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Wandjuk Djuakan Marika (1927–1987)

by Jennifer Isaacs

This article was published:

Wandjuk Marika, c.1978 [detail]

Wandjuk Marika, c.1978 [detail]

State Library of New South Wales, 12823878

Wandjuk Djuakan Marika (1927-1987), Aboriginal leader and artist, was born in 1927 on Bremer Island (Dhambaliya), Northern Territory, eldest son of Mawalan Marika and his wife Bamatja. Of the Dhuwa moiety, Wandjuk was a member of the Rirratjingu group of the Yolngu people. During childhood he travelled by foot throughout north-east Arnhem Land and by canoe around the coast from Melville to Caledon bays. From both parents he learned respect and care for his country, and from his father, a clan leader, he inherited extensive rights to land.

Among the first to be taught to read and write at the Methodist Overseas Mission established at Yirrkala in 1935, Marika soon became a teacher’s assistant in the mission school and started translating the Bible into Gumatj—a task which continued intermittently over many years, and through which he perceived that many Judaeo-Christian values were anticipated in Yolngu culture. As a young man he interpreted for his father to the anthropologist Ronald Berndt. His proficiency in English made him a valued go-between for visitors and researchers who came to Arnhem Land. Following his father’s death in 1967, he assumed the role of teacher of ritual knowledge.

Already in contact with Northern Territory government officials, by 1963 Marika had become a conduit for the protests of several clans against the decision to grant mining leases on the Gove Peninsula to the Nabalco Co. In August that year he helped to send the first of several bark petitions to the Commonwealth government, incorporating traditional designs and highlighting the lack of consultation with Aboriginal communities. This campaign led in 1971 to the first land rights case in Australia. An adviser to government bodies, including the Office of Aboriginal Affairs (1969-72), he was an impassioned speaker about the religious meaning of land to Aboriginal traditional owners.

Marika had been taught bark painting by his father. Their collaborative paintings of the great Rirratjingu clan themes were acquired in the 1950s and 1960s by galleries and museums. Soon established as a major artist like his father, Marika was a member of the Aboriginal arts advisory committee of the Australian Council for the Arts (1970-73) and its successor, the Aboriginal Arts Board, which he chaired in 1975-80. He applauded the board’s assistance in the ‘re-emergence of the Aboriginal people as a dynamic force within the cultural life of this nation’. His outrage at finding his interpretations of spiritual themes reproduced on souvenir towels led him to lobby for the creation of the Aboriginal Artists Agency in 1973 to protect Indigenous intellectual property. Marika was a director of Aboriginal Arts and Crafts Pty Ltd and a member of the advisory committee of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

A striking, vibrant man, full bearded and often wearing a headband with a suit, Marika was one of the most significant Indigenous spokesmen of the twentieth century. He was a powerful yidaki (didgeridoo) player and worked closely with ethnographic and documentary film-makers. Touring Australia, he viewed Aboriginal art works and archaeological sites with a deep sense of the loss of continuity in Indigenous culture. He visited the Soviet Union, Britain, the United States of America, Canada and New Zealand. In 1979 he was appointed OBE. Survived by his first wife, Gotjiringu, and his second wife, Dhuwandjika, with each of whom he had seven children, he died of septicaemia on 15 June 1987 in Darwin and was buried with Indigenous rites. An annual prize for three-dimensional work by Indigenous artists was established in his name.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Isaacs (ed), Wandjuk Marika (1995)
  • Age (Melbourne), 19 Oct 1974, p 2, 11 Apr 1980, p 3
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 27 June 1977, p 3
  • personal knowledge.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Jennifer Isaacs, 'Marika, Wandjuk Djuakan (1927–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 26 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Wandjuk Marika, c.1978 [detail]

Wandjuk Marika, c.1978 [detail]

State Library of New South Wales, 12823878

Life Summary [details]


Bremer Island, Northern Territory, Australia


15 June, 1987 (aged ~ 60)
Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia

Cause of Death

blood poisoning

Cultural Heritage

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Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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