Baluka is an artist of truth, a senior of the old school. His art is of high integrity, solemn intent and most often hauntingly beautiful. In making his art he sees little distinction between realms of his sacred cultural practice and that of the art world. He is quite experienced in both.
This piece is tied to the artist's clan's saltwater estate and religious focal point at Djarrakpi. This most beautiful place is located on the northerly entrance of Blue Mud Bay on the western coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria. It has its founding origins in the times of the first sunrises by the Guwak (a people, 2 men, a koel cuckoo) and a messenger ringtail possum Marrngu. The Koel at Djarrakpi made roost atop the Marawili (native cashew tree) there and Marrngu made his mark for the Mangalili clan by scratching into its trunk. Behind the massive coastal dunes here is also a lake of freshwater and at the back of these dunes is said to residde the powerful maternal figure of Nyapalingu. She wore a possum fur string girdle crossing her chest; the levy bank of the lake was also of the same masculine and sacred fur, a great long shank.
The Guwak as two Ancestral Hunters left the shores of Djarrakpi in their canoe, testing themselves against the elements, unfathomable sea creatures, the distant horizon and the destructive wake of a giant turtle that eventually capsized their canoe. The Guwak drowned and with their canoe washed back to the Djarrakpi shore. This epiphany; original deaths of the original Mangalili gave birth to original tradition of mortuary rites that nurtured the deceased, clearing the way for temporary release to the ether before reincarnation.
Above this shore made sacred with this profound wash up is the Djarrakpi Yingapungapu ground. A Yingapungapu is a low releif sculpture, a feminine elliptical shape reminiscent of the hunter's canoe shaped into the sand. The bodies of the Guwak Hunters were ritually placed within the confines of the Yingapungapu serving the purpose of a shallow grave and the foci of a wider ceremonial ground. Over time malevolence and pure spirit of the body became separated through sequences of sacred song lines and danced re-enactments of what is still today rite performed for deceased Mangalili.
The artist Baluka is also the Mangalili clan leader. In his art he incorporates such essential elements associated with his peoples cosmos and simple but essential balances. Enormity can be found in the layered meanings of these works and the ability to incorporate such into art that so appeals has him the artist he is. In his sculptures life is with death, msaculine and feminine is expressed with freshwater and saltwater. Most often depicted is the Yingapungapu and the matriarch Nyapalingu or more specifically her digging stick, the Guwak hunters dead and alive and Ngerrk the harbinger of death (a white cockatoo). Just as evident are the sacred adornments and designs that tie the works to Djarrakpi and extol ownership and titile to the Mangalili clan.
This carving represents Nyapalingu as described in the story below.
Nyapiligu is a spirit woman who lived in Wangarr times, the dreaming. Nyapilingu set out from Ambakamba (Groote Eylandt) in a paper bark canoe and travelled across to the mainland and then north and west as far as the central Arnhem Land coast. Wherever she went she marked the country with her activities. She is remembered by the people at these sites, who sing and dance her story.
Nyapiligu gave important culture to the people whose country she passed through. She wrapped herself in a sheet of paperbark so that men could not see her body, so women followed her in this. She used Wapitja (digging stick) to collect food and to peel the bark from the stringybark tree and she made containers from paperbark which she carried on her head. These are identified with her today. Nyapilingu also taught women how to look for the water lily 'yoku' and prepare it for eating, and how to make string and weave pandanus for bathi (dilly bags). The possum fur string which she wore in a cross shaped arrangement across her chest is a signature of hers. The patterning on the rest of the carving belongs only to the Mangalili and has very many levels of meaning.
Manifest in this carving is the cycle of life. The faces represent Nyapalinu's life and death. The ritual surrounding morutary sends the soul of the deceased on the ancestral path back to, in this case for the Mangalili, their reservoir of sould Milniyawuy River or the Milky Way in readiness or rebirth.
Nyapilingu is particularly important to Mangalili people. One of their most important sacred sites, Djarrakpi is associated with her activities. She also passed through Dhalwangu and Madarrpa country, and these people may also paint or dance her dreaming. The part of her story belonging to each clan regers to her activities in the clan's country. In her travels through Manggalili country, Nyapilingu travelled with Marrngu (possum) and with Guwak (nightbird) making Manggalili totems, giving the people sacred objects and ceremony, and using Wapitja, her digging stick, for stripping bark from trees and making Manggalili water holes - as she plunged her Wapitja into the ground, water would spring up.
Nyapilingu's blood is very important. Mourning at the first Manggalili funeral ceremony, she tore her scalp as women do today, and the blood flowed down into the clan waterhole at Djarrakpi. This blood of the Manggalili people - Manggalili spirit children come from this waterhole. This flow through the sand-dunes is represented by the red and white ribbons of cross hatching towards the base of this carving.
The artists sister, Naminapu, in talking about Nyapilingu used the following words "Nyapiligu was our woman ancestor. She was really important to Manggalili clan because she travelled all over the place claiming land for Manggalili people, and also for Yirritia Yolngu. She was really a special woman because she owned all those places and to us it is really important because every clan should have its own totems. Nyapilingu herself was an important miyalk (woman) because she was the only woman in the rest of the clan group who as really special to us as a woman ancestor. Nge (yes), for us Yolngu, our land- when you go to Djarrakpi, you see all the wanga (land) the she went through.. Messages come from the Wanga: it is like a spirit itself in the land... yolngu talking to land, and land talking to yolngu ga wayin (people and animals). That's how animals connect to human beings and human beings to land...People that have lived there a long time and then came back, that thing remains there, the spirit, the spirit of the people and land itself. Yes, you can talk to your own land and the spirit can hear you.
(She carried on her head) wutjumunggu (container) with munydjutj (wild plum). Or she used to collect mengdung, snails, big ones...ga yoku (lily bulbs) ga gapu gama (and carry water).. her dilly bag, she can put it on her head or also this one (wutjumunggu) on top of head... She was also like a teacher . She showed Manggalili people how to make coolamons... go digging stick, wapitja, ga raki (string), binggal (small sharp wooden tool) that she used (i.e to tear her scalp with) when she mourned for... her gurrutumi yol'ngu (relatives), or used it on ngatha (food) like lalku (pandanus fruit) when she opened it."
The fuller narrative explains the flow of sacred waters from Maywundji into the saltwater of Milniyawuy. The waters flow from here out to the horizon where the huge storm clouds gather. Finally they produce rain back over the sea and land to complete the cycle. This interaction not only connects the clan territories on the land side to those under the saltwaters, beside the coast, but also with the deeper waters of the sea and the elements above.
Multilevel meanings using metaphors from ancestral events connect all the clans with estates in this area. For examples a wooden icon such as an Ancestrals Hunter's lost harpoon may drift around on the tides and currents thus illustrating the formal connection between the clans. The connection is usually the important kinship link with that of the mothers clan, that if amri-guthara. For Baluka his mari is that of other Yirritka clans that have stong ties with the sacred waters of Blue Mud Bay, ie that of the Madarrpa, Munyuku and Dhalwanu clans. These clans also paint their sacred saltwaters of this area using a similar design as Baluka's ribbons of saltwater. This miny'tji or patterning distinguishes clan identity.
Fresh waters coming down meet the natural sand bar barriers that halt the tidal surge, is where the lightning Serpent Gayitj stays. The freshwater is running. A new season has began and the heavy rain of the wet is imminent. On tasting the influx of the freshwater coming down from the sacred lands, Gayitj stands up on its tail from his hole Lorr, to herald the event to kin by spitting lightning into the skies. The dead and fallen leaves of the mangrove tree called Motu, gather on the surface of the serpents waterhole, banking up at the barrage before being finally spilled out to sea. This is a metaphor of the Yothu (child) being released and the procreative qualities of these sacred waters.
The clan connections with the water equating with souls as stars in the Milky way - coming from a pool of Ancestral souls. The beginning and end of life are in the heavens. Yolnu believe that conception occurs when the father 'dreams' or visits a sacred area such as this. This particular area is sung at mortuary ritual. The possum fur string connects these dimensions.