Mara Country, 1988
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas
185 x 260cm
Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi, Melbourne
Artist’s Retrospective Exhibition: Mother in Mind: The Art of Ginger Riley Munduwalawala, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, VIC, 17 July – 22 September 1997
Artist’s second group show: Ngukurr, Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi, Melbourne in conjunction with Open College Tafe (via Katherine), 1988
Aboriginal Art and Spirituality, High Court & Parliament House, Canberra February 27-March 14 1991; Exhibition Gallery, Waverley Centre, March 24- May 5 1991; The Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, Ballarat, May 24- July 1991.
Porta Oberta al Dreamtime: Art Aborigen Contemporani d’Australia (Open Door to Dreamtime, native Contemporary Art of Australia), 1971-2003, Fundació Caixa de Girona, Girona, Spain, 24 September - 14 November 2004, Fundació Caixa de Terrassa, Barcelona, Spain, 20 November 2004 - 9 January 2005.
Judith Ryan, Mother in Mind: The Art of Ginger Riley Munduwalawala, Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1997, p.50 (colour illus.).
Rosemary Crumlin, Aboriginal Art and Spirituality, North Blackburn: Collins Dove, 1991, cover image, p. 94, p.94-95 (colour illus.)
G. Planella. (ed.), Porta Oberta al Dreamtime: Art Aborigen Contemporani d'Austràlia , 1971-2003, Fundació Caixa de Girona, 2004.
Mara Country, 1988 is considered one of Riley’s most significant masterworks, positioning him as one of Australia’s great contemporary artists.
The early example of heroic scale tells or recreates the artist’s entire story for which he is responsible – his mother’s country around the Limmen Bight and Limmen Bight River in the Northern Territory of Australia.
While the painting is sacred and therefore, layers of the story remain secret, there is much we can decipher. In one painting, Riley has drawn together many of the vibrant icons of his country: Bulukbun the fierce fire breathing serpent-dragon, Ngak Ngak the white-breasted sea eagle, the shark’s liver tree, Jatukal (plains kangaroo) and Yulmunji the shark.
Bulukbun, the fiery serpent-dragon is a focal point of the composition. Identified by his forked tongue and protruding horn, he is considered the angry version of the creator-snake who emerges out of the ocean to murder people. In the 1991 exhibition, Aboriginal Art and Spirituality, Knight and Crumlin share a deeper reading of the narrative stating, “The myth as told by Ginger Riley, has not received close study by scholars but it may be that the dragon who rises from the sea to kill people and the cave that contains the bones of 200 people refer to the numerous massacres by the white invaders in the thirty years before the establishment of the mission [at Ngukurr] in 1908.”
Another of Riley’s distinctive icons, Ngak Ngak the totemic white-breasted sea eagle, is shown in the bottom right quadrant. When asked why he often painted the bird green Riley stated, “I know it should be white but it looks better in green.” Ngak Ngak is the caretaker and protective spirit who looks after country. According to Beverly Knight, who represented the artist during most of his career, “Munduwalawala explained that there is an island near the mouth of the Limmen Bight River which, was formed when Ngak Ngak flew over it.” Riley refers to Yumunkuni or Beatrice Island that is associated with Bulukbun’s punishment of the misbehaving boys undergoing initiation. It’s also a very important site for Yulmunji (shark), Riley’s mother’s dreaming. The totem is visible next to Ngak Ngak in the painting.
Many of Riley’s paintings include the shark’s liver trees also seen in Mara Country, 1988. The tree, painted dead or alive are man-made totems. They are named as such because according to Riley, the shark offered his liver to make these sacred totems.
Riley includes a message stick in the bottom left quadrant that is flanked by two guardian creator snakes reinforcing the importance of ceremony in the work. He regularly painted ceremonial boards in other works and Judith Ryan suggests they may have been associated with the announcement of “…a circumcision ceremony…[or] inviting other’s to come down for ceremony.”
The inclusion of the plains kangaroo (Jatukal) in the image may reference the site of Nyamiyukanji and the narrative associated with Bandian, the king brown snake who formed part of Riley’s mother’s country. Judith Ryan advises, “Nyamiyukanji is not explicitly painted or discussed. According to Riley, the plains kangaroo travelled towards the mouth of the Limmen Bight River in search of a woman. Failing to find one he was advised by Bandian [the king brown snake, Riley’s father’s mother’s Dreaming] who was resting in a nearby waterhole, to look for a young girl instead. Riley says that Jatukal, ‘the first being’, needed a mate and the sexual act took place at Nyamiyukanji.”
The depiction of the plains kangaroo is also a rarity in the artist’s images as Ryan further states, “Riley is jungkayi [custodian] for Bandian, but the King brown snake and the plains kangaroo are much less visible in his works.”
Riley was granted Native Title to his Mother’s Country in 2000. Mara Country, 1988 was integral to this process of working with lawyers to build a case, as were other works he painted of Limmen Bight River Country.
 Rosemary Crumlin, Aboriginal Art and Spirituality, North Blackburn: Collins Dove, 1991, p.142
 Judith Ryan, Mother in Mind: The Art of Ginger Riley Munduwalawala, Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1997, cover image and p. 48 (colour illustration), p.30.
 Beverly Knight, Biography of Ginger Riley MUnduwalawala, 2018
 Judith Ryan, Mother in Mind: The Art of Ginger Riley Munduwalawala, Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1997, cover image and p. 48 (colour illustration), p.31.
 Ibid., p. 31
 Ibid., p. 31
 Ibid., p. 30.