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Contemporary art

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art

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John Mawurndjul AM


1952 -

Language group

Kuninjku, Arnhem region


In the documentation for 'Lorrkkon' 2003 Maningrida Arts & Culture state: "The Lorrkkon or bone pole coffin ceremony was the final ceremony in a sequence of mortuary rituals celebrated by people of Arnhem Land. This ceremony involves the placing of the deceased's bones into a hollow log which is decorated with painted clan designs and ceremonially placed into the ground where it remains until it slowly decays over many years".

The log is made from a termite hollowed Stringybark tree (Eucalyptus tetradonta) and is decorated with totemic emblems.

The western Arnhem Land version of the Lorrkkon ceremony involves the singing of sacred songs to the accompaniment of karlikarli, a pair of sacred boomerangs used as rhythm instruments.

During the final evening of the ceremony dancers decorate themselves with kapok down, or today cotton wool and conduct much of the final segments of the ceremony in the secrecy of a restricted men's camp. The complete ceremony may stretch over a period of two weeks but on the last night the bones of the deceased which have been kept in a bark container, or today wrapped in cloth and kept in a suitcase, are taken out, are painted with red ochre and placed inside the hollow log. This ceremony may take place many years after the person has died.

At first light on the final morning of the Lorrkkon ceremony, the men appear, coming out of their secret bush camp carrying the pole towards the women's camp. The two groups call out to each other using distinct ceremonial calls. The women have prepared a hole for the pole to be placed into and when it is stood upright, women in particular kinship relationships to the deceased dance around the pole in a jumping/shuffling motion. The Lorrkkon is then often covered with a tarpaulin and left to slowly decay.

During his painting career the artist has gradually moved from depicting familiar representations of such spiritual entities as Ngalyod the Rainbow Serpent and the mermaid-like female spirits or Yawk Yawks, to dazzling abstract patterning that completely covers the surface of the log or bark. These 'abstract' paintings represent body painting for the Mardayin ceremonies and relate to sites near his homeland at Mumeka. There is also a connection with the dazzling optical effects associated with the skin of the rainbow serpent.

Mawurndjul is one of the finest bark painters working at the moment. He is particularly noted for his fine rarrk (cross hatching) and the distinctive patterning that is displayed on this lorrkon and his bark paintings. Mawurndjul was tutored by his brother Jimmy Njiminjuma (b.1945) and uncle, Peter (Djakku) Marralwanga (c.1916-1987), both superb artists.

John Mawurndjul won the NGV's Clemenger Contemporary Art Award for 2003 and has had solo exhibitions in Melbourne and Sydney since 1991. His work is in many public and private collections in Australia and overseas. Mawurndjul has won several prizes including the 1999 and 2002 Bark Painting Awards at the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award held by the Museums and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory.

© Australian Art Department, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2004




Media category


Materials used

natural pigments on eucalyptus tetradonta


230.0 x 15.0 cm :

0 - Whole, 230 cm (90 9/16")

0 - Whole, 15 cm

Signature & date

Not signed. Not dated.


Purchased 2004


Not on display

Accession number


Artist information

John Mawurndjul AM

Artist profile

Works in the collection



Where the work was made

Shown in 2 exhibitions

Exhibition history

Referenced in 1 publication


Hetti Perkins, Crossing country: the alchemy of western Arnhem Land art, Sydney, 2004, 205 (colour illus.), 226.