of Western Australia

Inscription Number: #18

Year of Inscription: 2006

Physical Location: Berndt Museum of Anthropology, University of Western Australia

a photograph fo artwork port of Macassar

Munggurrawuy Yunupingu, Port of Macassar, 1947, crayon on brown paper, 114 x 74 cm. Berndt Museum, The University of Western Australia.

© Estate of the artist. Acc. No. 6970

a photograph fo artwork Untitled, 1947

Mawalan Marika & Wandjuk Marika, Untitled, 1947, crayon on brown paper, 61 x 43 cm. Berndt Museum, The University of Western Australia.

© Estate of the artist. Acc. No. 7096