ESSAY: Fighting clubs
This group of ten fighting or throwing clubs exemplify the refined and exciting visual traditions that existed throughout Aboriginal Australia. Simple bulbous headed clubs were often used for hunting and everyday use, but highly embellished versions were often made for ceremony and war. The ‘pineapple-headed’ club was made by Aboriginal peoples from North Queensland and south along the coast to Brisbane. It gained the name of the popular exotic fruit due to the prominent girdle found at the widest part of the club — slightly below its tapered tip — which was carved in diamond or square patterns and roughly resembles a pineapple or grenade. Its distribution has led leading anthropologists to suggest it was originally introduced from New Guinea, via the Torres Strait, where a similar wooden club with a carved stone ‘pineapple’ held on top is found.1
The particular style of these clubs is from the Rockhampton area — probably from slightly inland near Comet Waters — where makers were well regarded for the refinement and innovation of their objects. Here clubs were carved from Brigalow (Acacia harpophylla) or other wattle (Acacia spp.) and rubbed with charcoal grease to form a dark sheen or patina on their surface.
In the early twentieth Century anthropologist WE Roth recorded names and variations of the fighting and throwing clubs made by the Darumbal people around Rockhampton. Collectively these objects were referred to as barkel but the subtleties in the design of each club have resulted in specific names being given. Roth observed of one type: ‘The head of the implement is girdled, the girdle being subsequently cut into from two to five rows of squares, by means of transverse and longitudinal incisions; it is called nil-li’, and that another was ‘cut out on the same general lines as the common barkel, but having the distal end fissured into two, three or four prongs … called tambara or yambara’.2 Roth’s notes indicate that these clubs are mostly a combination of the pineapple-headed club, or nil-li, and the two-pronged club, or tambara.
Many examples of the nil-li and tambara exist in museum collections, but the combination of both styles, specific to the Rockhampton region, is exceptionally rare. The craftsmen from this area were well known for their creativity and other clubs from Comet Waters have alternating cubes, like rolling dice, adorning their heads.3 Here, three clubs exhibit very innovative ‘heads’, not dissimilar to a royal staff. Interestingly, this set of barkel have traces of Reckitt’s Blue laundry whitener, an ultramarine blue powder that became a favoured pigment for Aboriginal people who were previously restricted to a much more restrained palette.4 In their day a set of perfectly crafted innovative clubs decorated in red, white and deep blue would have made an extraordinary statement. Today, these barkel retain all of their power and refinement and strengthen the Gallery’s holdings of Aboriginal material from the colonial period.
- WE Roth, The Queensland Aborigines, vol.1, Hesperian Press, Carlisle, Western Australia, 1897 (reprinted 1984), p.207 (ill. plate LXI fig. 9).
- WE Roth, The Queensland Aborigines, vol.1, p.208 (ill. plate LXI figs. 9, 10).
- These clubs can be viewed in the Queensland Museum Collection.
- Reckitt’s Blue was manufactured by Reckitt’s of Hull, England. It was made mostly of synthetic ultramarine and baking soda. A small cloth bag of the product was stirred around in the final rinse stage of one’s laundry. This was known as laundry bluing or blue. It disguised any hint of yellow and made laundry appear whiter.
Feature image: Installation view of ‘I, Object’, featuring fighting clubs c.1900, GOMA, August 2019 / Collection: QAGOMA / Photograph: N Harth, QAGOMA