Mrs Marawili 1939 to 2023 & Mrs Timbery 1931 to 2023

In November 2018, Mrs Marawili received a solo show at the Art Gallery of NSW – an all-too-rare- event for a living Australian artist to enjoy, Indigenous or non-Indigenous. At the time, I wrote at length about her, and can’t improve much upon that effort now that we’ve lost her. Here it is:

“In the catalogue for the excellent solo showing of artworks by Nonggirrnga Marawili at the Art Gallery of NSW there’s a blissfully ordinary picture of the artist barefoot below an ankle-length cerise skirt, resting on one of many rocks dotting the foreshore of a totally uneventful bay. Behind her, the sea of the Gulf of Carpentaria is almost unnaturally calm. Not a wave in sight.

“Yet this setting is Baratjala, where, as the catalogue for the Scholl Collection of Aboriginal women’s art currently touring the USA recognises, “when Nonggirrnga puts paint to bark or larrakitj pole in that setting you’ll experience seaspray crashing on rock, the dance of flames, the flicker of the snake’s tongue and lightning flashing across the sky”, the elemental substances and transformative forces of the Yolngu world.

“The exhibition – entitled ‘From my heart and mind’ – makes it clear that this wasn’t an overnight achievement for the now-79 year old woman. Which can be partly explained by her childhood in an extraordinary family in which their father Mundukul Marawili, a famed warrior who had uncounted wives according to Will Stubbs the long-term art director at the artist’s Buku Larrnggay art centre in NE Arnhemland, creating a family group that was 50-strong. They lived nomadically, moving on land and on the waters of the Gulf by canoe as food sources, ceremonial responsibilities and climate demanded. In all three circumstances, Nonggirrnga experienced the Madarrpa clan estates and sacred sites that would become the subject of her later artworks. But Mundukul died in 1950 when she was just 11, so was unable to pass on to her permission to paint those sacred clan designs.

“As a result, she had to work out how to paint the things that mattered deeply to her without offending against strict Yolngu protocols about who could reproduce which clan’s sacred stories and symbols.

“She began by assisting her husband Djutadjuta Mununggurr with his art in 1994, working on a two metre bark of ‘Mana The Sacred Shark’ adding a mass of cross-hatching and outlining which AGNSW curator Cara Pinchbeck notes gave depth and movement to the sacred waters in this work. By 1996, she was collaborating with their daughters Rerrkiwanga and Marrnayula on an even larger, three metre bark. In 1997, Djutadjuta would take out Best Bark at that year’s NATSIA Awards. And Rerrkiwanga won Best Bark in 2009. But it would take until 2015 before the judges in Darwin would recognise the unpredictable talents of Nonggirrnga.

“For, as that 1994 bark and solo works like the mythical fish trap at ‘Wanduwuy‘ from 2012 reveal, she was not an artist who attempted to achieve neat perfection with her markings, but perhaps did more to reflect the variations of nature in marks that experts compare to Nonggirrnga’s father-in-law, Wonggu Mununggurr, a major contributor to the legendary drawings commissioned in 1947 by the anthropologists, Ronald and Catherine Berndt and shown by the AGNSW half a dozen years ago.

“But it’s the year 2012 that the Sydney exhibition features most heavily with a radical advance by Nonggirrnga from rather predictable figurative work and overall patterning to the emergence of her trademark diamonds and the discovery that she could reflect Madarrpa stories without using the officially coded ways of doing that.

“Her sensitivity to water lead Nonggirrnga naturally downstream from Wandawuy to Yathikpa, a point of land in Blue Mud Bay and the heart of Madarrpa clan culture. It’s here the fresh meets the salt water; it’s from here that Baratjala the sacred rock that stands strong against the forces of the sea and storm can be seen; it’s on that rock that Mundukul the Lightning Snake (and her father’s name, of course) senses the arrival of monsoonal waters from inland and fires off his electric curses into the sky in the form of lightning; and it’s at the base of Baratjala that Baru, the sacred crocodile dived beneath the water, though the fire continued to burn on his back. Her waving sea-grasses reflect that fire today.

“For she was painting a unique Yolngu vision of lightning rising from the serpent’s mouth, not striking from the skies, as scientists increasingly accept.

“Nonggirrnga’s barks through until 2016 are mainly in her trademark black and white. I have to wonder, though, whether the Art Gallery’s intention to feature her in this solo show may have contributed to her later efforts to ‘brighten up’ her works with some surprising reds and pinks, found in rejected printing cartridges, and the arrival of roundish rocks from Baratjala in her work. Somehow, they sit uneasily upon the explosive lightness of her clashing seas and flashing lightning”.

Of course, this all recognises the innate artist in Nonggirrnga, which is all-too-often denied in the ethnographic view of Aboriginal art. Her individual voice is quite apparent, causing Sydney Morning Herald art critic John McDonald to hail her as “one of the most dynamic Indigenous artists at work today”.

Mrs Marawili’s works also toured America between 2016 and 2019 in the Dennis Scholl Collection show, Marking the Infinite: Contemporary Women Artists from Aboriginal Australia. In 2017, she featured in Defying Empire: 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial at the National Gallery of Australia.

My last sighting of works by Mrs Timbery was at Hazelhurst Gallery in Sydney in 2021 when they curated an excellent show of Dharawal woman artists calling themselves Wuliwulawala. A little history of the Dharawal language group, which extends from the northern shores of Botany Bay down to the Illawarra explains where the noted shell ‘artist’, Mrs Timbery originated. She never accepted the term artist herself.

“At La Perouse in the 1870s an Aboriginal fishing village was established by the women of the surrounding southern Sydney area. It was here that they used their traditional knowledge and practices to make a living. Over the next decades, the remaining Aboriginal people from camps around Sydney Harbour and Gamay were relocated there. In 1895, La Perouse was formally established as one of the earliest Aboriginal government reserves in NSW. Aboriginal people living on the reserve were affected by so-called ‘protection’ policies restricting their freedoms and forcing them to segregate.

“’Queen’ Emma Timbery – who often displayed shellwork at Sydney’s Royal Easter Show and, in 1910, was included in an exhibition of Australian craft in London – Biddy Giles and Kate Saunders were all born in the 1840s and 1850s and identified themselves as Dharawal women. They played a significant role in the development of the Larper community (as it’s become known), fighting against their removal south to Wallaga Lake and putting themselves under the protection of the church, also passing culture and history from one generation to the next. These Wuliwulawala have many hundreds of descendants, many still living on Dharawal country.

“This was well documented in texts and films in the Gallery. And, inevitably, the first artworks are a clutch of Sydney Harbour bridges made from shells. Lots of Timberys involved. And pastel colours. But the glitter of the gallery lighting on the sparkling shells coating a Sydney Opera House stand out for their reflection of Utzon’s own tiling work. And Esme Timbery’s Larper Mission Church was a refreshing change of subject. A description of the effort involved in collecting these shells lifts the familiarity of this work into something almost mythic”.

It was, however, an exhibition at Manly Regional Gallery in 1997, Djalarinji – Something that Belongs to Us, that was a tipping point to her work being perceived as artworks. Among her most important pieces is the installation, Shellworked slippers (2008), comprising 200 pairs of shell-encrusted baby slippers, which was originally commissioned by Djon Mundine as a memorial to the Stolen Generations and later presented at the Biennale of Sydney.

Little known, a pair of shell baby slippers was presented to the woman who became Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 1927 on a visit to Australia just after she’d given birth to the future Queen Elizabet. They now rest in Windsor Castle – as I reported here.

Esme Timbery’s most significant public work, however, was a collaboration in 2015 with Wiradjuri artist Jonathan Jones, creating a project for Sydney’s $9 billion Barangaroo precinct. She also decorated shoes for the design label, Romance Was Born for its 2009/2010 collection. She has a river-class ferry, Aunty Timbery named in her honour. Finally, in 2019, after consultation with the La Perouse community, the University of NSW honoured Aunty Esme by naming a new arts facility in her honour – the first building on the Uni’s campus named after an Indigenous woman. The Esme Timbery Creative Practice Lab (CPL), or ‘the Esme’ as students nicknamed the space, is a specialised multi-arts production unit that supports teaching and practice-led research.