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Contemporary art

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art

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Djirrirra Wunuŋmurra


1968 -

Language group

Dhalwangu, Arnhem region


Buku-Larrngay Mulka Art Centre documentation for this work states:

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 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.

While the body was 'lying in state' others got wind of the death, perhaps by subliminal message and made preparations to the journey site of the 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 the 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 the 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 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 the 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.

A sacred expanse of water behind Gangan outstation where this work was produced is referred to as Gulutji. The initial activities of Barama the great ancestral being for Yirritja moiety took place here. Travelling from the seaside at Blue Mud Bay he emerged from the waters of Gulutji. Council was held with ‘Disciple’ Ancestors and Yirritja law was written. From this place the Yirritja nation spread as it traversed the country establishing clan estates and governing policy including language, ceremonial ritual and miny’tji (signature of the sacred design of event and place – this word describes the patterns employed in this work).

One of the metaphorical overviews of the painting is the union between the different subgroups of the Dhalwangu clan in the ancestral cycle of the regular fishtrap ceremonies they join together in celebrating. The last one of these was five years ago. These gatherings are ceremonial but also social and educational.

The sacred diamond design generally refers to the waters around Gangan but here are encased in strong vertical lines which show the structure of the fishtrap made during Mirrawarr (early dry season) with Rangan (paperbark) and wooden stakes. This is the Buyku or fishtrap area which is 'company' land (ie. shared by all of the people who live by/sing the river). The Dhalwangu and allied groups who participate in this song cycle and fishing activity are hunting Baypinga (saratoga) as does the Gany’tjurr (reef heron) which they identify with as the archetypal Yirritja hunter.




Media category


Materials used

hollow pole; natural pigments on wood


251.0 x 20.0 x 17.5 cm


Don Mitchell Bequest Fund 2008


Not on display

Accession number


Artist information

Djirrirra Wunuŋmurra

Works in the collection