Rakuny ga Walnga

Undeniably, the best part of writing a blog, every week for eight years now (I’m astonished to realize), are the introductions it affords me to people around the world, virtually, and especially when I land on the ground in Australia.  Among the friends I’ve made over the years, I’ve been particularly delighted to share ideas, book recommendations, photos, and conversation to Deb Sims and Matt Dickson.  Regular readers will have seen photos of the exhibitions of women’s and men’s paintings that they have organized an sent touring around Australia’s regional galleries.  And now Deb has generously shared some of her photographs from the GoMA exhibition curated by Di Moon, Death and Life = Rakuny ga Walnga: Contemporary Arnhem Land Art, that overlapped with My Country: I Still Call Australia Home in recent months.  With her permission, I can share them with you today.

In my review of the catalog from My Country, I noted that I’d found reference to an electronic catalog of Death and Life in the National Library’s database.  Deb did me one better and sent a copy of it in .pdf format, a link to which is included at the end of this post.


The wall text for this stunning presentation of the work of the late Mickey Durrng indicates that the cross patterns in the bark paintings can evoke the spread of yam vines, waterholes, or the rising sun.  The bold stripes likewise call up associations of sunlight, slanting shadows, or the markings of the azure kingfisher as seen in the body painting of the Djang’kawu.  The lorrkon on the far right was the last work Durrng completed in his lifetime.


If you has asked me, I never would have identified the painting above as the work of Terry Ngamandara Wilson, although I could have identified the one below in a heartbeat. Above, a body painting design from 1995 that captures better than any other artifact I’ve seen the physicality of the white clay spread on skin and then overdotted with a clan or ritual design.  I have always been awed by Ngamandara’s precision and symmetry in his paintings of sacred waterholes and the spike rush that live in them, as below (Waterhole at Barlparnarra, 2007).  This body painting design has given me a whole new appreciation for his virtuosity.


From central Arnhem Land, this extraordinary piece by Johnny Bulun Bulun:


This bark dates from 2002 and depicts a body design associated with wind.  Like Ngamandara’s painting above, this one captures, albeit with a different affect, the designs that are painted on, for example, the chests of boys as they undergo initiation/circumcision rituals.  The slim bark support mimics the human frame so perfectly and the dynamism of the design is so well executed, that I expect to see this object twitch or dance before my eyes.  I have no idea what the central black circle with its infill of white dots suggests, but it creates a space like infinity to fall into, strapped as it is against the strong white vertical.  If one wished to exemplify the classical style in art from eastern or central Arnhem Land, this painting would be an irresistible choice.


Bob Burruwal’s cheeky Namarroddo spirit figures (2005), associated with shooting stars,  have been a staple at Maningrida Arts and Culture for over a decade now.  Fashioned from string or paperbark, ochre or human hair, or all of the above, they are as cheeky and appealing as his wife Lena Yarinkura’s camp dogs.  These bird-like figures Burruwal has been producing recently have become particular favorites of mine in his oeuvre.


This relatively early interpretation of Garak, The Universe (2004) by Gulumbu Yunupingu has a strength to its patterning that was sometimes subsumed in the grace and overall effect of later versions of this motif.  It retains something of the contrasts your eye picks out as it traces the trail of the Milky Way across the night sky.

One last bark painting, the work below is by Dhukal Wirrpanda, Wukidi ga Yingapungapu I (2005), which depicts two mortuary rituals or sites.  At the top is the wukudi, which belongs to Dhukal’s Dhudi-Djapu clan of the Dhuwa moiety.  In ancestral times, a tsunami washed far inland to the site of Wukudi; for Yirritja clans the yingapungapu marks a grave site in which two brothers who were drowned by a similar giant wave.


The remaining photographs capture the yingapungapu that was constructed in one of the galleries as a focal point for the display of a number of larrakitj.  In Ancestral Connections (Chicago, 1991, pp. 246ff.), Howard Morphy describes the yingapungapu as a  oval-shaped sand sculpture that is part of Yirritja mortuary rituals among Yolngu from eastern Arnhem Land.  Traditionally, those who have been prepared the body for burial or otherwise been in contact with the deceased eat their food within it during the ceremony; scraps and leftovers are buried within its boundaries.  (A similar installation was included in the Seattle Art Museum’s exhibition Ancestral Modern in 2012: video can be found here.)


I think that the pole in the foreground here is the work of Yälpi Yunupingu.


The three poles in the yingapungapu look to be by Naminapu Maymuru-White, Djambawa Marawili, and Yanggariny Wunungmurra.  Naminapu is a member of the Manggalili clan, which owns the yingapungapu, along with the Dhalwangu (Yanggariny) and Madarrpa (Djambawa).  The ancestral yingapungapu ground at the Manggalili clan homeland at Djarrakpi is considered extremely dangerous and is avoided by members of the clan today.  Its extent is marked by two large boulders that warn anyone who might stray into the area; most likely these boulders are represented here by the stones at either end of the sand sculpture.  (Again, the details on clans and customs are courtesy of Morphy’s Ancestral Connections.)


The larrakitj here by Yanggariny is, like the lorrkon by Mickey Durrng in the first photograph, the artist’s final work.


At the extreme left of this image is a pole that I think was painted by Garawan Wanambi. Severely tilted near the wall on the right is a slender pole by Gulumbu, positioned next to the bark painting shown above.


On the left, against the wall, a set of five lorrkon by Nawurapu Wunungmurra, Yanggariny’s son.  Details are shown below.


Nawurapu’s work here is collectively titled Mungurru (Ocean water) and these poles date from 2008.  As the monsoon season approaches,  evaporation from the salty waters of Djalma, or Blue Mud Bay forms pregnant clouds that will release life-restoring rains inland, forming the freshwater rivers that flow back into the bay.  Nawurapu paints the site of Garraparra, where according to Dhalwangu Law, the giant tsunami drowned the fishermen brothers, making this the Dhalwangu version of the story that is associated with the yingapungapu.


In the Manggalili version of the story, the two Guwak brothers  were drowned by a wave created by a great turtle coming to shore to lay her eggs.  In death, they traveled up into the sky and became stars, as shown here on Naminapu’s lorrkon.


More information about these works and the interplay of life and death that they carry can be found in the catalog for the exhibition.  I’ve linked to a 5.8MB PDF file fbelow (and well as the link in the preceding sentence).  Once more, thanks to Deb and Matt for sharing all this wealth with me.  When you’re finished enjoying these photos, check out Deb’s wonderful chronicles of life in the Upper Hunter Valley, aptly titled Country Life and Death (but no connection to the GoMA exhibition intended).

Death and Life


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