Tony Danyala
Nyoka' (Mud crabs)
c. 1984

David Daymirringu
Ngarrawu (Mangrove jack)
c. 1984

We are walking along, sister, singing and making country with the point of our digging sticks. What is that, sister? A mangrove shell. We must put it within the mouth of the mat and hide it, making it sacred. . . . . Indeed it is sacred to us. We cover it up within the mat, so no one may see it; it is like a young sibling child.

-- Song of the Djang'kawu

The mangroves were laid out and made as one with human beings at the beginning of time by the Djang'kawu, the mothers of the present-day Yolgnu. Indeed the Manyarrngu people, David Malangi's family, are called the people of the mangrove (manyarr) trees.

Mangrove trees are found on the coastal tropical and subtropical mud flats down to the low waterline. They have large masses of interlacing, leglike roots above ground that catch mud and weeds, extending the shoreline into the sea. In the religious beliefs of northeastern Arnhem Land, the tree is thought of as a spirit called Giyapara, who walked across the mud flats, hence the bifurcated sections possibly representing limbs in the paintings of Johnny Ngarrarran.

Mangrove swamps were often seen by Europeans as an impediment to development, unpleasant and dangerous places full of biting insects and disease. For the Aboriginal people, the mangroves are abundant gardens of food and resources that sustain and enrich their lives, where every plant and animal is known. The mud is home to a multitude of delicious shellfish, from minute bivalves and oyster beds (the half lozenge shapes in Dick Yambal's painting Oysters (Wayanaka) to large, delectable mud crabs represented in Tony Danyala's Mud Crabs (Nyoka'). The trees also bear fruit. The succulent wood-eating worms called milka' and the twisted ribbon pattern of the tunnels they make feature in the bark paintings of Johnny Ngarrarrang titled Mangrove Timber Eaten by Mangrove Worms (Giyapara/ milka')