Mulkun Wirrpanda and John Wolseley with their work for the Midawarr Harvest project. Photograph: Joseph Brady/Mulka Project
English-born landscape artist John Wolseley and Mulkun Wirrpanda, a Yolngu bark painter from north-east Arnhem Land, may seem an unlikely alliance.
People might look at Wolseley, his lineage traceable to the Saxons, and Mulkun, the daughter of a murdered warrior, her Yolngu ancestors on this continent for tens of thousands of years before time held meaning, as coming from different worlds.
But the truth is that, despite their divergent backgrounds, they inhabit the same world in a universe whose truth has drawn them inextricably together.
Their collaboration began informally about six years ago when Mulkun adopted the Englishman as her brother while he was visiting Arnhem Land with other artists. She called him “Läŋgurrk” – a witchetty grub that favours a certain wetland tuber.
Now the result of their artistic, scientific and emotional connection is Midawarr Harvest: the art of Mulkun Wirrpanda and John Wolseley, an exhibition opening next weekend, at the National Museum of Australia and a book about the subject that unites them: the traditional foods of north-east Arnhem Land.
Wolseley is nearing 80. Mulkun is already well into her ninth decade. What they have made will invariably be seen within the critics’ circle as a tremendous legacy project, which it is. But it is also a gift to the Yolngu – scientific, cultural, gastronomic and, without exaggeration, existential – and their unique place in the world.
The book, edited by Wolseley and Will Stubbs (the coordinator of Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Arts Centre in Yirrkala in Arnhem Land), is the manifestation of the knowledge acquired and shared by both artists in their quest to document the natural abundance of the region. Resonant in some ways of Joseph Banks’ Florilegium plant anthology, the book juxtaposes Mulkun’s elaborate bark paintings of traditional foods – bush banana, bush orange and apple, emu berry and numerous tubers, for example – with those of Wolseley from his monolithic, 10-metre-wide watercolour tableau, Distant glimpses of the great floodplains seen through a veil of trees and hanging vines.
Yolngu woman and Yirrkala school principal, Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr-Stubbs, has drawn on the knowledge of Mulkun and other old people (as well as her own) to offer detailed descriptions of all the identified foods. A passion to reintroduce the Yolngu to these foods, is what drove Mulkun to obsessively travel, harvest and paint the fruits, vegetables, nuts and berries.
Merrkiyawuy says: “This is important because when people like Mulkun pass away, a lot of that knowledge dies also. The exhibition and the book revitalises it, keeps it alive for our people, so the children don’t just eat junk food from the shop. I knew many of these foods from my childhood. But I haven’t seen some of them for a very long time.”
Wolseley, who migrated to Australia in 1978, uses various techniques including watercolour, collage, and frottage. While the name Wolseley dates to the 1100s in Staffordshire (where his family is said to have killed the last of the English wolves) and links to various royal courts, he describes his mob as “mostly pretty dull horses and hounds types”. The family crest includes an English wolf, his family’s notorious connection to which, he says, may be responsible for his ardent environmentalism and love of nature.
“One of the most amazing things about Mulkun’s paintings is the fact that she can paint out of her head something like 50 different kinds of plants. I wonder how many white artists could do the same – maybe a daffodil or perhaps wattle or something? Or maybe nothing,” he says.
“I really think this book is, in a sense, an Indigenous equivalent of Joseph Banks’ Florilegium in that every illustration of a plant is a great work of art in itself and Merrkiyawuy’s detailed description of each plant is done with attention to its practical and cultural significance to the Yolngu.”
Mulkun’s resolve to reintroduce the Yolngu to traditional foods became evident when she brought what Stubbs regarded as “a strange bark painting” – essentially a detailed botanic depiction – into the arts centre a few years back. She said it was “Bundjunu”. His research determined it was of Capparis umbonata – a native Australian caper.
Mulkun, whose warrior father Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda disappeared, believed murdered, after the high court cleared him of murdering a white policemen in 1934, explained why: “This is the food we ate when I was young. Back then, everywhere you looked there were old people. Strong and healthy – they lived with us for a long time. Nowadays people die when they are only young. There are very few people as old as I am. Children are given rubbish food to eat. It is killing us.”
In his essay for the book, Stubbs, a former criminal lawyer who is married to Merrkiyawuy, writes: “The human genius to do ‘less for more’ allows deep-fried chips with chicken salt to become the ‘tuber’ of choice among young Yolngu. And these Yolngu are dying faster than the ancient knowledge itself on a diet that results in obesity and diabetes … This collection of paintings is a love poem to those delicious and bounteous foods which surround the children even as they are being poisoned.”
Wolseley recalls how, with some irony, he and Mulkun would declare themselves “off to the supermarket” when they would embark on their travels to the numerous ecosystems within Yolngu country to harvest, dine and paint.
The tensions between nature and artifice, instinctive tradition and modernity, freights the stylistically contrasting exhibition works of the two artists. They are themes, of course, that define the sometimes seemingly intractable clash of approaches to nature and cosmology at the nexus of black-white Australia.
The Yolngu have long appreciated the wild divergences of terroir in a country that can produce dozens of different edible tubers (the innocuous “weed” above the ground can hide the most delicate culinary pleasure beneath). But climate change and its consequent saline leach now threatens the mangroves and other wetland and dryland habitats. The Yolngu world might be beautiful Arnhem land, its salt and fresh waters, its stories and its heavens above, but it is not immune from global ecological impact or its economic/social scourges, including junk food.
It is conceivable, then, that this Yolngu knowledge, to harvest and feed, could save lives beyond north-east Arnhem Land. While monetising such knowledge is somewhat antithetical to the Yolngu world view, such possibilities must, to other minds, seem endless.
A white European man dropped in the Arnhem Land wilderness might still die of starvation today while surrounded with food. While white Europeans stole much of the continent, we still don’t know quite how to survive its wildernesses alone. It is a pretty stark contrast with those who have been here 60,000-plus years.
Story, its sacred traditions and ownership, is intrinsic to the creation of Yolngu country, all its people, animals and plants. Most plants are somewhere in the songlines; one may rate a mere mention while others will have whole songs and long stories dedicated to them. There are many clans. It is not for one clan to tell – in song, dance or in paint on bark – the stories of another. This posed the type of practical artistic problem for Mulkun that would be unimaginable for a non-Indigenous artist.
She explained: “Once I started painting food plants without reference to their sacred identity, I had to find a new way to paint. I could not use the [madayin] min’tji (sacred design) or steal the sacred identity of the plants which belonged to clans other than my own. So I had to find a marwat (cross-hatched background) which was just wakinŋu (ordinary) but not just infill. I had to let the plants tell me what their secular identity or character was. By the way they grow or the way they look or express themselves. They gave me their rhythm or their pattern.”
Midawarr Harvest: The Art of Mulkun Wirrpanda and John Wolseley is the gift in return.