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50 Treasures: The Land is Living, The Past is Present by George Milpurrurru

Our nineteenth treasure is from a prominent Australian Aboriginal artist. From the James Cook University Art Collection comes 'The Land is Living, The Past is Present' by George Milpurrurru.

Professor Joseph Reser answers the question "why is this significant?"

‘You can hear them’

The painting is of a sacred site, and associated creation beings, species, and ceremony in the Arafura Wetlands of Central Arnhem Land, on ‘country’ for which Milpurrurru was a ‘manager’ (djunkawo) through his mother’s clan. The painting depicts two praying mantis creation beings (wangarr) integral to this important totemic site, creation event, and ceremony. The wangarr can be heard whispering and singing when passing close to this site. Further elements of the painting include the crosshatching (rarrk) on the figures and objects, the background grasses and grass seeds at the site, woven pandanus and bark containers, digging sticks, clap sticks, and dancing.

George Milpurrurru, The Land is Living, The Past is Present 1991, acrylic on bark, 147 x 77 cm. James Cook University Art Collection. © George Milpurrurru/Copyright Agency, 2020. Photograph by Michael Marzik.

This work was commissioned by James Cook University, from one of Australia’s most recognised Indigenous Arnhem Land painters, during a six-week artist’s residency in 1991. An exhibition of Milpurrurru’s work was held at The National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in 1993, with Milpurrurru being the first living artist honoured by an individual show at the NGA. A substantial exhibition catalogue of Milpurrurru’s work accompanied the exhibition, with documentation of the paintings provided by Milpurruru, his daughter, Gladys Getjpalu, and Joseph Reser.

George Milpurrurru at Mount Elliot in 1991. Photograph by Joseph Reser.

Milpurrurru was conscious of the significance of being invited to a university as an artist in residence. This painting is significant as Milpurrurru chose to paint a particular sacred site, creation beings and event, and ceremonial re-enactment, which captured the challenges of ‘development’ initiatives in an indigenous sacred landscape continually at profound risk, about which little can be revealed.

Only individuals with requisite experience, knowledge, authority, and clan lineage can paint such sacred place and creation event subject matter and clan-specific designs (mintji). The sacred place depicted in the painting lies perilously close to a bush airfield bulldozed in the late 60s, for which Milpurrurru and his father had obligatory 'looking after country' responsibility. Milpurrurru was regarded as an exceptional painter, or rarrk’wo, by his countrymen, and was a renowned marngitj (healer), seer, and clan and ceremonial leader.

Joseph Reser in Arnhem Land, 1975. Photograph by David McClay. Image supplied to JCU Library by Joseph Reser.

Importantly, Milpurrurru’s own motivation and expressed reflective purpose in this invited ‘public’ (garma) but ‘sacred’ (buka) painting was to communicate something of Arnhem Land - and Aboriginal cultural worldview and understanding - to non-Indigenous Australians, and indeed the world. His paintings captured and communicated the essence of this very different relationship to and profound responsibility for ‘country’ as respective ‘owner’ and ‘manager’ and influential artist.

When walking through the bush near this creation event, sacred site, and re-enactment ceremony place, the past and these wangarr are present - singing, dancing, and whispering: “who goes there”?

Over the course of 2020, JCU Library's Special Collections will be unveiling 50 Treasures from the collections to celebrate 50 years of James Cook University.

Author Biography
Joseph Reser is an environmental/cross-cultural psychologist with expertise in the humanities and social sciences. Professor Reser was awarded a Postdoctoral Fellowship with the Institute of Aboriginal Studies (1975-1977) to document Aboriginal vernacular architecture and housing issues in remote communities in Arnhem Land and Northern Australia. Given this research location and a background in art and aesthetics, Joseph was also commissioned to collect and document material culture including art for the NGA and the Australian Museum. This research provided the opportunity to develop a close relationship with the Ganalbingu community in Central Arnhem Land, adjacent communities, and with many indigenous artists.

Further Reading

Milpurrurru, G., Getjpulu, G., Mundine, D., Reser, J.P. & Caruana, W. (1993). The art of George Milpurrurru. Canberra: The National Gallery of Australia.

Reser, J.P. (1977) Djakaldjirrparr: Explanation of a mural painted by Johnny Bulun Bulun as told to Joseph Reser. Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies Newsletter, No. 8, 79-83., AIAS, Canberra, ACT.  

Reser, J P. (1977). The dwelling as motif in Aboriginal bark painting. In P.J. Ucko (Ed.) Form in indigenous art: Schematization in the art of Australia and prehistoric Europe (pp 210-219). London: Gerald Duckworth and Company.

Reser, J.P. (1979). Values in bark: Traditional Aboriginal dwellings. Hemisphere, April, 1978, 22, 27-36. Reprinted Habitat, (1981) 7, 7-10.

Reser, J.P. (1993). The land is living. Art Monthly, 62, 20-21.

Reser, J.P. (2000). Deaths in custody. In S. Kleinert & M. Neale (Eds) The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture, 572-573. New York: Oxford University Press.

Reser, J.P. (2004). Sketches by George Milpurrurru and Johnny Bulun Bulun. In W. Caruana (Ed) Likan’mirri – Connections: The AIATSIS collection of art (pp 50-51). Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

Reser, J.P., Bentrupperbäumer, J. & Pannell, S. (2000). Roads, tracks and world heritage: Natural and cultural values and landscapes in the Wet Tropics. People and Physical Environment Research, Nos 55-56, 38-53. 


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