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The Australian National Maritime Museum acknowledges the Yolŋu people as the traditional custodians of the lands and waters of North-East Arnhem Land. The Yirrkala bark paintings are held in the National Maritime Collection and were purchased with the assistance of Stephen Grant of the GrantPirrie Gallery.

Cultural warning

The museum would like to advise readers that this content may contain the names and artwork, by deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

30 July 2021 marks 13 years since the 2008 Australian High Court decision on the Blue Mud Bay court case. This landmark legal case granted Sea Country rights to the Yolŋu people of the Northern Territory. 

The story begins back in 1996 in East Arnhem Land when an illegal fishing camp was discovered hidden in the mangroves at Garraŋali, a sacred area in Blue Mud Bay. At the camp, a severed head of a crocodile was found. For Yolŋu people, this was a desecration of Bäru – the ancestor of the Madarrpa clan. Djambawa Marawili and 46 fellow Yolŋu artists began painting a series of barks that was designed to demonstrate to outsiders the rules, philosophies and stories of their region that related to the coast, rivers and waters.

This series of paintings was part a long history of political and legal battles where Yolŋu people have used their art – which spells out their law – to articulate their connection to the land and to the sea. When the Blue Mud Bay exclusive fishing rights case was being decided in the Federal High Court in 2008, senior Yolŋu artists knew that the evidence of their title to saltwater country did not have to be presented to the court in written documents on paper – it already existed in Yolŋu art.

Yathikpa II by Bakulanay Marawili, 1998. National Maritime Collection, 00033778. Purchased with the assistance of Stephen Grant of the GrantPirrie Gallery.
In this painting Bakulanay has shown the sacred saltwater of Yathikpa, where the Yolŋu people of north-east Arnhem Land first received fire from Bäru the Crocodile Ancestor.


While we are all aware of the long campaign for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land rights, the struggle for recognition of Australia’s First Nations peoples’ sea rights has had less public attention. Yet for traditional owners such as the Yolŋu people, land and sea are both inextricably Country.

The bark paintings that formed a significant part of the evidence in the Blue Mud Bay court case are part of a broader tradition of Indigenous art as a point of understanding for non-Indigenous people. In 1963, Yolŋu people from Yirrkala in northeast Arnhem Land sent two bark petitions to Federal Parliament. The petitions protested the government’s granting of mining rights on land that had been previously reserved for Aboriginal people, and sought the recognition by the Australian Parliament of the Yolŋu peoples’ traditional rights and ownership of their lands.

The bark petitions helped shape a national acknowledgment of the rights of Aboriginal people and were a catalyst for the 1967 referendum and ultimately, the overturning of the concept of terra nullius in the Mabo High Court Case of 1992.

There was recognition of sea rights as far back as 1973 by the Woodward Royal Commission into Land Rights (which led to the enactment of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act in 1976). The commission noted that the definition of Aboriginal land should include both off-shore islands and coastal waters. But the struggle for the recognition of discrete Indigenous sea rights continued until the outcome of the Blue Mud Bay case in 2008. 

The paintings describing Yolŋu Sea Country – including those presented as evidence in the Blue Mud Bay case – are now called the Saltwater Collection and are some of the most significant works held in the National Maritime Collection. Some of the paintings were on display at the museum during the 2012 Nawi – Indigenous Watercraft conference and the 2017 Nawi: Travelling our Waters symposium.

In 2018, the award-winning exhibition Gapu-Monuk Saltwater: Journey to Sea Country showcased 40 works from the Saltwater Collection. 

The Saltwater Collection can be viewed online through our collection website. Some of the bark paintings will also be on display in the museum’s new exhibition Shaped by the Sea which opens in May 2022 so be sure to watch this space. 

Header image: 36 carved wooden Mokuy (Spirits) by Nawurapu Wunuŋmurra, 2015. Australian National Maritime Museum Collection


Stephen Gapps

Dr Stephen Gapps is the museum's Senior Curator, Voyaging and Early Colonial Maritime History.

Posted in: Indigenous