The coastal township of Yirrkala is located in North-Eastern Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. The land belongs to the Yolngu, a community of 13 intermarrying clans who live in the town and surrounding homelands.
For the Yolngu the concept of ‘Land’ includes the sea, encompassing all the elements that make up this Freshwater and Saltwater Country. The Yolngu have continuously inhabited, managed and administered their Land and Law for over 60,000 years.
Each of the clan’s social and religious structures differ from their neighbour’s, but abides by a communal system of Law governed by the two Yolngu moieties (ritual groups) - Yirritja and Dhuwa. Every person, species of plant, animal, fish, bird and place belongs to one of these two balancing halves. The Land is connected in a single cycle of life, or Dreaming, for which the Yolngu hold the songs and designs.
Far from being an isolated society, the Yolngu have a long and complex history of dealings with outsiders having traded, lived and intermarried with Macassans from Sulawesi (Indonesia) from c1100CE-1600CE.
Macassan crews known as trepangers (for the trepang or sea cucumber they came annually to harvest) had a lasting impact on the Yolngu, sharing language, technology and ceremony. This invalidates the balanda (white person in both Yolngu Matha and Sulawesi) colonial doctrine of terra nullius: a land without civilisation.
The second wave of outsider influence, albeit much more impactful, came by way of the Methodist Overseas Mission who settled Yirrkala in 1935. In the 80 years since, Yolngu spiritual leaders from all clans have used art as a medium to advocate for rights to Land, maintain their Law and express to the wider world the power and sacredness of the Yolngu culture: theirs is an art that is truly supranational.