It is with deep sadness that Arts Law and Artists in the Black mourn the passing of Dr B Marika AO. A Traditional Owner of the Rirratjingu clan of the Yolngu people at Yalangbara, Marika was for decades a printmaker, advocate and activist at the heart of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art in Australia.
Marika’s father, Mawalan Marika (c. 1908-67), was a ceremonial leader of the Rirratjingu clan and taught Marika and her sisters the art of bark painting. They were among the first Yolngu women to be actively encouraged by male relatives to paint ancestral stories, all of which had been passed down orally to male relatives for generations. The Djang’kawu sisters and other creation stories featured heavily in Marika’s works as she continued to learn and pass on the traditions of her forefathers.
Equally extraordinary was that Marika’s art practice was predominated by printmaking, a rare medium for any artist to master and a sign of her inventiveness and curiosity. A student at the Yirrkala mission school, Marika moved to Darwin, then to Sydney in 1980 where she studied printmaking at the Willoughby School of Art and East Sydney Technical College. In linocuts, she found a perfect medium: a modern way of echoing the carvings onto bark, Macassan pipes and message sticks that have been part of her family’s art practices for generations. Her work has been exhibited and celebrated around the world and is in collections from the British Museum, London, to the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
After returning to Yirrkala in 1988, Marika became manager of the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Arts Centre and Museum. She continued to advocate for the rights of artists and her community, serving as vice-chair of the Dhimurru Land and Sea Management, the Aboriginal board of management for northeast Arnhem Land and establishing the Mawalan Gamarrwa Nuwul Association for managing Rirratjingu lands. Marika was one of the key voices that helped secure heritage listing with the Australian Heritage Commission for Yalangbara in 2003. In the wake of that acknowledgement, she authored a book – Yalangbara: Art of the Djang’kawu – which jointly won the 2009 Chief Minister’s Northern Territory Book History Award. Marika also appeared in documentaries and spoke to countless audiences, continuing to educate the Australian public on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and advocating for the protection of cultural rights.
Marika was one of the plaintiffs in the landmark Federal Court “Carpet case” – Milpurrurru & Others v Indofurn Pty Ltd & Others (1993). The success of the artists in that case was a major victory for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists nationwide and was the largest judgment ever awarded to an Australian artist for copyright infringement. At the time, Marika said: “…I am sure that all the artists and their families and communities will feel the same. It is important for all artists, but especially for Aboriginal artists, to assert their rights to cultural and artistic freedom.” Since then, she served on the board of the Indigenous Art Code and lobbied passionately for meaningful reform to fake art laws in Australia.
In 2018, Marika was awarded an honorary doctorate from Flinders University. The following year, she was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for “distinguished service to the visual arts, particularly to Indigenous printmaking and bark painting, and through cultural advisory roles”. In addition to her time on the board of the Indigenous Art Code, Marika served on the boards of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, the Museums and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory, Darwin, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board of the Australia Council. In 2001, she received the prestigious Red Ochre Award for lifetime achievement from the Australia Council.
Article by Jack Howard.