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Larrakitj: Aboriginal memorial poles by Wukun Wanambi

Exhibition preview

THIS Asahi Shimbun display, Larrakitj: Aboriginal memorial poles by Wukun Wanambi, features work by contemporary Aboriginal Australian artist, Wukun Wanambi (b.1962) and is open to the public from March 12 to May 25, 2015.

Wukun, an important Yolngu artist from Yirrkala in Eastern Arnhem Land, produces contemporary work firmly grounded in a traditional form. He focusses on making larrakitj, memorial poles.

Larrakitj are derived from painted hollow log coffins: such coffins used to be made as the final resting place of the dry bones of important people, and were painted with clan designs. Now Yolngu artists use the form – hollow logs painted with traditional techniques and designs – to convey some of their core understandings of the world to the outsiders with whom they have had, increasingly, to engage.

Wukun says: “The outside surface of things hides what is inside. I want to share what is hidden. … I have wanted to share this understanding with non-Indigenous people for a long time.”

In 2013, Wukun was one of five contemporary Aboriginal Australian artists invited to the British Museum. He saw the Round Reading Room planted in the middle of the Great Court as standing like a memorial pole in the centre of the British Museum, and the visitors swirling around it as searching for meaning. This particular installation, made for the British Museum, offers Wukun’s vision to those visitors today.

The installation includes two poles lent by Wukun and the Buku-Larrangay Mulka Art Centre, exhibited with four now owned by the British Museum. This installation is called ‘Wetjwitj’, which means both a group of clanspeople from Wukun’s clan and the fish that manifest their spirits.

The swirling fish he paints also represent the turbulence and flow of water, the flow of currents and key points of ancestral power beneath the water of Trial Bay in his clan’s territory. As Wukun describes, “The fish are swimming from creek to creek, river to river, searching for their destiny. Just like all these people from all over the world coming to the British Museum here. Everybody is searching for their own story.”

Wukun’s work is innovative within the conventional larrakitj framework. Traditionally, the bark is removed and the sapwood is sanded to create perfect cylinders of wood. Instead of making a smooth cylinder from the tree, he chooses to emphasise the natural form of the tree, leaving the knots and flaws in the wood. He paints his clan symbol, mullet fish, swimming in tight schools over the surface of the wood, their movements following and emphasising the curves and hollows of the tree.

Yolngu imagery, while strongly grounded in the specific places of their territory, has a wider explanatory power. It often focusses on the cycle of life and is layered with multiple meanings.

Traditionally hollow log coffins were painted with clan designs belonging to the deceased whose bones were placed in them – the spirit no longer present. The coffins were set in the landscape, where sun, wind, rain and fire eventually wore them away.

In 1988, a group of Yolngu artists made 200 larrakitj to mark Australia’s Bicentenary, to remember the Aboriginal people who died through those 200 years, and to assert the continuing vibrancy of their knowledge and practice. Now known as memorial poles, larrakitj have since become part of the Yolngu artistic repertoire, always painted with clan designs using the mineral paints available on their land.

Wukun has included in this group display for the British Museum three poles that reveal the process by which the larrakitj are made: a hollow tree trunk with the bark still on it, one with the wood smoothed to receive the paint, and one with the undercoat of white clay painted on it.

The forest on Yolngu land is made up of tall, thin stringybark eucalyptus trees. In a millennia-old land management technique, Yolngu control-burn sections of the forest to clear the undergrowth, and some trees, already hollowed out by termites, are further hollowed as the fire burns through them. Wukun is a connoisseur of such trees, always scanning the forest to find trees suitable for his larrakitj. Integrally related to the land by virtue of coming from it, Wukun’s painted larrakitj refer to his place, his country, at multiple levels.

Wukun Wanambi has been making art since the late 1990s and this Asahi Shimbun display shows how artists engage with their surroundings to create meaningful works. The Yolngu have a long history, and the traditional stories and places that Wukun depicts are of deep significance to his clan. In painting his country, Wukun is also following in the footsteps of his father, the renowned clan leader and artist Mithili Wanambi, who died in 1981.

Contemporary Indigenous art is sometimes made in response to land lost, whereas Wukun’s work reveals a long engagement between people and land. This display presents a unique opportunity to engage with an Indigenous Australian community through a traditional art form whose narrative now entwines with the very museum setting it resides in.

With much assistance from the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre at Yirrkala in eastern Arnhem Land, this installation is exhibited in Room 3.

Image: Wukun Wanambi (b. 1962), Wetjwitj (full length). Earth pigment on hollow tree trunk, 2013. © the artist, courtesy Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre.

Admission: Free.

British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG

Tel: 020 7323 8181

Website: www.britishmuseum.org/