181 x 10cm
This work is from the fresh water (inland) area known as Yanawal. This is a Marrakulu clan area whose ‘creation’ is associated with Wuyal the Sugerbag Man, Mayawa the Frill Neck Lizard and the Quoll or native cat which bears that name, Yanawal, and also Dhulaku the male euro.
Conventionally between first contact and 2000 works made for the art market containing this miny’tji would be ‘covered‘ by representations of these actors. This is a historical response to the Western market’s desire to see sacred paintings. To dilute the full force of the power of the law and to distinguish from strictly ceremonial paintings these ‘pictures’ of ancestral beings are almost always placed over the miny’tji. This work however ignores that convention and the artist shows their authority in Yolŋu law and also their background as a ceremonial artist. This is the design that is painted on the chests of some of the initiates at circumcision ceremonies.
The import of this work is the stony country of Yanawal, where activities of Wuyal the Sugarbag Man were that of seeking honey and felling trees transforming the landscape as he went – for example the Gurka’wuy River that runs into Trial Bay at Gurka’wuy was created in this way. Gurka’wuy goes back from the beaches close to the mouth of the Gurka’wuy River through stringybark (and cypress pine) Savannah that rises into scattered granite boulders and cycad palms. The Djuwany (Wawalak) Sisters in disguise as Yanawal the wild cat witnessed the events of Wuyal as did Dhulaku who is custodian of this place.
Buried in this design are all the elements of the songs of this area; Wuyal’s boomerang, running freshwater over this stony country, honey and the bees, and the blossom of the sacred Wanambi (a stringybark) tree. These are amongst the many manifestations of law to be found in this Marrakulu clan design for this country.
Wuyal journeyed from the stone quarry at Ŋilibidji with his poison cousin Mayawa past Trial Bay and came later to create Nhulun known as Mt. Saunders the site of the present day ‘Nhulunbuy’ or place associated with Nhulun.
Trial Bay is located between Caledon bay to the north and above the larger Blue Mud Bay on the western side of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Deep inside Trial Bay the Marrakulu clan claim ownership to land and sea though the actions and events of Ancestor Beings as they travelled into this country imbuing both land and sea. The mark of ownership is sung, danced and painted in Marrakulu ritual through the stringybark woodlands and stony country, through the freshwaters running into the Gurka’wuy River into trial Bay. Mixing with the saltwaters through sacred mangroves and froth and bubble and out deeper into the Bay with the outgoing tide, past boulders and rocky islets the power and knowledge associated with Marrakulu Rom (law) washes back to shore. This country is associated with the Wawalak Sisters, sacred goannas, Wuyal the Sugerbag Man and the original inhabitants of Gurka’wuy since these times, the Djuwany people. The Djuwany were the first people of this country who practised the ritual according to the Creators on the beaches, who hunted the stony country and waters of both the River and Trial Bay.
The Larrakitj 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 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 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.