Earth pigments on Stringybark
70.5 x 33cm
This is something of a naturalistic reference to Wititj (Olive Python). In physical form, Wititj is manifest as the olive python, found in the monsoon rain forests in North East Arnhem Land. As told by Watjuku Gurruwiwi, the brother of Djul’djul, when olive pythons are mating, Dhamiḻiŋu is said to be present to to protect the snakes from potential predators such as brown snakes. In this sense Dhamiḻiŋu is seen as a protector for the creation rights and processes of the Wititj and therefore through association, with the Gälpu clan.
In a broader sense, this imagery refers to perhaps the oldest continuous human religious iconographical practice, the story of the Rainbow Serpent. Estimates vary from 40,000 to 60,000 years on the depictions of the Rainbow Serpent in West Arnhem rock shelters.
Wititj is the all powerful rainbow serpent (olive python) that traveled through Gälpu clan lands and on further, during the days of early times called Waŋarr. Djaykuŋ the Javanese file-snake is a companion and possibly alternate incarnation of Wititj, living in among the Dhatam, or waterlilies, causing ripples and rainbows (Djari) on the surface of the water (one reference in the cross hatch).
The story of Wititj is of storm and monsoon, in the ancestral past. It has particular reference to the mating of Wititj during the beginning of the wet season when the Djarrwa (square shaped thundercloud) begin forming and the lightning starts striking.
The sun shining against the scales of the snake form a prism of light like a rainbow. The arc which a snake in motion travels through holds to a rainbow shape but causes the oily shimmer to refract the colours of the rainbow. The power of the lightning is made manifest when they strike their tongue. The thunder being the sound they make as they move along the ground. The morning after a major cyclone there are swathes of stringy-bark bent over in snake trails through the bush in just the same way a normal scale snake leaves bent over grass traceable by trained trackers. After Cyclone Monica there was a path cleared through the stringy-bark forest almost from Maningrida to Jabiru.
The Larrakitj had its traditional use for the Yolngu of North east Arnhem Land as an ossuary or bone container erected as a memorial to a dead kinsman up to a decade after death. After death the body of the deceased was often ceremonially placed on a raised platform and left to the elements for an appropriate time. The area would then be abandoned until the next stage of the ritual. This took place once it was determined that the essential eternal spirit of the deceased had completed its cyclical journey to the spring from which it had originated and would in time return again. This might be several years.
Whilst the body was ‘lying in state’ others got wind of the death, perhaps by subliminal message and made preparations to journey to the site of mortuary. Usually enough time had elapsed for the bones of the deceased to be naturally cleansed on the platform. The essence of the soul within the bone was made ready for final rites when other outside participants necessary for its safe journey arrived. Ritual saw the bones of the deceased placed within the termite hollowed memorial pole for final resting. Mortuary ritual would end with the placement of the Larrakitj containing the bones standing in the bush. Over time the Larrakitj and its contents would return to mother earth. The Larrakitj has often been referred to as the mother’s womb.
Once sedentary mission communities were established in Arnhem Land it became impractical to abandon permanent communities and outlawed to expose corpses on platforms. However the cosmology of the Yolngu and the essence of ritual mortuary ceremony remains just as important. Larrakitj continue to be produced as the equivalent of headstones or to contain the personal effects of a deceased (which might be dangerous unless removed from the living because of the emanations imbued by contact with the deceased).
A further role for this cultural form is as a fine art object and an instructional tool for younger generations. Artworks of this nature have multiple layers of metaphor and meaning which give lessons about the connections between an individual and specific pieces of country (both land and sea), as well as the connections between various clans but also explaining the forces that act upon and within the environment and the mechanics of a spirit’s path through existence. The knowledge referred to by this imagery deepens in complexity and secrecy as a person progresses through a life long learning process.
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