SA Government LogoState Library of South Australia logoCharles P Mountford, photographer and ethnographer
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Arnhem Land, 1948 - Yirrkala

Shifting the camp from Groote Eylandt to Yirrkala was a huge undertaking. Problems with transport forced the Expedition to seek help from the Royal Australian Air Force, who flew most of the members and much equipment to the Gove airstrip, just three miles (approximately five kilometres) from the campsite.

The Expedition spent eight weeks in Yirrkala, on the coast of north-east Arnhem Land, and during their stay Mountford focussed his efforts on researching bark paintings, carved figures and their associated stories.

In Records of the American-Australian scientific expedition to Arnhem Land he concluded that the artworks of Yirrkala differed from that of other Arnhem Land communities in that they were more colourful and complicated, and incorporated 'alien' symbols. Such symbols were undoubtedly the result of influence from Macassan traders (from Sulawesi, now in Indonesia) who visited the nearby coast from the 17th century until 1883, when they were outlawed by the South Australian Government. The traders came to the Arnhem Land coast in search of trepang, a sea cucumber that they exported to China.

North-east Arnhem Land is home to the Yolngu people. Yolngu, meaning 'person', is applied to the group of intermarrying clans in the area who speak related languages. This is a collective term, but more specifically Yolngu refer to themselves by their clan name, moiety or dialect group. There are two moieties, Dhuwa and Yirritja - each linked with different sets of ancestral beings, stories, designs, and ceremonies.

Yirrkala was chosen as the site for a new Methodist by Milingimbi missionary TT Webb in 1934. The site was on the coast, but there was also a freshwater stream, fertile soil, paperbark trees and pandanus bushes nearby. The Chaselings became the first resident missionaries, in December 1935.

Presently, there are three major settlements of Yolngu people - at Milingimbi, Yirrkala and Elcho Island. Clans of the area, formerly interspersed and nomadic, began to migrate and settle closer to these three points when Missions were established there. Many, however, maintained the traditional knowledge and relationship with their land and, in the 1970s, the 'homeland movement' saw some people leaving the Mission centres and returning to reside on their traditional lands in an effort to reclaim their cultural heritage.

In the 1950s the art of Arnhem Land began to receive recognition on the world stage, and the 1960s saw the start of a commercial art movement.

In 1963 the people of Yirrkala made bark petitions embellished with artistic representations of Yolngu law to protest the Government's removal of land from the Arnhem Land Reserve to facilitate bauxite mining. The petition was one of the first documents to raise the issue of land ownership and land rights in a legal environment.

The Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre at Yirrkala was established in 1975 and acts as a museum, arts centre and cultural keeping place for the community.

Aboriginal staff required at Yirrkala Mission
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Bag for collecting honey, Yirrkala
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Camp, Yirrkala
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Child holding reef fish, Yirrkala
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Child on a paperbark raft, Yirrkala
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Child with bow and arrow, Yirrkala
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Children on beach, Yirrkala
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Children with fish trap, Yirrkala
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Dining hut, Yirrkala
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Letter to Dr. Wetmore of the Smithsonian Institution
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Painting of the Crucifixion
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Painting of the Milky Way
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