ESSAY: LARRAKITJ (MEMORIAL POLES)
Larrakitj (memorial poles) are used in Arnhem Land to inter the bones of deceased clan leaders. The transitions between day and night and the transformative qualities of light and darkness captured in these three larrakitj offer revelatory moments in the philosophy of the Yolŋu people of north-east Arnhem Land.
Gulumbu Yunupingu’s repetitive pattern is inspired by the ancestral story of two sisters, Guthayguthay and Nhayay, who were once human but subsequently transformed into stars. Rather than paint her sacred Gumatj clan designs, Yunupingu’s star pattern is an idiosyncratic expression of the ever-stretching night’s sky, and of how this sky can be seen from all positions on the globe: a site of human commonality. The stars of the Milky Way are shared but infinitely variable, as Yunupingu notes: ‘We can all look at the stars, whichever sky we’re looking at.’ Her proliferating design speaks to the overwhelming multiplicity within the universe, or garak.
Senior artist Yalpi Yunupingu was one of the prime initiators of a movement in the early 2000s, where non-figurative designs began to take precedence in painting larrakitj and on bark. The vertical diamond pattern of this larrakitj represents the licking flames of ancestral fire for the Gumatj people. Here, the representation of fire is quite literal: in its elongated lines we see the fire’s red flames, white smoke, ash, black charcoal and yellow dust, while it also evokes physical attributes of the Gumatj people: their skin, blood, bone and fat.
The concentric circles of Wanyubi Marika’s larrakitj recall the rippling light reflected on the water’s surface. They tell the story of the Djang’kawu sisters who saw wularr, a significant cloud, at Yalangbara in eastern Arnhem land, and set out by canoe to go there using their djota (digging sticks) as paddles. Marika’s circular patterns convey the undulating optical effect of the light on the swirling current left in the canoe’s wake.
Feature image: Installation view of ‘A Third Language’, featuring three larrakitj by Gulumbu Yunupingu, Yalpi Yunupingu and Wanyubi Marika, QAG Watermall, February 2023 / Photograph: Joe Ruckli, QAGOMA