Bula’bula Arts is a wholly Aboriginal-owned and governed art centre whose history is linked to the establishment of Ramingining community in the early 1970s. Ramingining lies in central Arnhem Land, around 580 kilometres east from Darwin and 30 kilometres inland from the Arafura Sea. Bula’bula’s name is taken from Garrtjambal, the red kangaroo song cycle belonging to this area, and refers both to the language and tongue of the kangaroo.
The local people refer to themselves as Yolngu (literally: people) and to white people as Balanda, which is thought to have derived from “Hollander”. The Dutch were the first white people to make contact with Yolngu in the early seventeenth century as they chartered the northern coast of Australia. Yolngu have interacted with passing seafarers for centuries, most notably the Macassans who came looking for trepang (sea cucumbers).
Over the past four decades, Bula’bula’s artists have become highly regarded for their superb art across various media including fibre arts, painting, barks, works on paper, and Dupun (hollow log coffins or poles). One of their most well-known and loved creations is the Aboriginal Memorial (1988), an installation of 200 burial poles to represent each year of European settlement and to remember all Aboriginal people killed during conflicts with Europeans. This work is on permanent display at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
Much of the art expresses the artists’ relationships to traditional art designs, although personal and social narratives are common as well. The distinctive rarrk designs of this area are built up using several layers of fine diagonal cross-hatching in different colours, commonly white, black, yellow and red ochre. Rarrk signifies the artist’s kinship and connection to country.
Ramingining was also home to Bula’bula painter Dr David Malangi (1927-1999), an exceptional artist whose mortuary ritual bark design was appropriated by the Reserve Bank without permission for the new Australian $1 bill issued in 1966. Shortly afterwards, Malangi appealed to the Bank, which acknowledged its mistake by paying him $1000, along with giving him a medal and a fishing tackle box as compensation. This was the first known case of an Indigenous person successfully asserting their copyright. The $1 note was replaced by the $1 coin in 1984. Approximately 1.7 billion notes had been issued during this period; Malangi received no further compensation.
Bula’bula’s artists are widely represented in public collections internationally including the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane; Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin; Artbank, Sydney; South Australian Museum, Adelaide; British Museum, United Kingdom; Linden-Museum Stuttgart, Germany; Seattle Art Museum, U.S.A.; Aboriginal Art Museum Utrecht, The Netherlands.