Earth pigments on Stringybark hollow pole
Buḻwutja (Dhuwa, Cycnogeton dubium) is a water yam and described In the artist’s words the following:
‘This story is from a long time ago. People travelled around from place to place to hunt for ŋatha (food).
First we dig in the water for Buḻwutja. Then we make a fire. When the fire burns down we take the coals to one side and put sand on top of them. Then the hot sand cooks the Buḻwutja.
When you pick the Buḻwutja it is white from the water. It tastes sweet.
We have eaten this ŋatha for a long time. New generation always goes to the shop to get shop food.’
Buḻwutja described in the words of Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda in the book Miḏawarr | Harvest that was published by her and John Wolseley in 2017:
‘This is one of the plants which belong to the Dhuḏi-Djapu as well as the Djapu. It is a plant which is sung by my own clan. It grows in and around the billabongs and swampy areas. The plants grow in clumps after the rains, and you pull them out in clumps. You cook it underground or on coals and then mash it into a blackish grey paste that is tasty and nutritious. This paste can also be baked into a bread.
Buḻwutja grows on the Garaŋarri floodplain, south of Dhuruputjpi, and also at Lumatjpi, near Yilpara where the songs tell of the spirit woman Marrnyili. Men sing the songs of this food entangled with the identity of this place. They sing the journey of this woman through the landscape:
Mokuywa Ngatha Marrnyiliwa
Buway buway buway
Marrtji ṉämbarra ŋupan ḻarrumany.
There they go, the spirit women Marrnyili
walking walking walking
with their knees and their elbows lifting high in the air
this way and that threading through the paperbark saplings
searching for their food’
The Ḻarrakitj had its traditional use for the Yolŋu 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 Ḻarrakitj containing the bones standing in the bush. Over time the ḻarrakitj and its contents would return to mother earth.
The Ḻarrakitj 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 Yolŋu 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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