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Regional Art Stories Local Insights – Yirrkala, NT

Located on the northeastern tip of the Top End of the Northern Territory, Yirrkala is a small community approximately 700km east of Darwin. The traditional owners of this very special part of the country are the Yolŋu. There are 13 clans groups in the community, and Yirrkala is ancestral land belonging to the Rirratjiŋu/Gumatj clans. The region has a strong history of advocacy (particularly for land rights and bilingual education), and is famous for its music and art. We spoke with Will Stubbs and his daughter Siena about their experience of the pandemic.

RAA: What do you miss?

Siena Stubbs (author of Our Birds: Ŋilimurruŋgu Wäyin Malanynha): I miss the freedom to travel. I have just finished my final year of high school and decided to take a gap year to stop, take a breath, live in my community, save some money and travel. My parents have always encouraged me to travel so I was ready to start my independence (before university next year), I wanted to take a trip somewhere new and exciting this year. Whilst, I would much rather be in the safety of my home, away from the virus, I miss the chance I was going to have to travel.

Will Stubbs (coordinator at the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre): When we were shut down it was nice and quiet and we cut our hours down. The intense work pressure we had been under for 25 years suddenly let off. My wife and I started gardening. We wrote and illustrated a kids book whilst working only 9-3 and no weekends. I found that I was able to exist without an intense focus on work and be content which was reassuring. But in the end we found that we missed having daily contact with our workmates and the artists and particularly the 4 or 5 old ladies who we work with every day. Now that things are normal again the days are filled with incident and excitement again and they fly by like they used to.

RAA: What do you need?

Siena Stubbs: I miss being surrounded by friends and family. At the beginning of the lockdown, my family and I tried to follow lockdown restrictions as closely as possible. In this time I rarely saw my friends and other family members just in case in fear of infecting them. This was hard on my mental health and wellbeing (as for everyone) and so, right in this moment, as restrictions are lifting in the Northern Territory, I feel as though I need connection with my friends and family. I want to reach out to my friends and appreciate what physical and emotional bonding can do.

Will Stubbs: Economy is obviously vital but with the safety net that the Government’s implemented the main impression was one of relaxation. For those of us who strive to gain resources for the impoverished people we live with it was so comforting deep down to know that everyone had enough to eat for once. I genuinely changed my view on universal income or similar strategies. It provides an intangible satisfaction to those who have (and are taxed) to know that the people around us are looked after. It is a price I would happily pay.

RAA: What does a vibrant cultural landscape in your region of Australia look like?

Siena Stubbs: Here in Arnhem Land, one vibrant cultural landscape that comes to mind is a weekend hunting with my family. The delicacy/ies we’re hunting for determine the place we go for the day. Most of the time, we’re hunting in the mangroves or along the beach. After we set up our area, the men take their garas or spears and go hunting for fish (mullet, golden trevally etc.). While the women, take their buckets and wambulus (digging sticks) and go out into the mangroves. Depending on what place we are, this is where we collect dhan’pala (mud mussels), wamurra (shellfish), djinydjalma (mud crabs) or ṉirriwan (mangrove oysters) to count a few. We then take our catch back to our camp, cook it up and eat it with a side of damper and tea. We sit and watch the world go by. Birds catching fish, the tide come in, leaves blowing in the wind. This is one vibrant cultural landscape here in North-east Arnhem Land.

Will Stubbs: Like this! We live in a veritable treasure palace of culture. People flock here to experience it. It comes from true equality, lack of judgment, a spiritual raison d’etre independent of money and a cast iron rule that demands mutual respect and sharing.

Image Gallery #

Yirrkala. Image courtesy of Buku Larrŋgay Mulka Centre
Yirrkala. Image courtesy of Buku Larrŋgay Mulka Centre

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