Summary

Triangular skirts like this one were painted by women of central Arnhem Land and were worn by women during the final stages of the Ngulmark ceremony. Their use in this ceremony relates to the dhaawu or story of the ancestors, the Wagilag Sisters. Their distinctive shape and the strong bands of colour are symbolic of the Wagilag Sisters, who wore them as they danced to stop the rain at the sacred waterhole at Mirarrmina in the times of the ancestors. Unaware that the waterhole was forbidden to women, one of the Sisters walked into the shallows and her menstrual blood fell into the water. This angered Wititj, the Olive Python, and he emerged from the waterhole and as he rose into the sky the vapour from his breath turned into clouds which caused it to rain. The Sisters danced until they were exhausted and then retired into the shelter they had built. Wititj followed the Sisters inside and swallowed them. However as they all shared the same totem, Wititj's action was wrong and consequently the waterhole overflowed and a great flood covered the land. Wititj again rose up into the sky on his tail to escape the floodwaters, but was in great pain and fell back down to the ground where he regurgitated the Sisters. For clans further west in Arnhem Land, the distinctive triangular skirt is associated with other ancestors and are not always painted. The garments painted with the broad stripes of colour are usually associated with the Dhuwa clans of central Arnhem Land. The limit of their distribution westwards is to the Liverpool River.

Physical Description

A twined triangular skirt with fringe made from pandanus. It is painted with natural pigments (red, black, yellow) in horizontal broad bands separated variously by rows of three stranded twining or human hair string threaded across the width.

Local Name

naytjin

Significance

This skirt was collected by the anthropologist, Donald Thomson during months spent at Gaartji, one of three base camps that he worked from during his time in Arnhem Land. He was camped there through the wet season of late1936 to early 1937, which was a period of great ceremonial activity and Thomson collected many of the objects made for and used in those ceremonies. An important observation that he made in relation to these skirts was that they are painted by women, and this is probably the earliest recording of women as painters in Arnhem Land. Women have only been recognised as painters since the 1980s when senior men allowed them to paint the sacred madayin or sacred designs under their direction.

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