Larrakirtj: Encyclopedia of the Yolngu

larrakitjOn our first trip to Australia in 1990, still largely ignorant of Aboriginal art (despite the trip being inspired in large part by the Dreamings exhibition seen at the Asia Society in New York CIty two years earlier), we hit many of the tourist highspots: Sydney Harbour, the Great Barrier Reef, Uluru, the NGV in Melbourne.  And Canberra.  Well, we wanted to see Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles at the National Gallery, and we did.  But what formed a much stronger and more lasting impression on that visit was the Aboriginal Memorial, the collection of 200 burial poles from Central Arnhem Land commissioned for the bicentenary to memorialize the 200 years of colonization and the continued vitality of Aboriginal culture in the face of a promise of death and extinction.  It was powerful, dramatic, and apart from the Yiribana Gallery in Sydney, the largest collection of Indigenous art that we were to see on the entire trip.

In addition to everything else the creation of the Aboriginal Memorial achieved, it sparked a renaissance of the manufacture of full-sized funeral poles for the art market.  Earlier attempts to translate this Indigenous ritual idiom into fine art had foundered on the difficulties inherent in the form: a two-meter log, even hollowed out, is heavy and hard to transport from a remote community to a city gallery or to a collector’s home, and the resistance to exhibiting and collecting what were essentially coffins is understandable.  But the Memorial changed all that, and among the Yolngu surrounding the center at Yirrkala, the new medium began to thrive.

Early in this century the media magnate Kerry Stokes began to assemble a collection of these poles from eastern Arnhem Land, known in Yolngu matha as larrakitj.  The first group of them were exhibited at the Garma Festival in 2001.  By the end of the decade, there were over 100 larrakitj collected together for their first public display at the Art Gallery of Western Australia during the 2009 Perth International Arts Festival.  In 2010, the collection was included in the 17th Sydney Biennale.  It has now been published in an expansive, indeed encyclopedic, volume, Larrakitj: Kerry Stokes Collection (Australian Capital Equity Pty, Ltd, 2011, distributed by Fremantle Press), overseen by Anne-Marie Brody.

The book opens with a short statement by Gawirrin Gumana on “Larrakitj and the Law in the Past,” which is as concise and elegant and introduction to the subject as you could ask for.  Anne-Marie Brody’s introduction follows, providing some historical background and the story of Stokes’ collection as it grew over the course of a decade.

Next up is a series of essays led off by Howard Morphy’s “Larrakitj — Death and the Celebration of Life.”  Every bit of writing that comes from Morphy’s pen is a diamond, well polished, multi-faceted, and of surpassing value, and this one is no exception.  If you knew nothing of Yolngu culture before opening this book, you would be well-versed by the time you finished reading Morphy’s treatment here.  If you were already well read or experienced, his insights would burnish your knowledge.  He begins with a brief exposition of Yolngu mortuary rituals and the understanding of the spirit life that underlies them before briefly recapitulating the story that lies behind his monograph Journey to the Crocodile’s Nest (Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1984).  This account of a funeral not only provides the context for the creation of larrakitj, it helps to explain the interrelatedness of art and ceremony that is essential to understanding the place of these artifacts in Yolngu society.  He follows with a consideration of the aesthetics of larrakitj, again brilliantly illustrated by a close reading of a pole created by Galuma Maymurru.  (One of the illustrations for this section of the essay is a photograph of the painting on the larrakitj rendered two-dimensionally; it looks exactly like a bark painting.)

Three short meditations by Will Stubbs reflect on the importance of water and kinship in the Yolngu life cycle; on ceremony; and on the Yirrkala Church Panels.  Like Morphy’s essays these three pieces offer valuable insights for novice and initiate alike; no one has quite Stubbs’s flair for relating the seemingly exotic and esoteric aspects of Yolngu culture to the commonplaces of Western thought.  On a visit I once made to Yirrkala, Stubbs challenged me to think of my life without numbers; that, he said, would be like the Yolngu trying to live without the rules of kinship.  Here he focuses instead on the “stunted” quality of our own meagre grasp of patrilineal descent rules that barely can accommodate the concept of cousins to illuminate the richness of Yolngu thought on the subject.

Brody picks up from Stubbs’s explication of the cultural significance of the Church Panels to provide a brief, well illustrated guide to the content of the paintings themselves.  This lays important groundwork for the documentation of the Stokes Collection’s artworks that is to follow in the next section of the book, and is worth careful attention for that reason alone.  Andrew Blake’s contribution, “Of Hollowness and Substance,” gets physical: it describes the ways in which the trees that will be transformed into larrakitj are identified, harvested, prepared, and ultimately painted.  At the essay’s conclusion, a series of eight photographs offers an in-process documentation of the painting of a pole by Marrnyulla Mununggurr from bare wood to finished artwork.

The essays conclude with Yolngu voices forming bookends to Gawirrin’s opening statement.  There are two stories from his father retold by Djambawa Marawili, a “declaration” of law by Dula Ngurruwuthun, and a brief excerpt from “The Gathering of the Clouds” by Dhalulu Ganambarr that is a personal testament of identity.

What follows is an extended section that documents the artworks themselves–and this is where the encyclopedic nature of the project reveals itself.  The works are arranged by clan and by artist, with moiety and homeland specified for each.  Sometimes an artist appears under more than one clan, if he had painted both his father’s and mother’s designs.  Full-page photographs of the larrakitj, sometimes with a detailed close-up of part of the design, are accompanied by a few columns of text.

On first looking through the book, I flipped through these pages quickly, occasionally pausing at a familiar image, like Djirrira Wunungmurra’s buyku designs or a Manggalili clan yingapungapu inscribed on the middle of a pole.  Sometimes a particularly striking graphic representation, of a skeletal form perhaps, would seize my eye; or I would be struck by a novel element in the carving of the top of a pole: a fish’s jaw or fins, or a curling, abstract crown.

On my second approach to this section of the book, I paused at the first entry, from the Dhudi-Djapu clan, a striking pole by Dhukal Wirrpanda that included two disarticulated human skeletons in the top two-thirds of the design, and a trio of concentric circles painted to emphasize protrusions from the smooth circumference of the log on its lower third.  Curious to learn a few details, I began to read the annotation (all of which are provided by the inexhaustible Howard Morphy).  The story belongs to the Dhuwa moiety and tells of the deaths of two turtle hunters who were overwhelmed by a great wave while out at sea.  I was intrigued, in part because the story held echoes of a Yirritja Manggalili clan story that I knew well from the paintings of Naminapu Maumuru-White.

When I turned the page, the next pole, which told a different Dhudi-Djapu story, was the work of Galuma Maymuru, whose father’s brother was Naminapu’s father.  But the story told of the great shark Mäṉa, who was harpooned in the bay and tore up the land as he drove inward, dragging the harpoon’s rope behind him in his agony.  This story, in turn, resonated with a Djapu shark story that I had learned from a bark painting by Marrnyulla Munungurr, although that Djapu clan story centered on the shark breaking through a woven trap in a river.  In just a few pages, I was already snared myself, in a web of stories, correspondences, and echoes.  I was hooked, and read through each annotation in the next 150 pages.  The experience was like absorbing an encyclopedic atlas, story and country weaving together, reflecting backwards and forwards, ultimately dizzying–I’m sure I’ve retained little detail–but a thrilling ride nonetheless.

The book’s copious back matter heaps up more jewels.  Each of the 41 artists is profiled by means of a short biographical sketch, a photographic portrait, and an exhibition checklist.  A list of works follows, which serves as an index to the individual larrkitj.  There is a glossary and pronunciation guide.  Finally, there is a lengthy list of “further reading” comprising books, essays, newspaper and journal articles, exhibition catalogues, and multimedia.  This last includes Morphy’s 2006 CD-ROM The Art of Narritjin Maymuru; several of the titles from The Yirrkala Film Project; the short documentaries Dhakiyarr v. the King (2004) and  The Pilot’s Funeral (2005), both of which contain segments illustrating the creation of larrakitj; and finally, much to my surprise and delight, a citation to this blog!

The last element which must be mentioned, for it is like the sap that binds together the ochres and clay and stories is the spectacular nature photography by Peter Eve (who also executed the portraits of the artists).  These stunning portraits of the country show us the rocks that are the bones of the ancestors, the waters that infuse life through the country and bind the clans together, the mists that transform the forests.  They are themselves documents of beauty and joy, of the life of the land that is ever present, even in the face of death.

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One Response to Larrakirtj: Encyclopedia of the Yolngu

  1. Pingback: The Poetry of Geography | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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