Colin Yerrilil is a senior Djambarrpuyŋu Dhamarranydji cultural practitioner and artist. He is renowned for painting his Djambarrpuyŋu clan designs, including clan totems Buḻ’manydji (shark), Baṉumbirr (morning star) Bäpi (snake), and Ḏaruma (conch shell).
Yerrilil was born at his father’s homeland of Djawaḻ’ŋur (in the Buckingham Bay region). When he was a small child he remembers his father, Mark Manuwa, his father’s brother Johnny Dhawurrpurr, their two sisters, and their father, Marritja, making a trip from Djawal’ŋur to Milingimbi by lipalipa (canoe) to learn more about the recently established Methodist mission there. Yerrilil explains that they were happy to see its supplies of tobacco, flour, tea and sugar, and shortly afterwards the family made a permanent move to Milingimbi. Yerrilil says his family were a little bit happy to arrive at the mission, but also very sad to leave their ancestral country.
Opening in 1923, the Milingimbi Mission was one of the first to be established in North-east Arnhem Land. As a young boy Yerrilil attended the Mission school. He describes it as being just one building where he and the other djamarrkuḻi (children) learnt a little bit of English. Mostly they were taught in Yolŋu-maṯha. There were two Balanda (European) teachers and one Yolŋu teacher.
Children also acquired cultural learning from their elders – Yerrilil points to the Djambaŋ (tamarind tree) opposite his house and explains it was there that he learnt from his fathers (his father and father’s brothers). He didn’t ask questions but quietly watched as they prepared and performed ceremony. This included painting their clan miny’tji (designs), the same designs he paints today.
It is worth noting that the missionaries were generally supportive of Yolŋu art production, and Milingimbi quickly became a locus of attention for national and international anthropologists and art collectors. Between the 1930s and 1950s many artworks were acquired at Milingimbi for institutions and private collections.
Following the move towards policies of Aboriginal self-determination during the 1970s and the transfer of administrative responsibilities to the Milingimbi Community in 1974, the mission closed, however Yerrilil and his family have remained on the island. Before becoming an artist Yerrilil had several other roles in the community including in airstrip maintenance, barge deliveries and mechanical services.
As a senior Djambarrpuyŋu Dhamarranydji man, Yerrilil continues to carry and practice his clan’s Rom (Law), Miny’tji, (designs), Manikay (songs) and Buŋgul (ceremonies).