Print this page

Djalu Grruwiwi: Garrimala

The Artist

Djalu Gurruwiwi was born around 1940  in Arnhem Land in northern Australia and is a Yolngu man. He is known worldwide for his skill as a play, maker and spiritual keeper of the yidaki (didgeridoo). He is also a respected artist .

Gurruwiwi was born at the mission station on Wirriku Island (also known as Jirgarri), one of the smaller islands in the Wessel Islands group. He has also self-reported being born on Milingimbi Island (also known as Yurruwi, in the Crocodile Islands),  with both of these island groups being off Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, Australia. His date of birth is uncertain (the missionaries recorded his and two brothers as having the same birthdate – officially 1 January 1930), estimated c.1940.

He was given the European name "Willie" at some point, "Wulumbuyku" was another Aboriginal name, and his skin name was Wamut. His father was Monyu Gurruwiwi and his mother Djikulu Yunupingu.

He is a member of the Gälpu clan, of the Dangu language group of the Yolngu peoples. He grew up living a traditional life in the remote area, hunting turtles with his father on a lipalipa (dug-out canoe), and with little contact with "balanda" (white people). He remembers Japanese bombers dropping bombs on his homeland during World War II, and later working alongside Japanese pearlers. The family, along with others in the clan, spent long periods on the remote island of Rrakala. They travelled across the chain of Wessel Islands from Nhulunbuy in dug-out canoes, using carved wooden paddles.

As a young man Gurruwiwi lived on Galiwinku (Elcho Island), working as a lumberjack, cutting large trees by hand. He was also given the responsibility for carrying out punishment for tribal law, becoming both respected and feared.

After a period when he succumbed to the destructive effects of alcohol after it was introduced to the remote areas, he says he was visited by a spirit in gaol one night and "found Jesus". He gave up drinking and devoted his life to the yiḏaki and spiritual and other studies.[6] In 1994 he completed studies in Christian theology at Nungalinya College in Darwin, and became a respected Yolŋu lawman and as well as a Christian leader.

As of 2020 Gurruwiwi and his family, along with some other members of the Galpu clan, live at Birritjimi (also known as Wallaby Beach) on the Gove Peninsula They live in homes constructed in the 1970s to provide accommodation for Rio Tinto mining executives, handed over to traditional owners represented by Rirratjingu Aboriginal Corporation in 2008. The houses are in very poor condition and are facing demolition, as they are no longer deemed safe. The Northern Territory Government is providing emergency repairs, but says that the Northern Land Council is responsible for the maintenance of the homes. Rirratjingu has applied for funds to help move the residents to Nhulunbuy, Gunyangara and Yirrkala, but Djalu and his son Larry are reluctant to leave Birritjimi.

Djalu Grruwiwi Garrimala

The Work of Art

This  bark-painting represents 'Garrimala', a billabong near Gangan (200 kilometres west of Yirrkala). The land belongs to the artist's clan, the Galpu. The freshwater place with streams running from it to the salt water is surrounded by palms and paperbarks.  The female (on the left) and the male (right) Djaykun or file snakes sing the Djarri (rainbow) which is formed by cross-hatching behind. The  rainbow comes and reflects the colours of the powerful Witji or rainbow serpent whom the Wawalag sisters met further afield before their demise.

The painting was created using traditional ochres onto bark and was acquired through an Arts Centre in the Northern Territory  in 1997.