“An Essay as Resource and Introduction to The Mulka Project”
“We want to bring knowledge of the past to the present, to preserve it for future generations and to understand what meaning it has in the present day and age.” 1
– Dr. Marika, Inaugural Cultural Director of The Mulka Project
“The name ‘Mulka’ means a sacred but public ceremony, and ‘to hold or protect’. That is why we call it The Mulka Project. It is public, like a library, but not just for old things. It is also about capturing what is happening in the community today. So Mulka is always growing. It is about upgrading the vision and recording style. That is why we continue recording people.” 2
– Wukuṉ Waṉambi with Henry Skerritt (2015)
Thank you to Joseph Brady for feedback on this essay
Founded in 2007, The Mulka Project is a “production house, recording studio, digital learning centre and cultural archive” that is “managed by Yolŋu law and governance.”3 The Project manages an archive that actively seeks out and collates Yolŋu cultural material from institutions around the world, creates new cultural resources, and facilitates access to and creative engagement with them. It is led by a team of artists and practitioners who mentor other artists, and who both make their own work and contribute to different collective projects. A journal article on the history and concept of The Mulka Project by founding Cultural Director Wukuṉ Waṉambi and Creative Director Ishmael Marika traces the story of the archives now held by Mulka from the first visits by anthropologists to North-East Arnhem Land “recording the sounds and images of our communities since the 1920s”, and the processes of gathering thousands of recordings held around the world being led by artists (Mulka was founded from the proceeds of the acquisition by the Australian National Maritime Museum of the Saltwater Yirrkala Bark Paintings of Sea Country by forty-seven contributing artists).4
I was asked by Maya Hodge, Jenna Warwick, and West Space to undertake a piece of writing about The Mulka Project, whose work I began to get to know when I worked on the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, NIRIN, where they exhibited the ground-breaking collective filmic cycle Watami Manikay (Song of the Winds) (2020) at the Art Gallery of New South Wales 5(view “an immersive online rendition” of the work here). When I began trying to work on this piece – beginning with the idea that I’d pitch a possible angle to The Mulka Project for feedback, I found it impossible to settle on any one idea. To begin from the discipline of art history is often to select the most suitable theoretical frame that can be applied to a particular artist or artistic movement. Maybe that’s never a particularly great way to start, and maybe also some collectives, quasi-institutions, or projects, elicit so many tendrils of activity that they always slip away from attempts at more singular framings. I don’t mean this in the way that some contemporary art projects can become so complex they become opaque, but in the way that some of the most innovative projects and collectives can simultaneously capture broad public imagination, support the vision of individual creators, and function as collectives that are constantly moving and reassembling in different formations, strengthening everyone who is a part of them, even for a short time.
This is all true in the case of The Mulka Project as a form of collective endeavour, whose grounding in Yolŋu thinking, and tethering to the transgenerational knowledge and wider relationships of every member, undergirds the powerful content they put out into the world. Their many tributaries – from functioning as a living archive, to artistic outputs, to acting as a training centre and production house – frequently re-calibrates the other institutions and people they exchange with (museums, galleries, archives, curators, researchers, film and television organisations and so on) back towards the centrality of where they come from, where they make work from, and the spectrum of relationships these practices entail. The Mulka Project are in lineage with and part of a deep cultural arena of Yolŋu artists and leaders (whose histories, stories, and artistic works are also part of the ever-growing Mulka archive) that have taught and are teaching a massive number of cultural producers and researchers across Australia and beyond Yolŋu ways of approaching things, and directing and re-directing various institutions in more Indigenous-led directions.
As I started this essay, Mulka had just released NFTs (https://yirrkala.com/nft/), with inaugural editions by Ishmael Marika and Wukuṉ Waṉambi, with portions of the sales of Waṉambi’s work going towards purchasing and permanently accessioning his bark painting depicting ceremonial waters in his ancestral homeland of Gurka’wuy (3-D scanned and separated into segments to create the NFTs) to the Yirrkala Museum – thus simultaneously intervening across the entangled worlds of digital artworks, art markets, collecting practices, archives and museums to ensure long-term local access to his own work.6 As Mulka artworks flow out across the ziplines of a speedy digitised and globalised cultural sphere, artists have visions towards the long futures of their homes and homelands.
To capture then, some of the many ways that The Mulka Project operates, this essay concludes with an annotated reading list selecting just some of the many materials that Mulka has somehow contributed to or set in motion through their prolific activities, or which could be read alongside their work.
The Archive & Collections
The archive has been a central topic within contemporary art histories, museum anthropology, museum studies, and post-colonial and decolonial theory particularly as these relate to collecting histories and colonialism. A turn towards Indigenous approaches to archives as well as the frame of Indigenising collections has begun to de-centre the colonial, Eurocentric, and western hold on archival imaginaries globally. The Mulka Project and their activities emerge in all kinds of papers and writing on approaches to the archive and to collections, where they lead in re-thinking how archives can be borne of people and communities having agency over their own materials; can be innovative extensions of deep cultural archival processes; and how creative works can be generated through, within, and in dialogue with archival materials and dynamics.
Will Stubbs, Ishmael Marika and Wukuṉ Waṉambi, ‘Buku-Ḻarrŋgay Mulka, Yirrkala and the world’, in Djalkiri: Yolŋu Art, Collaborations and Collections, ed. Rebecca J. Conway, Sydney, Sydney University Press, 2021, DOI: 10.30722.
Rob Lane, ‘To hold and protect: Mulka at Yirrkala’, Artlink, June 2011.
Lyndon Ormond-Parker and Robyn Sloggett, ‘Local archives and community collecting in the digital age’, Arch Sci (2012) 12:191–212, DOI: 10.1007.
The Mulka Project, Mulka Archive, magazine, 2011. (JH: magazine guide to the Mulka archive and different archives / collections within it.)
Miwatj: In Conversation Wukun Wanambi & Ishmael Marika, this publication accompanied the exhibition Miwatj, La Trobe Art Institute, Bendigo, from 29 May to 7 July 2018.
Digital Art / Digital Archives / New Media
The Mulka Project are at the forefront of practice around the exchanges and relays between online and offline spaces and the many ways these interact and merge, as well as innovatively working with access and cultural protocol issues around new technologies – from taking the archive online, to making it accessible to homeland communities through hard-drives, to allowing artistic work to constantly utilise and feed back into the archive, as well as by being digital innovators in terms of their individual and collective artwork installations and how they function across spaces, from multimedia installations, to animated digital mapping onto larrakitj, to 3-D animated Mulka NFT’s sold through their website.
ABC, The Art Show with Daniel Browning, 24 November 2021, ‘NFTs: next gen, reclaiming Bougainville and being an 'unwilling inspiration’. (JH: includes Mez Mia from MintNFT speaking on the Mulka NFTs and the NFT art trend).
Apple, ‘Behind the Mac’, ‘The Mulka Project. Preserving the past. In bold new ways.’
Siobhán McHugh, Ian McLean, and Margo Neale, ‘Notes from a Cross-Cultural Frontier: Investigating Australian Aboriginal Art through Podcasts’, Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies, Vol. 16, No. 4 (2020). (JH: A project on Indigenous podcasting in Australia including interviews and research at Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Arts, with a focus on ‘relational agency of various players’ in such creation. This was also disseminated as a narrative podcast.)
Nelson Meers Foundation, ‘Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre Digital Learning Centre'. (JH: article on the opening of the Mulka digital learning centre in 2015).
Cinematic Time / Film-making histories
Film and ideas of temporality are ever intertwined in discourses on cinema and film-making, and there are no more temporally complex yet arresting practices than those coming out of The Mulka Project where temporal scales and chrono-power dynamics are deftly woven within and across film projects. Traversing and interweaving different temporal modes such as ceremonial time, seasonal cycling, the time of installations and viewing, subjective and affective temporal perspectives, different ideas of historical time and the times of archives, Mulka are exemplifying what often gets variously considered under the umbrella of non-western cinematic forms (from Third Cinema to Indigenous cinema), creating distinct new visual filmic languages from Yolŋu perspectives.
Philippa Deveson, ‘The agency of the subject: Yolngu involvement in the Yirrkala Film Project’, Journal of Australian Studies, 35:2, 2001: 153-164, DOI: 10.1080.
Robert Lazarus Lane, ‘Wukun Wanambi’s Nhina, Nhäha, Ga Ngäma (Sit, Look, And, Listen)’, in Indigenous Archives. The Making and Unmaking of Aboriginal Art, eds. Darren Jorgensen and Ian McLean (Perth, Western Australia: UWAP, 2015) 227–249. (JH: Explores the way Wanambi’s use of time in his film interacts with archival chains and ceremonial documentation).
Pamela Wilson, Joanna Hearne, Amalia Córdova, Sabra Thorner, ‘INDIGENOUS MEDIA An Annotated Bibliography’, 2014, published in Oxford Bibliographies Online, and also available at https://tinyurl.com/465vt685. (JH: an annotated bibliography on Indigenous media globally, mentioning The Mulka Project and summarising some sources on Australian Indigenous film-making).
Jessyca Hutchens is a Palyku woman, living and working in Boorloo (Perth), Western Australia. She is an art historian and curator, currently in the final stages of a DPhil in art history at the University of Oxford and working as the Curator at the Berndt Museum, The University of Western Australia. Jessyca worked as the Curatorial Assistant to the Artistic Director at the Biennale of Sydney, for a ground-breaking Indigenous-led edition titled NIRIN.