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The Barunga Statement

The Barunga Statement is one of several significant painted documents that Aboriginal people have presented to the Australian Government.

Painted during the 1988 Barunga Sport and Cultural Festival, it was the culmination of years of discussions between Aboriginal groups in the Northern Territory and the Australian Government.

The Statement combines iconography from northern and central Australia and English language text, signalling collaboration across cultures and languages.

‘The dot-style painting of Central Australia and the cross-hatching paintings of Northeast Arnhem Land show that Aboriginal people of different countries, speaking different languages, can unite in the same struggle.’ — Galarrwuy Yunupingu1

The Northern and Central Land Councils presented the Statement to former prime minister Bob Hawke as a declaration of the aspirations of ‘the Indigenous owners and occupiers of Australia’ and a request to the Australian Government and people to ‘recognise our rights’. 

The Barunga Statement has been on permanent exhibition at Parliament House since 20th December 1991.

Read the text of the Barunga Statement.

The artists

Galarrwuy Yunupingu AM, born 1948, Gumatj people

Marrirra Marawili, c. 1937-2018, Madarrpa people

Bakulangay Marawili, 1944-2002, Madarrpa people

Djambawa Marawili AM, born 1953, Madarrpa people

Dula Ngurruwuthun, 1936-2001, Munyuku people

Djewiny Ngurruwuthun, c. 1940-2001, Munyuku people

Wenten Rubuntja AM, c. 1926-2005, Arrernte people

Lindsay Turner Jampijinpa, 1951-2009, Warlpiri people

Mr D Williams Japanangka, 1948-2013, Warlpiri people

Under Yolngu mourning protocols, the names of people who have passed should not be spoken for a period of time. Marrirra Marawili passed away in February 2018, and we respectfully request that his name is not spoken aloud.

Saltwater country

The left-hand side of the Barunga Statement was completed by Yolngu men from northern Australia. The delicate cross-hatching lines are distinctive to artists of this part of Australia and were created using fine hair brushes and earth pigments.

The panel has three sections depicting Dreaming stories from different parts of north east Arnhem Land: at the top is the Crocodile Fire Dreaming of the Madarrpa people of the Blue Mud Bay area; in the middle is the Crocodile Fire Dreaming of the Gumatj people of the Caledon Bay area; and at the bottom, the Whale Dreaming of the Trial Bay area.

Yolngu people have a long history of presenting painted petitions to the Australian Government. In 1963, the Yirrkala Bark Petitions were sent to the Australian Parliament in protest at a proposed bauxite mine on Yolngu land. The Yirrkala Bark Petitions are now on permanent display in Members Hall at the centre of at Australian Parliament House.

One of the artists of the Barunga Statement, Djambawa Marawili, also instigated the Saltwater Collection of bark paintings. In 2008 these paintings were recognised as legal documents by the High Court of Australia as part of a sea rights decision for the Blue Mud Bay region in North-East Arnhem Land.

Desert country

The right-hand side of the Barunga Statement was completed by Arrernte and Warlpiri men from central Australia. Dot-style painting is one of the major forms of expression for artists from this region.

The painting depicts the Two Women Dreaming, a story that crosses the continent and links the major language groups of central Australia. Women gathering at Ulpanyali and Ilpilli, sites in the south-west of the Northern Territory, are depicted in the top and lower sections of the painting. The central design shows the women coming together to exchange gifts and carry the story on through their country. This same design has been used as the logo for the Central Land Council since the 1970s.

People from central Australia have used painting to share their culture and knowledge of country with the world. Leader Wenten Rubuntja, who is also an acclaimed artist, believed in the importance of maintaining his Arrente culture alongside the European. This co-existence was reflected in his painting in two distinct styles: the dot-style of the Barunga Statement and the naturalistic watercolour popularised by his father’s cousin, Albert Namatjira.

‘The painting surrounds the words of the statement, showing that our painting for the land and the words that express it in English speak equally. They cannot be differentiated.’ — Galarrwuy Yunupingu2

Painted for ceremony, Galarrwuy Yunupingu gave a powerful speech as he presented the Barunga Statement to Prime Minister Bob Hawke.

Yunupingu is a leader of the Gumatj clan of the Yolngu people, North East Arnhem Land, and an important advocate for Aboriginal rights.

In his role as Chair of the Northern Land Council, he was instrumental in the planning and painting of the Barunga Statement. In his speech, he described the Statement as 'something to remind any government […] that Aboriginal people will always be in front of their policy making and decision making'.

Working for Country

'Anwerne painting antheke ikwere. Land rights for country line, land rights-ke arratye anetyeke'.

'We gave him that painting. Land rights for country line — so that there really would be land rights.' — Wenten Rubuntja excerpted from his autobiography, The Town Grew Up Dancing, page 128, 2002

The Barunga Statement was a product of decades of engagement between Aboriginal leaders in the Northern Territory and the Australian Government.

Two historic events in the 1960s were the submission of bark petitions from the Yolngu people of Yirrkala to the Australian Parliament in 1963, and the walk off of Gurindji stockmen at Wave Hill Station in 1966.

These events are recognised as nationally important moments that fuelled a greater recognition of the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to their lands and waters.

In response to such events, a Royal Commission into land rights in the Northern Territory began in 1973. The commission’s recommendations led to the establishment of the Northern and Central Land Councils which received formal recognition under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976.

Today, the Northern Land Council and Central Land Council are Aboriginal-run statutory authorities of the Australian Government. Aboriginal land owners control almost half of the land mass of the Northern Territory and 85 per cent of the coastline. The Councils assist Aboriginal communities to care for and develop their country.

This poster was produced for the 1988 Barunga Sport and Cultural Festival. Graphic artist and journalist Chips Mackinolty is well known for his work with Aboriginal communities. At the time that he designed this poster, he was working with the Northern Land Council.

The design uses the bold black lines and halftone dots that were common features of 1980s Australian political posters. The illustration of an Aboriginal elder from northern Australia performing on the didjeridu was also used for other promotional material for the Festival. Invitations to the Festival featuring this image can be seen being printed in the opening scene of the film ‘Make it right!

Women’s welcome

Women representing the Northern and Central Land Councils and Jawoyn elders welcomed Mrs Hazel Hawke, the wife of former prime minister Bob Hawke, to the festival. During her lifetime, Mrs Hawke maintained a strong commitment to a number of social justice issues, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander reconciliation.

As part of the official ceremony, Mrs Hawke was presented with gifts that represented cultures from both northern and central Australia. These gifts were held by the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet until 2016 when they were transferred to the care of AIATSIS. This is the first time they have been shown to the public.

Barunga Sport and Cultural Festival, 10-13 June 1988

The Barunga Festival is an annual event held at Barunga in the Northern Territory that draws people from across the far north of Australia together for a program of music, sport, arts and cultural activities. The Festival was first held in 1985, and was initiated by Bangardi Robert Lee (1952–2005), a leader of the Bagala clan of the Jawoyn people.

Barunga and other festivals are important venues for the celebration and sharing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural practices, and provide opportunities for communities to engage with current social and political issues. In 1988, the Jawoyn community welcomed to the Festival representatives of the Northern and Central Land Councils as well as the Prime Minister and Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.

‘The main aim of the festival is to bring people together, sharing and understanding each other’s problems. This way we can get to know one another properly.’ — Bangardi Robert Lee, excerpted from ‘The Man Behind the Barunga Festival’ Land Rights News, vol. 2, no. 9 July 1988, page 22.

Acknowledgement

We would like to acknowledge the support of the following organisations and individuals:

Central Land Council

Northern Land Council

Ronin Films

Jawoyn Association

Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre

Galarrwuy Yunupingu

Mervyn Rubuntja

Further reading and sources

‘Make it right!’ (1988) is a documentary film about the events of the 1988 Barunga Sport and Cultural Festival. The film records the creation of the Barunga Statement and the ceremonies and speeches that accompanied its presentation. These significant events are located within the daily life and community preparations for the Festival. Renowned director Kim McKenzie worked with sound recordist Wayne Jowandi Barker, who had previously worked as a trainee in the film unit at AIATSIS.

References

1. Excerpt from his essay ‘Indigenous Art in the Olympic Age’ published in Art and Australia, vol. 35, no. 1, 1997

2. Ibid.