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Milingimbi Art

Australian Aboriginal art: Paint on Bark / Google Art Project / CC BY-SA 4.0

Milingimbi Art

An Antipodean travel company serving World Travellers since 1983

Milingimbi Art

By Marco Stojanovik

Milingimbi Island is the largest of the archipelago cluster known as the Crocodile Islands, lying just a few kilometres off the north-east Arnhem Land coast in the Northern Territory. During the 1950s and ‘60s it burst onto the Australian and international stage as an art centre, renowned for bark painting and other artworks and artefacts produced by the Aboriginal Yolngu people, the traditional owners of the region for over 40,000 years. Despite clan diversity amongst the Yolngu, Millingimbi artists have a distinctive and classic style characteristically combining rarrk, or cross hatching, with iconic abstract motifs and figurative forms.

Traditionally, artworks were transient objects produced for instructional and ceremonial purposes, illustrating cultural mythologies and implementing rites of passage. First collected along with artefacts during the 1920s when the first Methodist missionaries arrived, they soon became a means of artists in the Milingimbi community supporting themselves, originally traded for goods and materials and then later for money as part of a flourishing and successful industry. Today art continues as a strong vehicle for the transferal of culture with stories shared in paintings of bark, fibre works, ceremonial poles and carvings.

This article explores the history and functions of Millingimbi art. Much of the information used is from Cara Pinchbeck, Lindy Allen, and Louise Hamby’s book Art from Milingimbi: Taking memories back.


For long Milingimbi had been a meeting place for the trade of valuable items. Annually over hundreds of years, Makassan trepangers from Sulawesi as well as Japanese fisherman visited its shores to live and work with local Yolngu people, collecting and harvesting the abundant sea cucumber delicacy that then made its way to Asia. The impression left by the visitors are still evident today in their language, art, stories, and cuisine.

Yolgnu familiarity with this process of trading informed the choice of Milingimbi as an appropriate site of the establishment of a mission by the Methodist Overseas Mission in 1923. The objective was to deliver evangelism, education, and industry to the Yolngu and to create an economically self-supporting mission. Thus, upon the arrival of missionaries, and subsequently sociologists and anthropologists among others, these systems continued with Yolngu people trading with local goods and handmade objects for commodity items.

Reverend Thomas Theodor ‘Ted’ Webb, who served as superintendent at Millingimbi from 1926-1930, advocated for Aboriginal people to maintain most of their cultural practices. He especially encouraged artists to use their creative skills in the art and craft field as a commercial activity. And so, artefacts and artworks soon began to be traded for goods and materials.

The success of this enterprise quickly became evident with Webb collecting a plethora of bark paintings, weapons, artefacts, utensils, baskets, bags, ceremonial sculptures, and so forth. By 1930 his collection had grown to such an extent he was able to furnish museums and gift individuals. During the first ten years of the mission, 1500 objects were collected and sold to museums.

When the next mission superintendent Reverend Edgar Wells (1949-1959) arrived, he inherited a strong foundation for what would emerge as a flourishing art industry at Milingimbi in the decades to follow.  Like his predecessors he valued the preservation of Yolngu customs not deemed contradictory to the missionary way of life. He became fascinated by the art at Milingimbi and actively encouraged people to create bark paintings, wood sculptures, and other art and craft items to sell to the mission.

It was during this time in the 1950s that the Yolngu successfully led a campaign at Milingimbi to be paid wages for their labour, artwork, and other things they sold through the mission stores. Wells agreed noticing that continuing with tobacco, rations and goods “did not encourage the artists fraternity”. In turn, shifting to a cash economy would trigger the emergence of a class of professional artists.

The Gupapuyangu Daygurrgurr clan leader Tom Djawa would play a central role in the acceptance and development of the art movement. He had become leader of the wider Yolngu community during Wells’ early years in Milingimbi and, in response to the interest Wells had shown for the arts, had urged other clan leaders to come to Milingimbi and partake in cultural activities. Artists held a dignified status in Yolngu life and the practice now allowed them to earn an income in a meaningful way and support their families. An outpouring of production thus soon followed.

The practice fulfilled the desire of the missionaries to instill in Yolngu a work ethic that would give them purpose and dignity, and so Wells continued to enthusiastically encourage the artists. With the specific purpose of raising their profile and bringing their work to an ever-growing global audience, he forged key links with people within public cultural institutions, as well as private collectors and art enthusiasts. In doing so the reputation of Milingimbi artists, including Binyinyuwuy, Buranday, Dawidi, Dayngangan, Djawa, Djimbarrdjimbarrwuy, Lipundja, and Makani was able to grow – and by the late 1950s their art had widely captured the attention of Australian collectors.

Within a decade Milingimbi art would also have a strong overseas following. This was largely thanks to lay missionary and teacher Alan Fidock, who arrived in 1961 and was involved in the promotion of the artists’ work to international markets while also running the first arts centre from under his house. During the decade serious collectors and major public galleries and museums would all keenly seek out examples of Milingimbi art, which came to be included in significant exhibitions and publications. Today, works from Milingimbi are found in around 50 key collections worldwide.

A strong core group of artists still live in Milingimbi and its outstations. These artists continue to produce works on bark, carvings, Larrakitj (hollow logs), woven objects including mats, baskets and fish traps, and other smaller craft items such as shell jewelry.

Functions of the Art

It seems clear that Yolngu involvement in producing art and artefacts for Western collections has been motivated in large part by economic considerations. However, the creative endeavours also hold other manifold functions.

Most importantly they enable a representation of who the artists are as people, capturing their cultural identity, while also allowing the expression of the singular vision of each artist. These works are also a tangible celebration of the artists’ home countries and clan affiliations, capturing the dynamism of the country, the unseen forces that have given form to the land and remain as an animating presence. Intimately linked to this is the transmission of knowledge, as intimate details of the landscape are refenced along with a diversity of locations, environmental conditions and the shifting weather patterns of seasonal change. Cultural myths, narratives, and practices are also encoded in the representative images.

Tour of Aboriginal Art & Culture

Odyssey Traveller provides the opportunity to view Aboriginal art on several of our Australian tours.  We visit significant sites of Indigenous rock art on our Tour of the Kimberley. This fascinating region of Western Australia – over 400, 000 square kilometres of pristine wilderness spanning Australia’s north west from Broome to Darwin – is home to thousands of ancient rock art sites, believed to be the world’s oldest examples of the art. Set amongst the stunning scenery of the Kimberley – river gorges, boab trees, sandstone formations, waterfalls and pristine beaches – these extraordinary paintings are a testament to an ancient civilisation that remains vital today.

We also learn about the Aboriginal culture and art of Kakadu as part of our new tour of Kakadu and the Northern Territory. The ‘Stone Country’ of Kakadu National Park boasts over 5,000 known Aboriginal rock art sites, with some archaeologists believing that there might be up to 15,000 total sites across the entire park – the greatest known concentration of rock art in the world. Some of the rock paintings are up to 20, 000 years old, constituting one of the longest historical records of any group of people in the world.

Travellers with an interest in learning more about the Aboriginal heritage of Australia may also want to check out our other outback Australia tours, which include visits to Lake Mungo and the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape as part of our new tour of the Southern States of Australia; to the important cultural site of Wilpena Pound on our tour of the Flinders Ranges;  and to the Brewarrina Fish Traps in outback Queensland.

Odyssey Traveller has been serving world travellers since 1983. All tours provide an authentic and culturally informed travel experience, that goes beyond the usual tourist sites in favour of drawing out the hidden histories of our destinations. Our guides are chosen for their local expertise, and we move in genuinely small groups: usually 6-12 per tour. Our tours are all-inclusive, encompassing accommodation, attraction entries, and transport. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.

Wandjina rock paintings in the Kimberley.

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We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians and Traditional Custodians of the lands where we live, learn and work. We pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging.


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