Contemporary Ceremonial art from Aurukun

 

In the early 2000s, senior Wik and Kugu law men from the Aurukun region on the west coast of Cape York Peninsula, Far North Queensland, pioneered a significant contemporary movement: They reimagined their ceremonial visual traditions as contemporary art. Embodying ancestral narratives in a way that maintains spiritual and historical connections between the past and present, this new approach to art fostered an indispensable intergenerational exchange.

The Thuuth thaa’ munth (law poles) 2002–03 by Wik-Ngathan Elder and custodian Ron Yunkaporta (b.1956) hold potent significance. Traditionally created to be part of a mortuary ceremony, the poles’ white ochre dotting on a red ochre background represents the shimmer of water, referencing the ceremonial body designs of the Apelech people (‘Apelech’ meaning ‘clear water’ in the Wik-Mungkan language).

Ron Yunkaporta, Wik-Ngathan people, Australia b.1956/ Thuuth thaa’ munth (Law poles) (and detail) 2002-03 / Cottontree wood (Hibiscus tiliaceus), ibis feathers, bush string with natural pigments / 15 components: 159 x 250 x 250cm (installed) / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Ron Yunkaporta

Joe Ngallametta (1945–2005), a Kugu Elder and custodian for the Wanam ceremonial group, was one of the first Wik or Kugu artists to translate their ceremonial painting traditions onto canvas. These early works imbue a powerful, raw quality through the thick application of ochre and white overlay of ceremonial designs still used today. Known as ‘the professor’ throughout northern Queensland, Joe Ngallametta was a performer and senior law man who was head singer for songs about Kang’khan (Sea Eagle) and the Kang’khan Brothers. Kang’khan brother: face 2004 is a simple yet bold abstracted translation of the painting design used by the Kang’khan Brothers to paint their faces whereas Kang’khan brother: face and body painting 2004 is a literal transcription of the face painting of the creator ancestors.

Joe Ngallametta, Kugu-Muminh/Kugu-Uwanh people, Australia 1945-2005 / Kang’khan brother: face 2004 / Natural pigments with PVA fixative on linen / 76 x 52cm / Purchased 2005. The Queensland Government’s special Centenary Fund / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Estate of Joe Ngallametta, courtesy of the Wik and Kugu Arts Centre, Aurukun
Joe Ngallametta, Kugu-Muminh/Kugu-Uwanh people, Australia 1945-2005 / Kang’khan brother: face and body painting 2004 / Natural pigments with PVA fixative on linen / 56 x 42cm / Purchased 2005. The Queensland Government’s special Centenary Fund / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Estate of Joe Ngallametta, courtesy of the Wik and Kugu Arts Centre, Aurukun

In each, a face is clearly recognisable where the artist paints a central line running along the nose and two lines either side to signify the markings on the outsides of each eye. Thap yongk (Law pole) 2004 and Pole design 2004, are abstracted designs representing the poles made by the most senior law men of the Kugu people.

Joe Ngallametta, Kugu-Muminh/Kugu-Uwanh people, Australia 1945-2005 / Thap yongk (Law pole) 2004 / Natural pigments with PVA fixative on linen / 61 x 91cm / Purchased 2005. The Queensland Government’s special Centenary Fund / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Estate of Joe Ngallametta, courtesy of the Wik and Kugu Arts Centre, Aurukun
Joe Ngallametta, Kugu-Muminh/Kugu-Uwanh people, Australia 1945-2005 / Pole design 2004 / Natural pigments with PVA fixative on linen / 40 x 60cm / Purchased 2005. The Queensland Government’s special Centenary Fund / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Estate of Joe Ngallametta, courtesy of the Wik and Kugu Arts Centre, Aurukun

Joe Ngallametta was also an accomplished carver. Though he only began carving late in life, he became the chief maker of the Thap Yongk, which symbolise ceremonial and ancestral knowledge held in trust for new generations. Thap yongk (Law poles) 2002–03 represents upturned trees, the poles extend from the ground, suggesting branches hidden beneath the earth, while the roots are at the top of the poles, drawing the spirits and returning them to the earth. These poles are an important part of Wanam law and a significant element of ceremony, song and dance for Ngallametta’s people.

Joe Ngallametta, Kugu-Muminh/Kugu-Uwanh people, Australia 1945-2005 / Thap yongk (Law poles) 2002-03 / Carved milkwood (Alstonia muellerana) with synthetic polymer paint and natural pigments / 15 components: 182 x 250 x 250cm (installed, approx.) / Commissioned 2002 with funds from the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Estate of Joe Ngallametta, courtesy of the Wik and Kugu Arts Centre, Aurukun
Joel Ngallametta, Kugu-Muminh/Kugu-Uwanh people, Australia 1966-2019 / Thap Yonk 4 2018 / Natural pigments and synthetic polymer paint on canvas / Six panels: 121 x 35cm (each); 242 x 105cm or 121 x 210cm (installed) /Purchased 2019. Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Estate of Joel Ngallametta

Kugu-Muminh/Kugu-Uwanh leader Joel Ngallametta (1966–2019) inherited significant cultural knowledge from his father, Joe, along with the right to reproduce and reinterpret the customary sculptures and designs of his father’s Kugu clans. Each panel of his sixpanel work Thap Yonk 4 2018 shows a slight variation on the Wanam clan body-painting design, featuring bold alternating bands of red brown ochre and white clay — the same design seen on the Thap Yonk poles — the repetition of these designs onto the painted surface reiterates their enduring importance for Kugu people. According to Joel, the red ochre represents the reflection of the sun as it sets over the Gulf of Carpentaria, the white the reflecting salt water of the shore.1

Similarly, Kalben (A Sacred Site in the Flying-Fox Story) and Walkaln-Aw (Bonefish Story Place) 2008-09 is an intergenerational collaboration between Wik-Mungkan artists Alair Pambegan (b.1966) and his late father, Arthur Koo’ekka Pambegan Jr (1936–2010), a revered law man and Elder. As custodians for the Winchanam ancestral storyplaces of Walkaln-Aw and Kalben, the artists inherited the rights and responsibilities for their associated stories. The left half of the sculpture represents the Flying Fox Story from Kalben. Based on the journey of two young male initiates, it imparts an enduring reminder to Wik-Mungkan people of the importance of observing cultural law and protocol. The right half symbolises the Bonefish Story from Walkaln-Aw, in which two brothers journey from the tip of Cape York in search of a place to call home, only to meet a tragic end and transform into bonefish. The work brings
together two significant Winchanam ancestral stories, reaffirming the multilayered cultural connections of these artists and the ongoing importance of intergenerational artistic and ceremonial collaboration.

Sophia Sambono is Associate Curator, Indigenous Australian Art, QAGOMA
This is an expanded version of an article originally published in the QAGOMA Members’ magazine, Artlines, no.1, 2021

Endnote
1 Joel Ngallametta: Saltwater, Creative Cowboy Films, https://www.creativecowboyfilms.com/blog_posts/joel-ngallametta-saltwater, accessed 23 November 2020.

Alair Pambegan, Australia b.1966, and Arthur Koo-ekka Pambegan Jr, Australia 1936–2010 / Wik-Mungkan people / Kalben (A Sacred Site in the Flying fox Story) and Walken aw (A Bonefish Story Place) 2008–09 / Ochres and charcoal with acrylic binder on milkwood, bush rope, bush string / Private collection / © Alair Pambegan; Estate of Arthur Koo-ekka Pambegan Jr

Acknowledgment of Country
The Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art acknowledges the Traditional Owners of the land on which the Gallery stands in Brisbane. We pay respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders past and present and, in the spirit of reconciliation, acknowledge the immense creative contribution First Australians make to the art and culture of this country.

It is customary in many Indigenous communities not to mention the name of the deceased. All such mentions and artworks are with permission, however, care and discretion should be exercised.

Featured image detail: Ron Yunkaporta Thuuth thaa’ munth (Law poles) 2002-03

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Small moments

 

As the hours, days and weeks in which we have recently been confined to our homes compressed and merged into an endless monotony, certain moments of beauty that have been lurking in the minutiae of domestic ordinariness shone through.

The slowing of my once busy schedule provided more opportunity for reflective movements. I’ve become mindful of the way that the light bends and the shadows change throughout the day — changing in ways that were invisible to me when I was caught in the hum of my former routine. The way the light transforms objects to create striking moments is captured brilliantly through photography — which literally translates from its Greek origins to ‘drawing with light’ –— renewing our vision and elevating our surroundings with flashes of inspiration.

Teacup ballet

Olive Cotton, Australia 1911-2003 / Teacup ballet 1935, printed 1991 / Gelatin silver photograph on paper / 35.5 x 28cm (comp.) / Purchased 1991. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Estate of the artist

Is it time for another cup of tea yet? In the endless hours at home I found myself yearning not just a caffeine boost but the opportunity to pause. As I took that first sip — enjoying the brew — I often thought ahead to a time when life might resume its former hectic pace. Indulging in the daily ritual of tea breaks takes on a different character depending on circumstance.

The dramatic lighting in Olive Cotton’s Teacup ballet 1935 transforms the shadows of the crockery into dancers on a stage assembled for a personal tea time performance.

Sally was baking scones

Glen O’Malley, Australia b.1948 / 10 December 1986, Kangaroo Point, Brisbane – Sally was baking scones (from ‘Journeys north’ portfolio) 1986 / Gelatin silver photograph on paper / 42 x 55.2cm (comp.) / Purchased 1987 with the financial assistance of the Australian Bicentennial Authority to commemorate Australia’s Bicentenary in 1988 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Glen O’Malley

People all over the world embraced this time as an opportunity to experiment in the kitchen. There is immense joy in the process of creating and sharing food with our loved ones — invoking a tangible connection to simpler times.

There is such a warmth conveyed in this ‘domesticity’ themed image 10 December 1986, Kangaroo Point, Brisbane – Sally was baking scones from Glen O’Malley’s Journey’s north portfolio — I’m almost tempted to bake something myself.

I particularly appreciate the inclusion of the dog — with so many of us at home more than usual, our pets are perhaps curious as to the change of routine, but surely enjoying the extra time with us.

Raw nerve

Pat Brassington, Australia b.1942- / Raw nerve (from ‘Pond’ series) 1995 / Gelatin silver photograph on paper / 42 x 27.6cm (sight) / Purchased 2007. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Pat Brassington

Life in lockdown meant many of us were more intimately acquainted with our laundry — at various stages of the cycle. There is beauty here also in the unique terrains and architectures that form in our washing. Tumbling, spinning, or left to languish in forgotten corners, there is a surprising number of permutations in these arrangements.

The moody, foreboding atmosphere of Pat Brassington’s Raw nerve (from ‘Pond’ series) 1995, reveals the hidden beauty in even the most mundane and burdensome domestic duties, perfectly capturing my own perceptions of the never-ending task.

Small glass pouring light

Bill Culbert, New Zealand/England/France 1935-2019 / Small glass pouring light 1997, printed 2002 / Gelatin silver photograph on paper / 41.2 x 41.2cm (comp.) / Purchased 2002. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Bill Culbert

‘Quarantinis’ — or virtual happy hours with friends on video chat platforms — cemented a meaningful place in these times of social distancing and isolation. A temporary substitute to a Friday debrief, with or without a beverage, visual/virtual connection with our colleagues, friends and loved ones has become so much more essential to our wellbeing.

In Small glass pouring light 1997 Bill Culbert harnesses sunlight to transform the shadow of the glass into a light bulb.

Sophia Sambono is A/Assistant Curator, Indigenous Australian Art, QAGOMA

Featured image detail: Olive Cotton Teacup ballet 1935, printed 1991 

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