Death and Life

Death and Life opening weekend Yingapngapu ceremonial performance
Death and Life opening weekend performance by Yirrkala artists, pictured Christopher Marrputta Munungurr, Sebastian Djarrpuy Maymuru, and Marcus Maymuru

Death and Life: rakuny ga walnga focuses on the universal regenerative cycle of death, engendering new life. Included are more than 70 bark paintings, memorial poles, sculptures and weavings by 34 artists from Arnhem Land in northern Australia. The works reflect the languages, moieties, clan affiliations and connections of the artists with their country: from saltwater communities around Yirrkala in the east, across savannah and swamp lands, to the rocky escarpment terrain in the west near Maningrida. Death and Life: rakuny ga walnga: Contemporary Arnhem Land Art is on display at GOMA until 1 September and is accompanied by an online publication.

The patterns and images on barks and poles mark the actions of the ancestors who shaped the world, and conducted the first ceremonies connected with death and life. In annual rituals natural pigments are still used to create elaborate clan designs on boys’ bodies during their initiation into manhood, clearly seen in John Bulunbulun’s Body design – wind 2002 a small bark tied to the scale of a man’s chest and shoulders. Amongst multiple references encoded in the abstract symbols are the triangular shapes and vertical lines of dots that stand for lunggurruma ─ the north-west wind, clouds and weather patterns that signal centuries of contact between Yolngu and Macassan traders from Sulawesi in Indonesia. The colours used: galatjal (black), gamanungku (white), miku (red) and buthalak (yellow) indicate that the artist is of the Yirritja moiety and that this is his special design.

John Bulunbulun, Ganalbingu people, Australia 1946-2010 | Body design – wind 2002 | Natural pigments on bark | Purchased 2003. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | © The artist

Other examples are djirrididi, the stark, minimalist designs on Mickey Durrng’s Garriyak body painting barks. The bold cross pattern can stand for a spreading yam vine or the rays of the rising sun, while  triangles radiating from interconnected circles are landmark fresh waterholes. Bold stripes can express the darting azure kingfisher, shining sunrays, the slanted shadows of sunset or lines on the bodies of the Djang’kawu, who were the creator ancestors bringing light and life to the featureless land as they travelled from the east through the artist’s country south of Galiwin’ku (Elcho Island).

Mickey Durrng, Liyagawuymirr people, Australia 1940-2006 | [Installation view: left and right] Garriyak body painting 2006 | Natural pigments on bark | Purchased 2006 | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | © Mickey Durrng/Licensed by Viscopy, 2013
Particular designs are unequivocally tied to a person’s identity throughout their lives and into death ─ on the body, ritual sculptures, coffins or hollow logs. Culturally important people may be remembered by memorial poles similar to those in the exhibition by Nawurapu Wunungmurra, their painted surfaces describing the journey of a deceased person’s spirit as it sings its way through north-east Arnhem Land waterways to the coast, where brackish floodwater mingles with salty sea water. From here, the spirit is swept out to the deep Yirritja moiety waters on the horizon and, with a powerful leap, transforms itself into a drop of saltwater, eventually becoming vapour and rising to meet its ‘mother’, wangupini (cumulonimbus clouds) hovering above the horizon. ‘Pregnant’ with life-giving freshwater, these maternal clouds, painted in brushy strokes on a black ground, move across the land and shed water as rain which flows in rivulets off the escarpment. Death and life; the cycle continues.

Nawurapu Wunungmurra, Dhalwangu people, Australia b.1952 | Mungurru (Ocean water) Dhalwangu clan memorial pole (detail) 2008 | Wood with natural pigments | Purchased 2008. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | © The artist

In north-eastern Arnhem Land, death rituals include yingapungapu — a shallow sculpture in the sandy soil. An ephemeral version was ceremonially created by Yirrkala artists in the exhibition space for ‘Death and Life’. With its origins in wangarr (ancestral times), yingapungapu remains an element of a spiritual view of death and life still relevant in contemporary Yolngu society. The ritual has connections with Madarrpa, Mangalili and Dhalwangu people, represented in the exhibition by an important group of works from Djambawa Marawili, Galuma Maymurru and Nawurapu Wunungmurra. Yingapungapu is both a canoe‑shaped space and the female form that ushers new life into being. Within its sandy confines it cradles the remains of a deceased, holding contamination at bay while the soul returns to the reservoir from which it will identify its next set of parents. Its foundations, from the perspective of Djambawa Marawili’s Madarrpa clan, are in an ancient story about ancestral hunters who followed a dugong to the sea of Yathikpa in their canoe. The dugong’s food of swaying ribbons of sunlit seagrass became a manifestation of flames that boiled the water and capsized the hunters at this sacred site. Their harpoon was transformed into dhakandjali, the related hollow log coffin that floats on the seas of Yathikpa and beyond within Blue Mud Bay, connecting the Mangalili and Dhalwangu clans. Its course is still recounted when tracing complex ancestral connections between saltwater peoples.

These events initiated the first mortuary rituals in north-eastern Arnhem Land, and resonated in the spirited performance by Yirrkala artists Baluka Maymuru, Sebastian Djarrpuy Maymuru, Marcus Maymuru, Christopher Marrputja Munungurr and Michael Wirrpanda, to an enthralled audience at the opening celebrations on Saturday 25 May. The sand sculpture, carrying the dancers’ dynamic footprints, will remain in the space for the duration of the exhibition.

Death and Life opening weekend Yingapngapu ceremonial performance

Death and Life opening weekend Yingapngapu ceremonial performance
Death and Life opening weekend performance by Yirrkala artists, pictured Marcus Maymuru


  1. Just came upon this website. I was blocked from viewing online publication. Any way to obtain it in different context? Is there a printed version I could purchase? I am doing research on death and mourning and would appreciate any assistance or references you could provide.

    Looking for color photo of “Journey of the Yirritja Dead” attributed to Wakuthi Marawili.

    Thank you in advance from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA.