Makassar–Yirrkala: An artist exchange taking pre-European contact into the future

The Makassar-Yirrkala Artist Exchange Program started with the artists spending 10 days together in December 2018, starting in South Sulawesi and making their way to Yirrkala in northeast Arnhem Land. Victorian College of the Arts Associate Director for Research Dr Danny Butt accompanied the artists and conducted interviews along the way.


Trade between the Makassan people of eastern Indonesia and many tribes of northern Australia was commonplace prior to any European trade in Australia.

Commodities such as rice, calico, knives, axes, fishing hooks and other metal products were exchanged for trepang, pearl shell, beeswax and ironbark timber. In fact, songlines identifying the trade items are still within the culture, and words are still in use today in Arnhem Land languages, such as rrupia (money). This trade has been dated to the 1700s, with new evidence suggesting it began even earlier.

A creative practice research project led by the Wilin Centre and funded by The Australia-Indonesia Centre with support from Wilin, focused on highlighting and celebrating the relationship that flourished between these traders well before European settlement. The project, which after much planning and long-term discussions formally ran from late 2018 and came to an end in February 2019, was led by outgoing Wilin Centre Head, Richard Frankland, and Lily Yulianti Farid, Director of Rumata’ Artspace in Makassar.

The project has taken the deep historical connections that existed between fishing communities in Makassar and First Peoples along the northern coast of Australia, rejuvenating them through art through the theme, “What was, what is and what can be.”

The project brought together artists to exchange ideas and create artworks in response: Adi Gunawan, Nurabdiansyah and Muhammad Rais from Rumata’ Artspace, and Barayuwa Mununggurr, Arian Pearson and Dion Marimunuk Gurruwiwi from the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre. Additionally, the project produced a documentary to further drive knowledge in Australia about pre-Western contact and trade.

Taking a moment in South Sulawesi: (left to right) lead researchers on the project Dr Lily Yulianti Farid, director of Rumata’ Artspace, and Associate Professor Richard Frankland, head of the Wilin Centre at the University of Melbourne, and project coordinator Sophie Couchman. (Credit AIC/Sophie Couchman)

Associate Professor Richard Frankland, Victorian College of the Arts

DB: What do you think this relationship between Makassan trepang traders and First Nations Australians offers our understanding of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia?

Richard Frankland: Australia’s starting to mature and move on from the morally bankrupt view of history that we once had. There have always been pockets of people who have been pursuing a broader knowledge about pre-contact history, and what we’ve got now is a whole heap of people who’ve been not only writing about it, but even building a Makassan prau and sailing it. The historical sailing from Makassar to Arnhem Land and to the Kimberleys was all pre-British colonisation. Now what’s beautiful about it is it affirms that there was once a social order in Aboriginal Australia that was based on different types of economy that overlapped into Western economic structures. These international relationships across the water brought another type of trade and that trade was about relationships through cultural exchange. The awareness of this history brings about cultural strengthening for us as a nation. It unravels the hidden and excluded documentation of history for not only Aboriginal Australia, but all Australia.

Any knowledge about our past, any knowledge that builds out the spirit of inquiry into who we were, helps establish who we are. And that helps establish who we can be as a nation. We’re actually unraveling a cultural tapestry that was about exclusion of history and we’re sewing together a new one.

The role that art plays in that is the role that art was always played: keeping culture alive and creating potential visions for victory and visions of healing. When I watched the young Yolŋu men talking about the footsteps of their grandmothers and grandfathers, their eyes lit up. And the spirit was on fire again today when they were showing the Makassans their artwork here. It was like a cold drink on a hot day.

The interviewer, VCA Associate Director Dr Danny Butt (back right) with artists and researchers at Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre in Yirrkala, Arnhem Land. (Credit: AIC/Sophie Couchman)

I think there’s great opportunity. I think all of us here in Australia are at a point of change and people want to know what happened before so that we can plant seeds in the here and now for our children and our children’s children. I would like to leave a really long time so I could see what others think of what we’ve done in 10, 20, 30 years time. I would like to see another boat to be built to travel back and forth. I’d like to see more films and stories. And another thing which I think is a real possibility is stimulating international trade from the many Aboriginal First Nations communities and tribes creating another economy. This can become the reality I’d like to see. I’d like to see Indonesia and other countries trading directly with First Nations people. It doesn’t just have to be just art. It can be a whole bunch of things.

DB: How does this project connect to the cultural revitalisation work that you are doing in Gunditjmara?

RF: This project is as a foundation for further research: it shows how as Aboriginal peoples we created new ceremony and ritual and our culture was never static. Rituals are created for the time and we still remember the old ones to celebrate what was. So what I’ve observed is how art answers trauma, how cultural strengthening answers trauma. To me, this can be a foundation for many projects not just about international trade with the Makassans from First Nations Australia, but also about trade among ourselves. When we looked at the art today [at the museum] it was healing. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know your culture, your language, your ceremony or ritual: that doesn’t make you any less of who you are. What matters is that you get empowered to reclaim that language and reclaim that song and reclaim the ceremony and ritual and to build new ones. Because we have to fight the poverty of spirit that comes from cultural loss. We have to rebuild a social order so that we can thrive. And this project is evidence of a historical social order that allowed that.

Filmmaker and VCA graduate Daniel King (with camera) at work while artists Arian, Barayuwa and Nurabdiansyah look at photos of a recreated boat trip from Makassar to Darwin in 1988, at MAGNT in Darwin. Behind them is Paul Clark, senior curator, Maritime Archaeology and History at the museum. (Credit: AIC/Sophie Couchman)

Daniel King, Film-maker and Master of Film and Television graduate, Victorian College of the Arts

DB: Can you tell me a little bit about how you came to be involved in this project?

Richard just gave me a call actually out of the blue as he normally does and said to me, I’m going to give you a number, this person named Sophie [Couchman, project manager], she’s going to give you a call and talk to you about a project about the Makassan-Yolŋu connection. I’d heard of it. I hadn’t done a lot of research about it, but I had heard the story. The main reason why I thought it’d be a good project to be involved in is that it’s not just a straight history documentary. This is a really good way to explore the Makassan/Yolŋu connection, through the eyes of artists who are producing work.

Watch the trailer for Daniel King’s documentary about the exchange: ‘Trading Cultures’

DB: What has opened up through experience of being with the artists that you didn’t expect in advance?

DK: Everything! Usually with a documentary, I’d spend a bit of time with subjects beforehand and get to know them and get to talk about what things we’re going to explore. But because of the nature of this project, three of us were based in Melbourne, three artists are living in Makassar and three other artists living in Yirrkala it was very hard to do that. So I’ve had to be more observational about my approach and let the story unfold. The camera is representing the audience and I’m finding out as the audiences find out about the characters in the story. I had done some research online and had been sent some reading material and some stuff to watch on TV, but it’s not until you actually get there and actually meet the artists and then us all going to the museum and seeing the Yolŋu paintings and the reactions to that, just peeling back the layers of the story in situ is what’s interesting.

DB: Richard thought it was important having you as accomplished young indigenous filmmaker to tell the story. Has the project brought anything for you to reflect on from a cultural perspective?

DK: Yeah, it’s really interesting. One of the things I said at the start of when we got to Maakassar, I said I don’t want the documentary to be influencing the project, I don’t think that’s appropriate. It should be more about the artists, the project itself and the artists and that cross cultural engagement that happens. So within that, just not pushing things, and allowing things to happen naturally and for the story to unfold. I’m trying to let people let people have the experience and then make a response to that.

The six artists at the centre of the exchange arrive at Rumata’ Artspace in Makassar: (left to right) Arian Pearson, Nurabdiansyah, Muhammad Rais, Barayuwa Munuŋgurr, Adi Gunawan and Dion Gurruwiwi. (Credit: AIC/Sophie Couchman)

Arian Pearson, Yolŋu artist

DB: Arian,  you’ve got a personal connection to Makassar. Can you tell me a bit about that – for you and also for the community?

Arian Pearson: The connection between Yolŋu and Makassar has developed over the many, many, many years and it’s made us who we are today. The Makassans have influenced us in many ways, especially the language and through song. There are stories of our family in the past that actually went back to Makassar. So I have cousins there.

What was it like for you going over there and seeing Makassar on this trip?

It was pretty exciting for all three of us to go and reconnect and just get that feeling of who these people actually were. You’ve heard all the stories, but to go there and experience it yourself after all these many hundreds of years was a very unique experience.

DB: As well as your many leadership roles in the community you’re an artist and musician. What do you think is important about the kind of artistic perspective on the story that’s different than say someone who is an archeologist or historian?

It’s very important. I guess the stories you can get across through art is a better way of getting it across because it’s going to stay for a long time, you’re leaving that behind for everyone else. And it’s also a part of keeping that story alive. So future generations they can learn from the art and then of the story.

DB: What’s it been like hosting the Makassans on this side of the exchange?

I love listening to their stories and they are eager to learn about the connection as much as myself or anyone else living here. I guess just to reconnect for them to see the place for themselves as well. It’s that same feeling I had when I went back to their place. I think it’s very special for them to really feel the place and to sort of look and hear the stories from the area where their ancestors came, and to develop relationships with people and side by side – it shows we can live in peace and harmony.

DB: You said in Makassar that you hoped some of those relationships can open up in the future as well. What what do you feel the possibility is there?

Yeah, through art there’s an expression of the storytelling and of the two cultures merging. We talk about the two waters – the freshwater and saltwater. It’s a metaphor when they come together, like the two cultures have merged and they created this solidity in a joint culture. It’s a good model for how cultural exchange can take place. I think it’d be great to have that connection continued in the future, whether it’s through any form of art, whether it’s music or dance or painting, but also maybe making something there for the longer term. Having something like an art centre so people can go to Makassar and see the artwork from both sides and the connection and the stories and they can come here as well and connect the two, so we can learn more about the history of Yolŋu people and the Makassan people.

Dr Lily Yulianti Farid (centre front) with exchange artists and local hosts at Rumah Berkah in Galesong, a historic trepang trading port in South Sulawesi. (Credit: AIC/Sophie Couchman)

Dr Lily Yulianti Farid, writer and co-founder, Rumata’ Artspace, Makassar

DB: You’ve had a relationship with Australia for a long time – what was interesting to you about this project and the story?

This project is very close to my heart, very special. I have learned about Makassar – Marege relationship from academic journals and books as well as from art projects. But this time, my involvement is deeper: creating a new connection through arts, working with young artists from Makassar and Yirrkala and witnessing the conversation/exchange based on our shared history.

DB: Makassar is a big city compared to Yirrkala – what do you think the Indonesian artists gained from the visit and exchange?

They’ve got a lot of questions after visiting Yirrkala. First, they were so impressed with Buku Arts Centre: a top and premium  arts centre seemingly in the middle of nowhere! That’s how they described Buku Arts Centre. Second, they were amazed with the artworks and the local artists’ commitment and passion, the support system and the appreciation. They’ve got a lot of questions about this!

Third, they are now learning more about the life of the First Nation people in Australia – the history, the arts, and the social problems. They’ve told me that this project is very special as they’ve learned their neighbouring country through the pre-European period. They see Australia differently through this project.

DB: You have established Rumata’, an independent art space in Makassar – what do you think the potential is for exchange between artists in Makassar and Australia?

I believe that this project has opened new doors for artist exchange program in the future, focusing on Makassar – northern Australia and our art warriors from this program would become the “cultural ambassadors” for a community-driven projects.