Homeland: Bäniyala / Yilpara
Clan: Yithuwa Maḏarrpa
Moiety: Yirritja

Djambawa Marawili is an artist who has experienced mainstream success but for whom the production of art is a small part of a much bigger picture. Djambawa’s principal role is as a leader of the Madarrpa clan. He is a caretaker for the spiritual well-being of his own and other related clans, and an activist and administrator in the interface between non-Aboriginal people and the Yolŋu (Aboriginal) people of North East Arnhem Land. First and foremost a leader, art is one of the tools Djambawa Marawili uses to lead.

He was involved in the production of the Barunga Statement (1988), which led to Bob Hawke’s promise of a treaty; the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody; and the formation of ATSIC. Djambawa was appointed to the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council in 2013. In 1997, Djambawa was one of the elders at Timber Creek who burned the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan.

In the push for Sea Rights he is the focus of a Northern Land Council video called ‘Terry Djambawa Marawili – My Native Title’. This was made to explain the concepts of Yolŋu ownership of undersea lands and, as before, he uses his painting to show the sacred designs that embody his right to speak as a part of the land (although this time the land is under sea). He was instrumental in the initiation of the Saltwater exhibition. He co-ordinated the eventual Federal Court Sea claim in 2004, which eventuated in the High Court’s determination in the 2008 Blue Mud Bay case that Yolŋu did indeed own the land between high and low water mark. In these political engagements, Djambawa draws on the sacred foundation of his people to represent the power of Yolŋu and educate outsiders in the justice of his people’s struggle for recognition.

Away from the spotlight of activism, Djambawa must fulfill several other leadership roles. The principal ones are: as a ceremonial leader; as an administrator of several mainstream Yolŋu organisations; as the leader of a 200-strong remote homeland community; and as a family man with three wives, and many children and grand children. In recent years he has been very successful in advocating for his and other homelands against the anti-homeland movement championed by urban policymakers. This included a televised demonstration against the NT Government’s Homelands policy at the anniversary of the Sea Rights victory at Yilpara in 2009. He has recently secured a new school building and permanent teachers for Yilpara. 

Somehow art is integral to each of these roles as well. Obviously the sacred designs figure to some (secret) extent in the countless circumcision, burial, memorial and other ceremonies that he is required to assist or lead. As a Director and later Chairperson of the Association of Northern and Kimberley Aboriginal Artists Association (ANKAA) from 1997, and Chairperson of Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre from 1994-2000, art is never far away from consideration. In 2004, he was appointed to the Australia Council ATSIA Board. He was granted a two year Fellowship from the Australia Council in 2003. He has been at various times a member of the Northern Land Council.

In 1996, Djambawa won the Best Bark Painting Prize Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art award. He is represented in most major Australian institutional collections as well as several important overseas public and private collections. In addition to sculpture and bark painting, this senior artist has also produced linocut images and notably the first screenprint image for the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Printspace in 1996. Other highlights of Djambawa’s artistic career include Buwayak-Invisibility (2003) and his solo Source of Fire (2005) shows at Annandale Galleries; The Wukidi Installation at The Supreme Court of the NT; his solo show at the Sydney Biennale in 2006 and the one man show to launch the 2006 Asia Pacific Triennial and the new Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane in the same year. In 2009 he travelled to the 3rd Moscow Biennale in Russia and sang open his installation of bark paintings there. He also opened the exhibition Larrakitj featuring 110 memorial poles from the Kerry Stokes Collection at the Art Gallery of Western Australia in 2009. This show featured in the Sydney Biennale in 2010 at the MCA. 

Djambawa’s artistic influence since the mid 1990’s has been monumental. As well as pioneering a path and an aesthetic for other artists he has inspired a new generation of ‘Young Guns’ through example, encouragement and direct mentorship. A whole generation of artists took inspiration from his muscular engagement with his own law to produce new aesthetics that were at once visually dynamic and spiritually powerful. He bent the formal compositions and moulded them onto fluid representations of the water they signified.  He was the main activist in shaking off conventions that had been entrenched since the 1950’s about how painting for the outside world should be composed. He argued for a freeing up of these restrictions as long as the spirit of the Law was honoured. This was part of his own natural creativity and instinct to challenge the status quo responsibly. He found it difficult to be criticised by his elders for encouraging them to reveal deeply held Law in the course of the sea rights claim. He understood their objections but felt that a proactive stance was required. A younger generation of artists took as a given the innovations that he had fought hard for. 

Amongst the notable artists who acknowledge their debt to Djambawa are his kinsmen Wanyubi Marika, Wukun Wanambi, Yilpirr Wanambi and Gunybi Ganambarr. There are countless others who he has encouraged directly and indirectly to take on greater authority in ceremony and art. This encouragement extends beyond his region through his leadership of ANKAAA. He applies his generosity, sense of Indigenous unity and belief in the power of art to all artists. In 2010 Djambawa was awarded an Australia Medal for his services to the arts, homelands and sea rights. He was also accorded the honour of being appointed as a judge of the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. In this year he also hosted a groundbreaking project between 4 prominent non-Yolŋu artists (Fiona Hall, Judy Watson, Jorg Schmeisser and John Wolesley) at his homeland in Yilpara. The resultant exhibition Djalkiri was shown in Darwin and Yirrkala before touring nationally. 

During his ascent to leadership in the mainstream world as a leader in land and sea rights, arts administration, homeland policy and general Indigenous governance, Djambawa also became increasingly important ceremonially. He now holds a rank within the Yolŋu spiritual world that is the equal of any. His knowledge is deferred to by all who seek it. Typically he exerts that influence within the narrowest zone required of him but is often called upon to assist or adjudicate elsewhere which he invariably honours. It is this role as Dalkarra which is the foundation of his leadership and for which he has been groomed since childhood. In 2013 he was chosen as a member of the Prime Minister’s 12 person Indigenous Advisory Council. In 2015 he was invited by Carolyn Christov-Bakagiev to play a role in the Istanbul Biennale. His art was shown with seminal Yirrkala political art and moved Bakagiev to declare that perhaps this region provides the first activist art.