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New book brings historic East Arnhem land photos home


17 August 2012

Dilkurruwurr ga marrtji märrmay lipalipay [Elders with canoes]. Andrew Birrinydjawuy, Birrkili Gupapuyŋu (1st from right); Harry Makarrwala (3rd from right). [Image: Reverend TT Webb, 1926-1939]
Dilkurruwurr ga marrtji märrmay lipalipay [Elders with canoes]. Andrew Birrinydjawuy, Birrkili Gupapuyŋu (1st from right); Harry Makarrwala (3rd from right). [Image: Reverend TT Webb, 1926-1939]

Six years of research into the recorded history of the Yolngu people comes home today with the launch of a book of historic photographs compiled by the University of Sydney's first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research fellow, Dr Joe Gumbula.

Mali'Buku-Runanmaram: Images from Milingimbi and surrounds, 1926-1948 (Darlington Press and the University of Sydney Archives, 2012) brings Dr Gumbula's people treasured images, among the earliest in existence, of Yolngu traditions and mission life. Most of the book's 380 photographs, housed in the University Archives, have never been viewed by either Yolngu or the wider public.

Dr Gumbula is a Gupapuyngu Yolngu Elder from North East Arnhem Land and a foremost authority on international collections of material culture from Arnhem Land.

"This book is about the memories of people and bringing knowledge back to the community," he says. "It is something we'll treasure in the Yolngu community for a long time,' he says.

Mali'Buku-Runanmaram catalogues photographs taken at Milingimbi, and the surrounding communities of Galiwi'nku and Yirrkala soon after the first mission was established in the area. Most were taken by American anthropologist William Lloyd Warner, who conducted field research at the mission during 1927-1928, and the Reverend TT Webb, superintendent at Milingimbi mission from 1926.

Dr Gumbula first saw the photos when he visited the University Archives in 2005. After receiving an ARC Indigenous Research Fellowship he worked on them, identifying people and places in consultation with other Yolngu. He also established access protocols in accordance with Yolngu cultural traditions. Images were categorised into three areas: open (makarr-gaama) images, typically comprising photographs of mission life and portraits; elder-mediated (dhuni makarr-garma'mirr) images, which should be viewed with an elder who can explain their context; and restricted images (njarra). Restricted photographs largely comprise those taken by Warner of secret ceremonies, and are not included in the publication.

A related Australian Research Council Fellowship-Indigenous grant in 2010 allowed Dr Gumbula to further his research into digital repatriation and access. He has used the grant to assess Yolngu collections in America and the United Kingdom, and recently returned from advising the British Museum about respectful management of artefacts and images from his homeland.

Dr Gumbula and University Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy) Professor Shane Houston will launch Mali'Buku-Runanmaram in Milingimbi today with a traditional bungul (welcoming ceremony).

Professor Houston says Mali'Buku-Runanmar ensures images held in archives at the University for many years are now able to be used by the people who value them most.

"Universities have in the past sometimes taken without thought to community values. This book returns to communities something that is theirs," he says.

Mali'Buku-Runanmaram is available to the wider public through the Sydney University Press.


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Media enquiries: Jocelyn Prasad, 02 9114 1382, jocelyn.prasad@sydney.edu.au