Larrakitj were once created by the Yolngu (indigenous peoples from the northeastern Arnhem Land region) to house the bones of their dead. For these traditional burial poles, only the most perfectly symmetrical hollow trunk eucalyptus trees were used. Once stripped of bark, the surface would be decorated with detailed paintings intended to guide the deceased to their spiritual home. Larrakitj still play an important role in Yolngu mortuary rites and memorial practices, but no longer function as receptacles for human remains. In the 1980s, artists began making Larrakitj for the art market, departing from the strict conventions of ceremonial design. They became less concerned with symmetry and, in the 2000s, began exploring the surface features of the trunk, utilizing imperfections as integral parts of its expressive form.
Nonggirrnga Marawili’s works (as seen in top image) often reference the four key elements of Madarrpa Law: lightning, fire, water, and rock. Cascading diamonds convey water and fire; jagged lines are reminiscent of lightning; dark shapes indicate rocks; and white dots suggest sea spray or the barnacles adorning rocks. Each of these elements is connected to specific ancestral events in Madarrpa country. While Marawili alludes to the visual conventions of ceremonial painting, she ultimately represents her own interpretations. In doing so, the artist demonstrates the deep connection that Yolngu ancestral forces have to their lands as well as to their identity. The Yolngu word “Yurr’yun” refers to the water marks produced by a powerful wave crushing against a rock, from splashes to droplets to mist.
This work is on view in Marking the Infinite: Contemporary Women Artists from Aboriginal Australia through September 9, 2018.